Washington, United States, Apr 19 – A long-awaited US probe on Russian election meddling has divided Washington but on one point virtually all US policymakers are clear — there will be no reconciliation with Moscow.
The 400-page document by Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out Russia’s persistent efforts to tilt the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, although it did not find that his campaign was colluding with Russia.
Trump has repeatedly voiced admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and, since his surprise election win, has called for better relations.
But his administration, driven by more traditional Republicans such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, has instead stepped up pressure on Russia, angered by Putin’s actions everywhere from Ukraine to Venezuela to missile defense.
Asked about the Mueller report, which was released to the public with redactions on Thursday, Pompeo said the administration had consistently raised with Russia concerns over interference in the US and other elections.
“We will make very clear to them that this is unacceptable behavior,” Pompeo told a news conference after talks with the Japanese foreign and defense ministers.
“We will take tough actions which raise the cost for Russian malign activities. And we will continue to do that,” he said.
Putin has openly said that he preferred Trump over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, although the Kremlin insisted that the Mueller report did not present “any reasonable proof” that Russia meddled in the election.
– No new summit –
Trump triggered wide alarm in Washington last July after he met Putin in Helsinki and appeared to take at face value Putin’s denials of interference. The two have not held a follow-up summit.
Nicholas Burns, who served as US ambassador to NATO during his long diplomatic career and is now a professor at Harvard University, said the Mueller report was in fact “abundantly clear” that Russia “launched a massive and organized assault on the American elections.”
“So the president would be ill-advised to think that somehow the Mueller report gives him a green light to return the US-Russia relationship to normality,” Burns said.
Burns said that Trump had weakened NATO through his frequent criticism of allies, including the leaders of Britain, Canada, France and Germany, all the while he “says all those nice things” about Putin.
“The president sets the policy and sets the tone and the president is certainly setting a tone of weakness towards Russia,” Burns said.
“There may well be other people in the administration who have a much different view but the president sets the policy,” he said.
– Pushback in Congress –
Russia is one of the few issues on which Trump has encountered major pushback within his party in Congress, with Republicans widely backing sanctions over Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and support of separatists in Ukraine, in addition to election interference.
Also infuriating US lawmakers have been Russia’s game-changing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow’s alleged masterminding of a deadly chemical attack in England aimed at a double agent.
Republican Senator Cory Gardner, joining a bipartisan push for new sanctions on Russia in February, demanded “the strongest possible response” against Putin’s Russia, which he called “an outlaw regime that is hell-bent on undermining international law.”
A Western diplomat noted that successive US presidents have flirted at the beginning of their terms with improving relations with Russia.
Hillary Clinton, as Barack Obama’s top diplomat, boasted of a “reset” with Russia, while president George W. Bush famously said after his first meeting with Putin that he “saw his soul.”
“When you deal with a partner whose agenda is just to undermine and to destabilize you, it makes life difficult,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
“At the end of the day, with Russia our experience is that you get a better result when they have the impression that you are stronger than they are.”