Even before their current standoff over Syria, tensions between the United States and Russia were already at their highest point in years. Now an alleged chemical weapons attack in a country where both are militarily involved has raised the prospect of a “ direct confrontation” between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.
President Trump’s personal temperament is undoubtedly compounding the current moment’s dangers. On Wednesday, the president threatened Russia that “nice and new and ‘smart!’” missiles would be coming to Syria.
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
The prevailing mindset of his Democratic opposition and liberal-media critics, however, has also not helped. In the Obama era, Democrats spoke of a “reset” with Russia and even mocked Republicans for espousing Cold War views. That stance has been abandoned in the Trump era. It is now standard for Democratic leaders to clamor for the White House to “start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin” (Chuck Schumer), and “fight back…to defend against Russian subversion,” so long as “Washington demonstrates the political will to confront the threat” (Joe Biden). According to the New York Times editorial board, the United States’ recent closure of a Russian consulate and expulsion of 60 Russian officials “offers some hope that Trump may finally be forced to deal with the threat that Putin poses to the United States and its Western allies,” though, to be sure, “Mr. Trump will have to go even further to push back effectively against Mr. Putin’s mischief.”
This neoconservative-aligned posture leaves Democrats and other influential liberal voices ill-equipped to oppose the confrontation with Russia that they have otherwise encouraged. And that is all the more ominous now that arch-neoconservative John Bolton has begun his tenure as Trump’s national-security adviser. While his warmongering toward Iran and North Korea has sparked widespread angst, Bolton is in lockstep with Russia hawks when it comes to their top foreign foe. Bolton “is Russia’s worst nightmare,” observes Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest. “He has been a Russia hawk for all of his career.”