For decades, Republican doctrine has viewed Russia as a power to mistrust. But in Donald Trump’s GOP, Moscow’s sins seem to matter less.
The platform written at the GOP convention in Cleveland this week eliminated references to arming Ukraine in its fight with Russia, which seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has supported separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Many in the party’s foreign policy establishment are outraged.
They note that Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had worked as a consultant for the now-ousted pro-Russian government in Ukraine.
Trump’s investments in hotels, golf courses and other business interests overseas already have raised concerns of potential conflicts of interest with U.S. policy if he is elected.
Originally, the GOP platform was to call for providing Ukraine with weapons in addition to the substantial non-lethal aid the U.S. already provides, according to congressional reports.
After Trump surrogates reportedly intervened, the final passage supports “providing appropriate assistance” to Ukraine, but doesn’t mention providing arms to the government in Kiev.
Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist, said the change was “most unusual.”
“Virtually every Republican in Congress voted to provide defensive arms to Ukraine and they still support it,” said Black, now chairman of Prime Policy Group, a government relations firm. “This puts the platform on the side of the Obama administration and its weak response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
Although Obama’s advisors have debated whether to provide weapons to help Kiev battle the Russian-backed forces, the president has declined to do so.
The war has largely stalemated over the past year. Moreover, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the U.S. has no treaty obligations to help defend it.
White House aides fear that sending U.S. arms into the war would further inflame tensions with Moscow.
That may be Trump’s worry as well.
He has lavished praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen as an autocratic bully in much of the world, and welcomed Putin’s quasi-endorsement of his candidacy. Trump apparently admires Putin’s strongman image and willingness to crush opponents, dissidents and critical journalists.
Manafort also had a direct interest in Ukraine.
As a crisis public relations manager, Manafort had clients that included the Russian-backed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, who was driven from power in 2014 amid corruption scandals and violent demonstrations. He fled to Russia.
Manafort worked on Yanukovich’s election campaign in 2009. Yanukovich’s opponent, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had hired Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist from Iowa.
Link says the Yanukovich campaign was virulently anti-West, anti-NATO and pro-Russia.
“What I kept thinking about was how Manafort and his team were supposed to be the Reagan guys, Reagan who stood up to the Soviet Union,” Link said in a telephone interview. “And now here they were working for Putin’s candidate for Ukraine.”
Manafort was asked about the GOP platform language on Ukraine during a news conference in Cleveland, but he deflected the question, saying only that the worlds needs a “strong U.S. presence.”
As with Ukraine, Trump’s foreign policy positions are more isolationist that Republicans traditionally embrace.
He doubled-down on that approach Wednesday when he told the New York Times he would not necessarily defend fellow NATO members in the Baltic region if they are threatened Russia.
Trump also said he would not call on authoritarian leaders, like the president of Turkey, to respect the rule of law and human rights as they crack down on opponents.
Those represent sharp departures from U.S. policy and recent GOP positions and sparked immediate concerns that Trump would abandon treaty commitments to allies.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is not attending the convention in his home state, was among the Republicans who slammed Trump’s comments.
"We think NATO doesn't matter? Are we kidding?" Kasich said to the International Republican Institute. He vowed to support arming Ukraine “as long as I’m breathing” and said changing the platform was “a terrible mistake.”
Paul Saunders, executive director of the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said a wing of the GOP has always sought to avoid international conflicts absent a direct U.S. interest.
He noted that Reagan and President Nixon, two Republicans who were toughest on Moscow during the Cold War, ultimately negotiated with the Soviet Union.
But Trump’s proposals suggested a clear break to their strategy.
“This is certainly a very significant change,” Saunders said, “and clearly reflects a very different approach to foreign policy.”