Guest Opinion: Don’t trust Putin

​Chicago Tribune, Feb. 16
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We’re wondering which — over time — turns out to be the bigger bombshell development regarding Russia: Is it the forced resignation of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser? Or Vladimir Putin’s reported secret deployment of a menacing new cruise missile?

Granted, the first story is significant. There’s a lot we still don’t know about Michael Flynn’s ouster Monday night. Flynn had to go, the White House said Tuesday afternoon, because he wasn’t forthright about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. More about that below.

But whoa, that second story — the one literally about Russian bombshells — is also troubling. These missiles (medium-range, nuclear tipped) violate a long-standing treaty. The United States cannot allow an adversary to disregard a missile accord without paying a price. Otherwise, such agreements become worthless.

The New York Times, citing government sources, said Tuesday that Russia deployed a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Arms Control Association called Russia’s alleged move a breach of the U.S.-Russia architecture that helped halt the Cold War nuclear arms race. These Russian missiles were in development for years, and the focus of some mild protests by the Obama White House. Then in December, just after Trump’s election, one battery of the missiles went active in Russia, the Times said.

Every White House administration faces early tests of its resolve. Ready or not, Trump is at risk of being outfoxed by Putin and needs to respond. From his time as a candidate through his first month in office, Trump’s behavior toward Putin has seemed more ingratiating than skeptical. Back in September, Trump said Putin was more of a leader than Barack Obama was. We didn’t understand Trump’s bizarre fascination with the former KGB autocrat during the election, and we don’t get it now. Vladimir Putin, who annexed Crimea and now dabbles in Ukraine, is not to be trusted.

Trump’s buddying up really does defy description, partly because too much of his fixation is opaque. The president has said he has no business deals in Russia, but he never released his tax returns, which could provide clarity on his business transactions involving foreign countries. There are also the murky circumstances of Russia’s hacking activities designed to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Then along comes Flynn, who had numerous phone calls with the Russian ambassador during the transition and misled Vice President Mike Pence about details of those calls. One apparent topic of conversation: Obama administration sanctions against Russia. We don’t know the details of those calls. If Flynn talked about lifting sanctions, that could be a violation of law because private citizens can’t negotiate U.S. disputes with foreign governments.

The White House said it saw nothing illegal; Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation over a loss of trust. But there may be more to the Flynn situation. The FBI reportedly interviewed him about the calls. The Justice Department warned the White House weeks ago that it knew Flynn wasn’t being honest, which could have set him up to be blackmailed by the Russians.

If the president thought he was buying himself time to deal with Russia by avoiding confrontation early on, that’s clearly backfired. Cleaning up the Flynn mess requires finding a strong replacement as national security adviser as quickly as possible and cooperating with any investigations.

On Russia’s missile gambit, the U.S. needs to respond to this provocation. That could include more sanctions or deploying counter-weapons in Europe.

And one more piece of advice we never thought we’d have to give a president: Vladimir Putin is not your friend.