The Biggest Defense Challenges The Trump White House Faces With Russia

All photos credit: Getty Images
All photos credit: Getty Images

With the tapping of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as America’s next ambassador to Russia, President Donald Trump may have given his administration the best chance yet of negotiating Washington through what will be a very difficult relationship for the foreseeable future.


No matter how warmly Trump speaks of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow hasn’t returned the sentiments. During the first weeks of Trump’s presidency and a Russian spy ship patrolled off the east coast, fighter jets buzzed U.S. warship.

As Foxtrot Alpha has reported, Obama was arguably the most assertive U.S. President since the fall of the USSR to take on the Kremlin’s aggression against its neighbors and pinned it into a corner economically with a series of sanctions backed by the European Union. Though, that didn’t stop Trump from blaming Obama for America’s poor relations with Moscow Tuesday.

The reality is that all incoming presidents inherit problems their predecessors were unable to solve, but Trump seems to think Russia will warm to the White House simply because he is there.

Huntsman, who is all but certain to be confirmed, has his work cut out for him.

Illustration for article titled The Biggest Defense Challenges The Trump White House Faces With Russia

To be sure, he is a seasoned politician and tested diplomat. His public service history dates back to the late 1980s, when he served under President Ronald Reagan as a White House aide. During the George H.W. Bush administration, he was a deputy assistant secretary in the International Trade Administration from 1989 to 1990 and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for trade development and commerce for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for a few years after that. His first ambassadorship came in 1992 when Bush tapped him with the U.S. Ambassadorship to Singapore. Under George W. Bush, he served as a United States Trade Representative between 2001 to 2003.

He left that post to run for governor of Utah, a race he won with nearly 60 percent of the vote; four years later, he would win reelection. Some say the Obama tapped Huntsman for the China ambassadorship in 2009 to keep him from running for the White House in 2012. It didn’t work. He quit his post after a year and a half and ran anyway, but flamed out very quickly.


There are plenty of downsides to how Huntsman’s stint in Moscow could go. He barely managed a year and half in his ambassadorship. Moreover, he has something of a history of turning against his allies, like running against the man who appointed him ambassador, and turning on Trump after initially supporting his candidacy.

Basically, Huntsman has shown some signs of being a flake, and the U.S. ambassadorship needs a steady, consistent diplomat who will stay in Moscow longterm. All that said, Huntsman is a competent diplomat. More importantly, one who wants to work for Trump.


Looking at it from this perspective, Huntsman is an ideal pick. But he will have three main issues to address as soon as he touches down in Moscow, which I outline below.

Getting Putin To Honor The 1987 INF Treaty

Last year, Russia deployed a newly-developed cruise missile that is banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), according the New York Times. The are two battalions of the banned missile, which is known as SSC-X-8; the missile is considered operational and intelligence reports no longer have the “X” in the name. One battalion has four mobile launchers with a dozen nuke-tipped missiles per launcher.


The missile system is not a threat to the U.S., though is very lethal in an attack against Europe because it can travel distances of 1,500 miles. It is not clear why Putin deployed the cruises missiles against treaty rules, but it may be because of NATO’s increased military exercises in the Baltics and Poland. Putin has never been a fan of NATO and that won’t change any time soon, but some practical diplomacy would likely help ease tensions.

Huntsman’s options to convince Moscow to pull back the cruise missile system are limited because it would likely require Washington to scale back military exercises in the Baltics and Poland, which would likely generate pushback from Senate Russia hawks, especially John McCain and Marco Rubio. Putin may also want sanctions lifted over its annexation of Ukraine, which would make Trump look weak and give the appearance that Washington will forsake Kyiv’s defense of its territorial integrity.


Even in the best of circumstances, Huntsman will have a very limited hand of cards with which to play when he arrives in Moscow for his first day of work.

Renegotiating New START

Unlike Trump, Huntsman likely knows what New START is. Of all of the major diplomacy issues he will have to deal with, renegotiating New START may likely be Huntsman’s best shot at getting something accomplished with Putin. For one, while the Russian leader has no issue invading Ukraine or Georgia and not fearing the consequences, Putin has no interest in a nuclear war.


For Huntsman, his job as America’s man on the ground in Moscow will be ascertain what are Putin’s nuclear non-proliferation terms. Russia and the U.S. have roughly around 7,000 warheads each. What will it take to get that number down to 5,000? Defense Secretary James Mattis said in February that Washington will not participate in joint exercises with the Russians, which is understandable, given their actions in Ukraine and its meddling in the U.S. election. But one area where the two nations must find common ground is that of cutting the scale of their nuclear weapons programs.

If Putin did ask Trump about New START, as Reuters reported last month, and was unable to discuss the treaty, it should be the first issue Huntsman brings up with Putin when he visits the Kremlin.


Working With China To Deal With North Korea

Few nations have diplomatic relations with North Korea. China, where Huntsman once served as U.S. ambassador, is one of them. He served in Beijing briefly before returning to the U.S. to run against Obama, the man who appointed him to his post.


This brings up a major downside: While Huntsman has deep knowledge of China, he really didn’t stay in Beijing long enough to develop any close relationships that benefitted Washington in a meaningful, according to a CNN report. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp also points out that Huntsman is a Russia novice, which is far from what we need at the moment.

But this new post could give the White House a chance to use Huntsman’s skills in different ways. For example, he could use his experience in China to figure out a way to work with Beijing to better find a diplomatic pathway to convincing the North Koreans to discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Pulling in Russia to join the efforts would be a major plus.


Russia has also expressed concerns over Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles testing and has every incentive to work with the U.S. to seek a diplomatic resolution. Russian-U.S. relations may be tense at the moment, but if Putin could work with Washington to get North Korea to develop a peaceful nuclear program, it would be hard to see the Kremlin passing up on such an opportunity.

Whether Huntsman can get any of these key issues moving remains to be seen, but he is as good a person as any to help Trump try. He may not be a Russian speaker, but if he can translate Trump’s non-foreign policy—basically, Huntsman will have to create a Russia policy himself—into sound policy that the Kremlin will respond favorably to and benefit U.S. interests, Huntsman may be just the ideal pick after all.


At any rate, Huntsman will give Trump fewer reasons to blame Obama for failed relations with Moscow. If this pick doesn’t work out, he will have no one to blame but himself.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.


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