Like many Americans, I did not particularly like seeing the U.S. president, standing on a stage with an old KGB hand, knocking our intelligence services on foreign soil (not by any means saying you should not criticize them, but do it at home, Mr. President).
But Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia, who led the Georgian resistance to the Russian occupation, and no friend of Russia or Vladimir Putin, argues at The Federalist that, evaluating Trump’s actions in the right historical context, his actions speak for themselves.
First, Saakashvili observes that the outrage against the president's unfortunate performance in Helsinki seems to be selective: former President Obama didn't get this kind of outrage when he was caught on an open mic sending a message to Putin that he would have "more flexibility" to negotiate after the election. Nor was Obama mocked for severely underestimating the Russian threat in a debate with Mitt Romney.
But Trump's deeds with regard to Russia are, according to Saakashvili, more positive than were President Obama's:
Trump’s actions toward Russia speak louder than words—and so did his predecessor’s. Indeed, the Obama administration’s foreign policy undermined America’s credibility in my region, which Putin considers Russia’s “backyard.” There are many opinions about Trump’s rhetoric on Crimea, but it is a fact that the Russian land grab in Ukraine happened on Obama’s watch.
How, exactly, did this happen? During and after Ukraine’s revolution of 2014, which ousted a Kremlin-backed dictator, on a daily basis the United States cautioned Ukraine not to escalate in response to Russian aggression. Thus, Putin saw an opportunity to annex Crimea without risking a direct confrontation with the West—and he seized it. Putin is a bully, but not a fool.
Rather than changing his course after Moscow redrew the borders of Europe by force, Obama doubled down. Despite bipartisan consensus in favor of selling lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, and vocal support from his own administration officials (including Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton), Obama repeatedly refused to authorize the sales.
Instead of anti-tank weapons, the Ukrainians defending their territory from Russian invasion received hot blankets and canned goods from the Obama administration.
Trump's words at Helsinki were embarrassing, but Saakashvili urges us to look at his deeds:
By contrast, Trump authorized the sale of lethal defensive weapons to both Ukraine and Georgia in 2017. The Trump administration went beyond the congressional mandate in sanctioning Russian authorities involved in the annexation of Crimea. Earlier this year, the United States imposed the harshest sanctions yet, targeting Russian oligarchs as well as government officials.
Trump’s rhetoric on energy at the Helsinki summit, which has been largely overlooked, is also a reason for optimism. The backbone of the Russian economy is energy, and Russia’s dependence on fossil fuels is Putin’s Achilles heel. At Monday’s press conference, Trump stated that U.S. liquefied natural gas exports would “compete” with Russian gas in Europe. This reflects Trump’s comments at the NATO summit, where he criticized Germany for supporting the Nord Stream II pipeline. Trump was correct to call attention to this project, which will enrich the Kremlin at the expense of struggling pro-Western allies like Ukraine.
This doesn't mean that Trump's rhetoric is always such a great idea:
Nevertheless, I must caution President Trump that criticizing domestic opponents in front of foreign adversaries could have been misperceived by Putin as a concession.
I was thinking after Helskink that sometimes President Trump giveth (strong Supreme Court nominees and impressive job creation) and then he taketh away (usually with ill-advised outbursts such as the one we witnessed at Helsinki).
This article might serve to rescue from the doldrums those of us who were deeply dismayed by the public performance at Helsinki.
I urge you to read this piece.