The situation shows how the Trump administration is facing two of the biggest political events that have shaken Russia for years, having fallen back on a familiar pattern: US diplomats are delivering a hawkish response, though Trump is formulating a more Moscow-friendly message. The result is a lack of presidential leadership – and mixed messages to allies and opponents.
“This is the story of the Trump administration,” said Angela Stent, a Russian scholar at Georgetown University. “We have this divided Russia policy, where the president clearly has his agenda to improve relations with Moscow, but he has not been able to implement it because it is such a politically sensitive issue. And then you have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense with a much tougher and more consistent policy. ”
Stent said the same response had been on display in recent weeks as the administration responded to the uprising in Belarus and Navalny̵
The administration has made Secretary of State No. 2 Deputy State Secretary Stephen Biegun the point guard in Russia. In recent weeks, he has met officials in Moscow and Europe as well as members of the Belarusian opposition in a crisis diplomacy.
A former Ford Motor lobbyist and veteran Republican aide on Capitol Hill, Biegun, has won praise from Democrats and Republicans for putting a hawkish position vis-à-vis the Kremlin in the role.
On a 9/11 call with journalists, Biegun criticized the Russian government for its failure to launch a thorough investigation into what he said was the use of a banned nerve agent in his own territory against a Russian citizen.
“It is unbelievable to us that this would happen on the territory of any country and the government would not respond with the appropriate urgency to investigate and hold accountable those who committed the crime,” Biegun said.
The Russian government has denied allegations that the Kremlin was involved in the poisoning.
In Belarus, thousands of protesters took to the streets for the sixth week in a row last weekend to protest a presidential election on August 9 that they believed was rigged by President Alexander Lukashenko, the former Soviet collective leader who has ruled the nation in 26 years. . Protesters claim that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a imprisoned opposition figure, won the failed election and was to become the country’s next president.
In Europe, Biegun met with Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania in the wake of the election under pressure from Belarusian authorities. Biegun has pledged new sanctions against Belarusian officials in response to human rights abuses against protesters, but has said the nation’s leader must decide the Belarusian people.
“The Belarusian people have the right to a free and fair election, in which they elect their own leaders, and they were denied this opportunity on 9 August. “No legitimacy has been given to the ruler of Belarus in the elections on August 9,” Biegun said in the convocation last week. He has called on the Belarussian authorities to negotiate with the opposition and hold a new election under independent observation.
Behind the scenes, Biegun and other senior Foreign Ministry officials have pushed European allies to uniformly condemn the attack on Navalny and Lukashenko’s actions.
Earlier this month, NATO’s main decision-making body condemned Navalny’s poisoning in the “strongest possible terms” given the use of a “nerve agent from the banned Novichok group.”
Some nations in the 30-member alliance opposed sending a statement, and some sought softer language, including France, but the United States pushed members to approve the tougher wording, according to diplomats familiar with the internal discussions.
U.S. officials have also had a hard line with Moscow in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a multilateral organization of which Russia is a member, diplomats said.
“Biegun is a gift,” said a European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic talks. “While you usually hope to see a firm public stance from a U.S. president, no one is under any illusion that Trump would be that messenger, so we are happy with Biegun.”
But Biegun’s diplomacy has been overshadowed by the mixed messages and the relative silence of Trump.
Trump has said little about the protests in Belarus, noting that he “likes to see democracy” and that “it does not seem like there is too much democracy there,” and each describes the situation as “terrible.”
Two days after Merkel presented what she called “unequivocal evidence” that Navalny was poisoned with a chemical similar to Soviet-era agent Novachok, possibly implicated in the Russian government, Trump said he did not know what happened with the Russian opposition figure.
“I do not know exactly what happened,” Trump said Sept. 4. “I think it is – it is tragic. It’s awful. It was not supposed to happen. We have not had any evidence yet, but I will look into it. ”
About 26 days since the poisoning, the United States has not yet issued a formal government assessment, and Trump has not raised the issue with Putin according to records of his calls, which are publicly available. On Tuesday, Navalny posted a photo of himself at a German hospital, saying he was able to breathe alone after weeks in a ventilator.
“Biegun stopped, as I would have done. He saw the people I would have seen. He hit all the marks, ”said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. top diplomat who is now a fellow on the Atlantic Council. “The question is whether you are listening to him and you are a European diplomat. … Does this guy speak for the administration, or does he speak for the part of the administration other than Donald Trump? ”
Critics say Trump has offered confusing statements about U.S. priorities following Navalny’s poisoning, pointing to his reluctance to condemn the incident as a chemical weapons poisoning that may involve the Russian state. Trump told reporters in the White House on September 4 that “we are negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation treaty right now, which is very important.”
“It’s a very important thing,” Trump said of the talks. “For me, that’s the most important thing.”
He asked journalists why they did not ask him more about China instead.
Biegun later clarified that the United States may pursue nuclear negotiations with Russia with the aim of expanding and expanding the new START agreement and dealing with issues related to Belarus and Navalny at the same time.
“No one in the United States connects our stance to either the theft of the election and the brutal violence in Belarus or the tragic poisoning of Alexei Navalny to others – other issues, New START or negotiations or anything else,” he said last week.
Asked about Navalny’s poisoning, Trump was quick to point out that he had good relations with Putin, even though his administration had taken tough action against Russia.
Trump briefly used the issue of Navalny to criticize Germany for moving forward with Nord Stream 2, a pipeline designed to carry Russian gas to Europe, which the Trump administration has opposed.
Andrew S. Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Russian top official in the Clinton administration, said an administration only has a Russia policy, insofar as the president supports it.
“There is no Russia policy other than that [Trump] is willing to put his name on, ”Weiss said. “In theory, the United States should shape the West’s policy toward Russia. From what we have seen as we get closer to the election, there is no effective US policy towards Russia, let alone the opportunity to rally others behind us. ”
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.