Team Trump on Russia: John Bolton’s Views
On April 9 John Bolton—a foreign-policy hawk who has called for preventive strikes against Iran and North Korea—officially begins his tenure as U.S. President Donald Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser. Bolton, a former ambassador to the U.N., holds much harsher views on Russia than Trump, calling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election an “act of war” and demanding stronger retaliation against Moscow for its interference in U.S. affairs. As undersecretary of state, a post he held in 2001-2005, Bolton drew fire for obstructing a bilateral U.S.-Russia deal to dispose of plutonium that arms-control experts feared could fall into the hands of terrorists or other rogue actors.
The compilation below gives a deeper sense of Bolton’s views on Russia and issues central to U.S.-Russian relations—part of our continued effort to track the Trump team’s positions on these topics.
Bolton, who has been described as the near opposite of his cautious predecessor, H.R. McMaster, seems to share Trump’s unilateralist, America-first approach to foreign policy, and has long disdained international institutions; however, Bolton is no isolationist—an accusation sometimes leveled at his new boss. At a time when unintended escalation already poses a danger in relations between Washington and several world capitals (Moscow among them), Bolton’s pro-war stance has caused understandable consternation among security analysts. Some have noted that U.S. government bureaucracy may put the brakes on bellicose impulses, but there is no doubt that the post of national security adviser—held in the past by such prominent strategists as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski—is an influential one worth watching closely.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- On the Nunn-Lugar legislation, a U.S.-initiative to destroy nuclear and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles: Most of our allies, however, spent little or nothing, despite the enormous benefits they and we derived from eliminating Russia’s Cold War weapons stockpile. Why shouldn’t the others help bear the costs and contribute to programs from which they clearly benefited? (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
- Beyond the United States, which may or not be corrected by our own elections, I believe the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical and biological—is the main threat coupled with the continuing spread of international terrorism. Worst of all being the perfect storm where a terrorist group gets a nuclear weapon. Those are the threats on my mind today. (Octavian Report, September 2016)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile program:
- In some respects, Russia’s policies are based on a form of racism, a view that North Koreans and Iranians are not capable of mounting truly serious threats to Russian interests. I saw this many times in comments from senior Russian officials, not openly or crudely stated, but apparent nonetheless. (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
- It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first. (Wall Street Journal, 02.28.18)
- On what would be considered success in North Korean negotiations: If Kim Jong Un comes in and says, “You know, I’ve seen the error of my ways. I’m gonna renounce my leadership of North Korea and go live in a villa on the seashore of China for the rest of my life and the regime can get on without me,” that would be historic, but unlikely. (The Atlantic, 03.23.18)
Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:
- On the current Iranian government: The only long-term solution is regime change in Tehran. …The ayatollahs are the principal threat to international peace and security and the Middle East. (Breitbart News Daily, cited by Politico, 11.17.16)
- On stopping Iran’s nuclear program: The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed. (New York Times, 03.26.15)
- On leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama-era treaty in which Iran agreed not to further develop nuclear weapons: Russia and China obviously warrant careful attention in the post-announcement campaign. They could be informed just prior to the public announcement as a courtesy, but should not be part of the pre-announcement diplomatic effort described above. We should welcome their full engagement to eliminate these threats, but we will move ahead with or without them. (National Review, 08.28.17)
- The White House is reportedly considering listing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, which should have been done decades ago. Such a move would have a significant political and economic effect on Moscow’s military-industrial complex, particularly Rosoboronexport, its international arms-sales agency. (The Wall Street Journal, 02.13.17)
New and original Cold Wars:
- Speaking on the situation in 2007: These Russian and Chinese efforts [to rebuild their militaries] are a long way from the Cold War, but they are also far from insignificant and bear close monitoring. (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:
- On NATO as a bulwark against a "belligerent Russia": Protecting Europe—Eastern and Central Europe, the former states of the Soviet Union—is extremely significant for the United States. (Interview cited by RFE/RL, 03.23.18)
- After Putin unveiled a new set of “invincible nuclear weapons:” There needs to be a strategic response to Russia's new nuclear missiles to show our allies in Europe that we will not let #Russia push the U.S. or its allies around. (Twitter, 03.02.18)
- The U.S must strengthen its allies in Central and Eastern Europe through #NATO and ensure that there are effective countermeasures to the cyber war that Russia is engaging. (Twitter, 02.20.18)
- NATO has taken intense criticism this year from Donald Trump, evoking howls of outrage from foreign-policy establishment worthies. The worthies know, however, that Trump is simply using his bullhorn to say what they themselves say more quietly: NATO’s decision-making is often sclerotic; its mission has not been adequately redefined after the Cold War; and too many members haven’t carried their weight financially or militarily for long years. (The Boston Globe, 09.27.16)
Nuclear arms control:
- If the INF Treaty isn't expanded, we can expect Moscow to suspend its compliance with it, as it did with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty originally signed in 1990. In that case, the U.S. shouldn't ignore Russia's violations but should suspend its own compliance with INF or, better still, withdraw entirely. (Wall Street Journal, 08.15.11)
- Bolton pushed for withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty under U.S. President George W. Bush. Bolton rejected the suggestion from some Bush-era advisers that the ABM Treaty was crucial to reshaping the U.S.-Russian relationship. Despite constant reservations from the Russian government, Bolton had encouraged the U.S. to go forward with abandoning arms control. (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
- On how many nuclear weapons the U.S. needs: The political judgments that are involved go to questions of the sufficiency of the nuclear umbrella, not strictly in a bean-counting sense, but in a political sense—when allies feel reassured enough, they don't have to contemplate building their own nuclear capability. (The Washington Post, 11.19.10)
- From America’s perspective, New Start is an execrable deal, a product of Cold War nostrums about reducing nuclear tensions. Arms-control treaties, properly conceived and drafted, should look like George W. Bush’s 2002 Treaty of Moscow: short (three pages), with broad exit ramps and sunset provisions. (Wall Street Journal, 02.13.17)
- Russia's attacks on Ukraine are consistent with its efforts to re-establish hegemony in the former Soviet Union. Strategically, however, newly revealed Russian intermediate-range nuclear weapons are just as dangerous, and may be worse. Either way, Moscow's arms-control treaty violations give America the opportunity to discard obsolete, Cold War-era limits on its own arsenal and upgrade its military capabilities to match its global responsibilities. (Wall Street Journal, 09.09.14)
- On why the U.S. cannot cooperate with Russia in counter-terrorism: This Russian penetration of the Middle East has had very significant consequences. They are aligned with the world’s most important financier of terrorism [Iran]. (The Washington Post, 03.28.18)
- If Putin thought he was dealing with a strong United States as opposed to a weak and feckless United States, I could see areas of cooperation against Islamic radicalism. (Octavian Report, September 2016)
Conflict in Syria:
- Washington and its allies do not need more #Russian adventurism in #MiddleEast, especially given the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis. (Twitter, 01.24.18)
- [Russia and Iran’s] aim of restoring Iraqi and Syrian governments to their former borders is a goal fundamentally contrary to American, Israeli and friendly Arab state interests. Notions, therefore, of an American-Russian coalition against the Islamic State are as undesirable as they are glib. (New York Times, 11.24.15)
- Why is Russia active in this conflict? Because it is aiding its allies: Syria’s President Bashar Assad and Iran’s ayatollahs. Undeniably, Russia is on the wrong side. But Mr. Obama, blind to reality, believed Washington and Moscow shared a common interest in easing the Assad regime out of power. The Trump administration’s new thinking should be oriented toward a clear objective: pushing back these Iranian and Russian gains. (Wall Street Journal, 06.28.17)
- On Fox News, Bolton appeared to suggest that the hack of the DNC servers was a “false flag” operation and not the work of Russian hackers. Bolton later clarified that he never believed the hack was a false flag, and that he was criticizing Obama’s “politicized” use of intelligence. (The Washington Post, 12.16.16)
- Bolton has consistently advocated for the U.S. to take a more “muscular approach” to the cyber domain and begin to engage in more offensive activities. (Politico, 04.01.18)
- See also the elections interference section.
- There is, to date, no evidence of collusion, express or implied, nor can it honestly be said that Russia was “pro-Trump.” … It is not enough, however, to file criminal charges against Russian citizens, nor are economic sanctions anywhere near sufficient to prove our displeasure. We need to create structures of deterrence in cyberspace, as we did with nuclear weapons, to prevent future Russian attacks or attacks by others who threaten our interests. One way to do that is to engage in a retaliatory cyber campaign against Russia. This effort should not be proportional to what we have just experienced. It should be decidedly disproportionate. (The Hill, 02.19.18)
- On Putin's denial of Russian interference in U.S. elections during a meeting with Trump: Insulting ... attempting to undermine America's constitution is far more than just a quotidian covert operation. ... It is in fact a casus belli, a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate. (Article in The Telegraph cited by RFE/RL, 03.23.18)
- On the U.S. responding to Russian interference: I don't think the response should be proportionate, I think it should be very disproportionate. (The Washington Post, 03.28.18)
- See also the cyber security section.
Energy exports from CIS:
- To be updated.
Bilateral economic ties:
- To be updated.
U.S. general policies toward Russia and other bilateral issues:
- So let’s raise our glasses to Mr. Trump’s disdain for New Start, not to mention the Iran nuclear deal, and hope for more of the same. The new president ought to strengthen the sanctions, reassure NATO allies (while juicing them to meet their commitments on military spending) and then have coffee with Vlad. Negotiate only from positions of strength. (Wall Street Journal, 02.13.17)
- On Trump’s congratulatory message for Vladimir Putin after Putin’s reelection in 2018: It was a matter of courtesy. (Wall Street Journal, 03.23.18)
- The statements from leaders like @realDonaldTrump, @EmmanuelMacron, and Chancellor Merkel make it clear that the West is united in condemning #Russia and in taking strong measures in response to their use of a chemical weapon to poison a Russian double agent in Britain. (Twitter, 03.16.18)
- Russia and China have been active WMD proliferators over the years. Russia’s close relationship with India, and China’s with Pakistan, were undoubtedly key factors in the development of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, a case study in how competitive proliferation works. (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
- When any president speaks, he engages in more than academic analysis. But playing with words, at which Mr. Obama excels, improves nothing in his record. Inattention to foreign threats and challenges as diverse as Islamic terrorism or China's increasing belligerence in the East Asian littoral; inconsistency and ineptitude in pursuing his own policies, as in Syria and Libya; and indecisiveness in confronting threats like Russia's pressure on Ukraine and Iran's nuclear-weapons program all hang like albatrosses around his presidential tenure. (Wall Street Journal, 05.28.14)
- Bolton described as weak the sanctions against Russian individuals that were implemented by Congress in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He called for tougher sanctions that would affect entire sectors, such as banning Russian banks from performing business in the U.S. or hitting the Russian energy sector. (Fox News, 07.30.17)
II. Russia’s domestic developments, history and personalities
Russia’s domestic developments:
- The Bush administration has lost whatever illusions it had about the direction of Putin’s Russia, and it is certainly hard now to find much that is encouraging in the direction of either Russia’s domestic or its international policies. (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
- [Russia’s] economy is a one-trick pony. It’s all about oil and gas, of which they have considerable reserves. They also have still the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. It may be more of a shell than we get the impression in the West. It has much more severe problems domestically than I think even we understand. Its capabilities obviously do make it a threat. We could have a different relationship with them if they thought we were any kind of adversary to be feared. (Octavian Report, September 2016)
- Bolton advocated for the expansion of gun rights in Russia in a video that was sponsored by Russian citizen Alexander Torshin. Torshin is now under investigation by the FBI for allegedly illegally funneling money to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and has been added to the recent list of sanctioned Russian individuals. (Huffington Post, 03.22.18)
- The early promise that a democratic Russia might align itself with the West faded. (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
- Putin is an old-school, hard-edged, national interest-centered Russian leader, defending the ‘rodina’ (the motherland), not a discredited ideology. Confronted with U.S. strength, Putin knows when to pull back, and he is, when it suits him, even capable of making and keeping deals. (The Hill, 12.29.17)
- On Obama’s response to NSA leaker Edward Snowden seeking asylum in Russia: I think in order to focus Putin’s thinking, we need to do things that cause him pain as well. And while I know that not having a chance to have a bilateral meeting with his buddy Barack Obama will cause Putin to lose sleep, it’s not damaging Russian interests. (Fox News interview cited in Politico, 08.08.13)
Defense and aerospace:
- To be updated.
III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- Vladimir Putin’s Russia is on the prowl in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in ways unprecedented since the Cold War. Unchecked by Obama’s weak and feckless policies, Putin has had every reason to believe that persistence will achieve any objective Russia has the capacity to seek. (The Washington Post, 11.14.16)
- To be updated.
- I think China is demonstrating a long-term threat capability. It’s increasing its nuclear arsenal. It’s increasing its ballistic missile capabilities. It’s building a blue-water navy for the first time in over 600 years. It’s developed a very sophisticated cyber warfare capability. It has anti-satellite weapons programs that are designed to blind our overhead intelligence-gathering capabilities. It’s got area denial anti-access weapons that are expressly meant to push the United States back from the shores of the western Pacific. (Octavian Report, September 2016)
- On Russia and China in the U.N.: [They] fly wingman for each other [and have a] de facto territorial division of labor around the world. (The Washington Post, 03.28.18)
- Russia's attacks on Ukraine are consistent with its efforts to re-establish hegemony in the former Soviet Union. (The Wall Street Journal, 09.09.14)
Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Some of the factors underlying the effort to bolster Russia’s status date to czarist days (Russia’s never-ceasing effort to obtain access to warm-water ports), and some have more recent foundations, such as regaining as much as possible of the lost Soviet empire. (From Bolton’s book “Surrender is Not an Option,” 2007)
Kevin Doyle is a student associate for Russia Matters.
Photo by Gage Skidmore shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.