Washington (CNN)As Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his efforts to exert his personal influence around the globe and meddle in American democracy and is accused of using a nerve agent to poison one of his main political opponents, President Donald Trump broke his recent silence on Russia and the attack on Alexey Navalny, calling it “tragic” but emphasizing that he has a good relationship with the Russian leader.
“I don’t know exactly what happened. I think it’s tragic. It’s terrible; it shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any proof yet, but I will take a look,” Trump said on Friday in a news conference at the White House. In response to further questions on the matter he attempted to deflect to his favorite opponent, claiming that what China is doing is “far worse.” And as he had done the night before at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, he stressed, “I do get along with President Putin.”
There was no reference to Russian efforts to interfere in US politics following Thursday’s news that an intelligence bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security warned that Moscow is attempting to sow doubt about the integrity of the 2020 elections by amplifying false claims that mail-in voting resulting in widespread fraud.
And the President made no mention of other provocations in recent weeks, including a collision between a Russian military convoy and a US armored vehicle that injured seven American troops.
Trump appears starkly out of step with the leaders of Britain and Germany, who have expressed outrage at the attack on Navalny.
Friday’s comments were his first on Navalny since Germany said he had been poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group — the same substance the Kremlin used to poison ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in March 2018.
The initial US response came in a series of tweets from National Security Council spokesperson John Ullyot.
“The United States is deeply troubled by the results released today. Alexei Navalny’s poisoning is completely reprehensible. Russia has used the chemical nerve agent Novichok in the past,” Ullyot said. “We will work with allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence leads, and restrict funds for their malign activities.”
Since then the US ambassadors to Moscow, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have weighed in and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with the Russian ambassador to the US on Friday, where he expressed “grave concern” over the poisoning, according to a State Department readout.
But the language from the top of the US government has been more equivocal.
“Strong statements are needed, including by the President himself,” Alexander Vershbow, who served as US ambassador to Russia under President George W Bush, told CNN.
“We’ve been waiting for four years for that, for anything that the Russians have done, and every time Trump has been true to form,” he added.
A senior European official told CNN that the only outreach from the Trump administration to Germany in regard to revelations about Navalny’s condition has been at a working level to gather more information on the apparent poisoning. But there have been no indications from the Trump administration that it will take any actions to punish Russia for an apparent poisoning of Navalny, the official said.
At his Friday news conference, Trump claimed that he’s “been tougher on Russia than anybody else by far.”
But the pace and risk posed by Russian actions in recent weeks is worrying top military officials. Moscow has conducted at least five military missions aimed at US forces in locations ranging from the waters off Alaska and the skies over Europe to remote eastern Syria.
Trump’s silence after seven US troops were injured in Syria is particularly striking.
The US says the soldiers were hurt when their vehicle was rammed by a Russian military convoy on August 25, though Moscow denied culpability. The Russians also had a military helicopter fly low and fast over the Americans, something senior US military officials are furious about, seeing it as a threat to their personnel.
The US military was ordered to stay silent by the administration until the next day, several officials have confirmed to CNN. The official response came in sternly worded statements from press spokesmen, with nothing from the President or Defense Secretary Mark Esper. One defense official said the Pentagon had been muzzled “because it’s Russia” and “that means it’s sensitive” for the administration. The next day, US Central Command, which oversees operations in the area, called the Russian activity “an unauthorized incursion” into an area where American troops were operating.
Russia’s recent military actions are causing concern at the highest levels of the Pentagon.
Some of Russia’s other military actions have been dangerous. Besides the Syria collision, two Russian fighter jets repeatedly crossed within 100 feet of the nose of a US B-52 bomber over the Black Sea on August 28. The resulting turbulence made it difficult for the American crew to maneuver.
“There have obviously been occasions where Russian forces have chosen not to follow the agreed standards of a safe intercept, putting the lives of our respective service members at unnecessary risk. That is unacceptable and we have been clear on this,” another US defense official told CNN.
In recent days a Russian submarine suddenly surfaced off Alaska, with no explanation, and a US B-52 bomber was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 fighter over the Baltic Sea. The Russians followed the B-52 well into Danish airspace, committing a significant violation of the airspace of a NATO nation and US ally.
“The unauthorized intrusion of sovereign airspace is a significant violation of international law, ” NATO’s Allied Air Command said in a statement. Trump so far has not spoken out to defend the alliance.
Several defense officials tell CNN they assess that the spate of Russian actions are a direct result of Putin’s priorities: trying to undermine US interests and credibility while also trying to demonstrate that the Russian military remains a great power that can operate around the world.
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan John Herbst noted that these provocations “could be embarrassing to President Trump.”
“It’s not smart in terms of their longer-term interests, as they define them, to try and do things that might embarrass President Trump, yet they do it, because Putin just can’t resist sticking it to the United States,” he told CNN.
Russia has denied any wrongdoing in recent military encounters.
Officials say there have been private US government communications with the Russians about their dangerous actions, but there is currently no plan to try to involve the President and no indication Trump wants to get involved.
Vershbow warns that could be a mistake: “If the Russians have a perception that this is only being raised by lower-, middle-level officials, but without the backing of the President, they won’t take US protest very seriously,”
Officials are very aware this all comes as they are fighting Russia in cyberspace and trying to blunt its interference in US elections, another Russian initiative Trump is silent on. The Pentagon’s cyber command is putting a significant emphasis on assisting domestic law enforcement and the intelligence community in trying to stop Russian interference in November’s election.
So far the White House has offered no explanation for the President’s silence in the face of the repeated military provocations. When Hogan Gidley, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, was asked why Trump has not called out the Russians, he told CNN earlier this week, “He’s done it, and this is the same song, different verse. He’s done it before, he’ll do it again.”
But experts are unconvinced.
“I think it speaks to the ambiguities of our policy on Russia. Point of fact, the policy overall is pretty good. It could be better, but it’s pretty good. But you have the unusual factor of the President’s unwillingness to criticize Putin or the Kremlin. And so that makes the policy a little bit unusual, and that’s obviously not a positive,” Herbst told CNN.