Russia under Vladimir Putin — the man Donald Trump admires more than President Obama for his leadership skills — has reached pariah status on the international stage. There seems to be no limits: its bombing of civilians in Syria, its complicity in the downing of a commercial airliner, its annexation of Crimea, and its suspected hacking of U.S. computer systems aimed at weakening Hillary Clinton’s chances and fueling questions about the election’s integrity. Russia poses an incalculable test to global order and security, and the world needs an American president who realizes it.
Even for Mr. Putin, the former KGB operative-turned-autocratic president, this surge of violence and intimidation — in the name of restoring Russia’s greatness — is bewildering. It comes as Russia also has sought to raise its profile and expand its legitimacy on the global front. With oil prices low and foreign investment sapped by economic sanctions, Russia should be reaching out to reverse its anemic growth, stabilize relations and move regional conflicts off the front burner.
Yet Mr. Putin seems determined to move Russia from superpower to rogue as Mr. Trump cheers him on. Russia’s bombing of an aid convoy in Aleppo, Syria, in September underscored its latest brutality in that country’s 5-year-old civil war. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in recent weeks in attacks by Syrian and Russian airstrikes on rebel-held territory, leveling hospitals, water supply plants and other infrastructure vital to everyday civilian life. The weapons have included anti-bunker bombs, whose only purpose is to kill as indiscriminately as possible.
Russia’s attacks on behalf of the Syrian regime indicate it never intended to act in good faith in negotiating with the United States for a meaningful cease-fire in a war that has killed more than 400,000 people. And they come as an international investigation reported its findings this month that the powerful surface-to-air missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was brought in from Russia at the behest of Russian-backed separatists and returned that very same night.
The Dutch-led investigation debunked the more outlandish theories Russia offered, as voluminous records, witnesses’ accounts, photographs and other evidence backed up a U.S. government finding that the Russian-made missile was fired from separatist-held territory and likely was provided by Russia.
And Mr. Trump admires Mr. Putin’s strong leadership?
Moscow’s attacks in Syria prompted the United States to warn last week that it may pull out of plans to coordinate strikes with Russia against Syrian-based jihadists. It is nonsensical to believe that any bilateral effort would amount to much, given Moscow’s interest in exploiting the chaos to strengthen its influence across the region. While there are no easy options, the United States needs to seek a pathway to a political settlement.
Syria exposes the limits of America’s superpower status as the nation looks to end a conflict without a military response. This is the complicated ground the next president will navigate. It is clear Mr. Trump cannot be trusted to do that.
The leadership qualities Mr. Trump sees in Mr. Putin are nothing more than brutish tactics he employs at home and abroad. Moscow is using the presidential season to test American patience, kill any window of opportunity in Syria and sour the climate after the election with mistrust and self-doubt. The U.S. response must include a robust commitment to NATO, a clear understanding of Putin’s ambitions and an appreciation of the risks and limits of military action. Putin is no ally and no advocate of the values of either major American political party, and that’s lost on Trump.
This editorial first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.