Donald Trump put in a call to Vladimir Putin earlier this month to talk about the upcoming G7 summit, and how much he wants to invite Russia. But it’s a pretty good bet that while they were chatting about money, Trump and Putin didn’t talk about the rubles Russia has been paying out to entice militants linked to the Taliban into killing members of the American military.
As The New York Times reports, Russian military intelligence has been offering “bounties” for the killing of American forces stationed in Afghanistan. Those bounties were still on offer during the peace talks being conducted to supposedly end the decades-old conflict in that country. It’s not clear how many of the 20 Americans who were killed in Afghanistan during 2019 resulted in a payday from Moscow, but militants “are believed to have collected some bounty money.” And as Trump continues to talk up his friend Putin, it’s not like any of this is a surprise—because Trump has known about it since March.
Of course, anything that lands on Trump’s desk and is more than a few stick figures could not have been read, but in this case Trump wasn’t just sent the briefing. It was the subject of a meeting of the White House’s National Security Council in late March. Intelligence officials suggested to Trump a “menu” of possible responses, starting with a complaint to Putin and going up from there through sanctions and other actions. But Trump did nothing.
Actually, that’s not true. Trump found out that Vladimir Putin had put bounties on the heads of American soldiers and that those bounties had been paid out … and he invited Putin to come for a visit at one of his properties. So that’s something. In fact, that’s really something.
The Russian action represents a deliberate attempt to both generate the death of American troops, and to interfere in negotiations. This wouldn’t just be a first for Afghanistan—it would be the first time Russia is known to have solicited hits on Western troops. As the Times points out, this effort fits in neatly with Russia’s “hybrid war against the United States” that involves using cyberattacks, spreading conspiracy theories, and interfering in elections.
But putting down cash for killing American soldiers definitely takes this to a new level. It’s the kind of action a Russian leader would only take if he believed his counterpart in Washington was exceptionally weak, or completely under his control. Maybe Putin can explain it … when Trump invites him over in the fall.