Russian President Vladimir Putin has gotten President Donald Trump’s attention this month with a number of anti-American moves that are giving Mr. Trump plenty of trouble.
That explains the Trump administration’s burst of diplomatic contacts with Russia, beginning with an hour-long telephone conversation May 3 between the two men, followed by meetings between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Finland on May 6 and in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday.
Mr. Putin employed some saber rattling and one-upmanship in Sochi. After courteously giving an audience to China’s foreign minister, Mr. Putin made Secretary Pompeo sit around for three hours while he flew, accompanied by a large number of Russian stealth fighters, to the test site of Russia’s new hypersonic nuclear missile.
Despite this dismissive action, Mr. Putin said he “would like to rebuild fully fledged relations” with the United States, adding that there is a “conducive environment.”
Mr. Pompeo assured Mr. Putin that President Trump seeks better relations as well. No surprise there. For eight decades under 14 presidencies Russia has been at or near the top of the list of international problems facing the United States.
While the current moment might be “conducive” for Russia, it is a thorny one for Mr. Trump. In the past eight weeks Russia has raised the stakes in at least three crises where our president has taken a clear, firm stance.
On March 23, it sent two transport planes to Venezuela with 100 soldiers to support the embattled dictator Nicolas Maduro. Secretary Pompeo has charged that Russia prevented Mr. Maduro from abdicating and seeking asylum in Cuba, a step that would have opened the door to a peaceful and welcome transition of power to the national legislature.
In late April, Russia joined Syria in bombing civilian targets in the agreed no-fire zone of Idlib province, threatening millions of refugees sheltered there. Last fall Mr. Trump claimed credit for stopping the slaughter of the refugees in Idlib by Russia and Syria.
On May 3, the same day as the Trump-Putin telephone call, North Korea broke its moratorium on missile testing, and on May 9, following the Pompeo-Lavrov meeting in Finland, it tested two more missiles. Experts have identified the solid-fuel weapons as a new short-range Russian model designed to evade American Patriot and high-altitude missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.
A joint news conference in Sochi with Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Lavrov developed into a fencing match of competing claims of injury. Mr. Pompeo brought up Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, which Mr. Lavrov denied, offering to supply a documented history of American interventions in Russian politics. Mr. Lavrov also brought up the long list of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union between 2013 and 2019 on hundreds of Russian individuals and companies. The sanctions have not altered Russian behavior, as evidenced by recent Russian attempts to spread the falsehood that 5G telephone technology is carcinogenic and continuing efforts to interfere with public elections in the U.S. and Europe.
Mr. Putin’s statements and broad hints in the state-controlled Russian media suggest Russia is demanding a price for easing pressure on these and other sensitive areas.
A May 5 article in the Moscow Times said Mr. Trump needs a success in Venezuela for political reasons and should make a deal yielding the upper hand to Russia in the Ukraine.
But a bigger problem for Mr. Trump, and the world, is Russia’s enabling of North Korea’s nuclear program.
Mr. Putin clearly is seeking a deal, but the flurry of provocations is more evidence that Mr. Trump must proceed with caution.