This week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is making his first diplomatic visit to Russia, where he’s likely to press Moscow on its handling of Syria, which he has called “incompetent.”
But Mr. Tillerson should recognize that Russia’s involvement in Syria is only one example of the increasingly active, and disruptive, role that President Vladimir Putin has been playing on the world stage since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
In January, Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, most likely at the direction of Mr. Putin, ramped up their fight against Ukrainian government forces, bringing the violence there to its highest level in a year and a half. This is a direct challenge to the Minsk Agreements — signed by Russia and Ukraine, engineered by Germany and France, and backed by the United States — designed to freeze the war and pave the way to restoring peace.
In mid-February, Mr. Putin decreed that Russia would recognize the passports issued by two separatist governments in eastern Ukraine. Later that month, in a move approved or at least condoned by Mr. Putin, the breakaway territory of Luhansk in Ukraine announced that the Russian ruble would become its official currency. Both actions are examples of the creeping assertion of Russian sovereignty over parts of eastern Ukraine.
Again in January, Russia moved troops near the border with Belarus, designed to pressure Belarus to accept an increased Russian military presence on its territory. And in March, the Kremlin ordered the incorporation of the armed forces in South Ossetia, one of two breakaway territories in Georgia, into the Russian military.
Meanwhile, last month Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top American general in Europe, told Congress that Russia and the Afghan Taliban are growing increasingly close, suggesting that the Kremlin is supplying the insurgent group with weapons. Matériel support would be a significant escalation of Russia’s involvement with the Taliban, and it would undercut American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. It would also put the 9,000 American and 5,000 NATO troops there at increased risk.
Two weeks ago, the commander of American forces in Africa, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, observed that Russia’s role in Libya is deepening, with its special forces on the ground in Egypt just over the border with Libya. He noted Russian support for the powerful Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who is resisting the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli.
And of course, last week Russia denied that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas against his own people. This is the latest in Russia’s broad and deep diplomatic and military support for the Syrian dictator, who has killed some 200,000 of his people and displaced half his population.
All of these steps have a common thread. Mr. Putin, who wants political control over neighboring countries and to be seen as a great global power, is testing President Trump. He wants to see how far he can go until we say “enough.” While Mr. Putin must realize the Trump administration is unlikely to be able to roll back Western sanctions on Russia, as Mr. Putin originally hoped, he may think Mr. Trump’s still unexplained infatuation with him will allow him to move aggressively, without American resistance.
What has the Trump administration done to respond to all of the above? There have been strong words from Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis, and particularly from the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. But so far there has been no condemnation from Mr. Trump and, most important, no action.
The administration needs to set out a clear policy toward Russia. It must communicate clearly what is unacceptable and strengthen its deterrence, and in that way establish its negotiating position, so that it can effectively and realistically explore areas for cooperation.
The signaling needs to start with the president. He must deliver a speech asserting American interest in trans-Atlantic security and speak resolutely on the right of states to choose democracy, a free-market economy and membership in NATO or the European Union.
America’s Russia policy must include continued funding for troop presence and exercises on NATO territory, and training and equipment for non-NATO partners at risk from Moscow. At the same time, it should restart discussions with Russia on nuclear, conventional and now cyber-arms control to lower the temperature in areas of potential danger.
The president must also condemn Russia’s continued support for Mr. Assad and the deliberate Russian bombing of civilians in Syria, and press for Russia to support a transition in Syria. Bombing an airfield isn’t enough.
And of course, the administration must denounce Russia’s interference in American elections and make clear that such behavior will not be tolerated again.
Whether the president likes it or not, Mr. Putin’s Russia views the United States as its adversary, and it is working to undermine America around the world. Mr. Putin has accomplished a great deal in only a few weeks. President Trump needs to say “enough.” He can start by having his secretary of state deliver that message when he visits Moscow this week.
Michael J. Morell was the deputy director and twice acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency between 2010 and 2013. He is a senior counselor at Beacon Global Strategies. Evelyn Farkas served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.