U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Paralyzed on Russia as Probes Continue, Ex-NATO Chief Says

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s administration is paralyzed by the continuing probes of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, limiting the U.S.’s ability to speak with a single voice against Moscow’s meddling abroad and find productive ways to improve ties, NATO’s former chief said.

Anders Rasmussen, who led the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for five years through 2014, said that the policy stalemate in Washington undermines U.S., European and Russian interests alike in hot spots such as Ukraine.

“He can’t move, the U.S. can’t move,” Rasmussen, who now serves as an adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, said at a roundtable with Bloomberg reporters and editors Thursday in Washington. The continuing probes “serve the interests of Putin,” he added. As a result, “We haven’t seen Russia move one single step in the implementation of the Minsk agreement” reached in 2015 to stop the military conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“Putin must be laughing right now because has achieved much more than he could ever have dreamed of” in undermining the credibility of Western democratic institutions, he said. U.S. intelligence agencies have found that Russia was behind a social media and internet campaign that they said was aimed at hurting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and ultimately helping to elect Trump.

Rasmussen, who was Denmark’s prime minister from 2001-2009, said “the road to better relations with Moscow runs through Kiev.”

UN Proposal

He said the U.S. and its allies should try to build on what he called an unacceptable Russian proposal at the United Nations calling for peacekeepers in eastern portions of Ukraine. They could do that by backing Ukraine’s demand that UN-sanctioned troops control the border between Russia and its former Soviet partner, he said.

But with probes by a special counsel and congressional committees continuing, he said policy in Washington appears confused.

“Right now we are seeing such mixed signals from this capital,” Rasmussen, 64, said. “Congress has decided to strengthen sanctions, but the administration is hesitant to actually implement it. Congress has decided that the U.S. should deliver defensive military systems to the Ukraine, but the administration is hesitant to implement it.”

“It’s important to not only float the ideas of these initiatives but also ensure that there is a consistent messaging from the administration and Congress,” he said.

Rasmussen would probably get a sympathetic audience for his views among foreign policy leaders on Capitol Hill. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who heads the Armed Services Committee, has repeatedly called for tougher measures against Russia over Ukraine and has criticized the White House for missing an Oct. 1 deadline to implement new sanctions against Moscow.

McCain and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland last month called on the administration to disclose how it will implement fresh sanctions “robustly,” saying it would send a message to Moscow that the U.S. is committed to countering “Russian subversion and destabilization.”

Rasmussen, saying that Putin sees policy hesitation as a weakness, also called on Europe to follow tougher sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, for the West to provide defensive weapons to Kiev and for the country to be named a “major non-NATO ally.” That designation, already held by nations including Afghanistan and Japan, would facilitate defense cooperation between the West and Ukraine, Rasmussen said.

“We have to do something to change the calculus in the Kremlin, and I still believe that ‘peace through strength’ is the right formula,’ he said.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.