With the Trump administration’s foreign policy coming under intense scrutiny during the impeachment process and at NATO’s summit in London this week, it is both timely and instructive to review the Trump administration’s record toward Russia. A dispassionate assessment must focus on whether the president has either countered or contributed to Moscow’s neo-imperialist and anti-American agenda.
Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin's party wins big majority in Russian parliamentary elections Putin's party expected to keep control of lower house amid fraud complaints Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' MORE’s Russia is a revisionist power that seeks to rebuild its dominance in the defunct Soviet bloc by challenging the independence and territorial integrity of its neighbors. In stark contrast, the NATO alliance under U.S. leadership exists to prevent an expansionist power from dominating Europe. With French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Rocky US alliances as Biden heads to UN assembly Five things to watch as Biden heads to the UN France began doubting Australian submarine deal in June: report MORE questioning U.S. commitments to collective defense, it is important to specify where American policy has resisted Russia’s aggression and defended Europe, and where it has assisted the Kremlin’s agenda.
NATO seems to be the glue that holds foreign policy together in Washington, as there is overwhelming bipartisan agreement in both the House and Senate that the alliance must be defended, even when Trump has questioned the rationale for its existence. There is also cross-party consensus regarding Russia as America’s pre-eminent adversary, as evident in the maintenance of economic sanctions for Moscow’s attack on Ukraine and the U.S. elections. Senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePoll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability Capitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoPoll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability Majority of voters disapprove of execution of Afghanistan withdrawal: poll Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant MORE, have reiterated U.S. support for strengthening NATO against Russia’s probing and subversion.
Several practical initiatives by the Trump administration have bolstered Europe’s defenses. Most importantly, Washington has fortified NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence along its eastern flank, whereby troops are rotated in several front-line states through four multinational NATO battle groups that total some 4,500 soldiers. Poland has also offered to permanently host a larger contingent of American troops. In addition, despite vehement Russian opposition, the Trump administration has expanded the alliance in the Balkans by bringing in Montenegro and North Macedonia, and is keeping the door open to other aspirants.
U.S. weapons sales have also been directed at helping NATO members deter Moscow’s aggression. Most notably, Poland and Romania have purchased Patriot missile systems from the U.S. F-16 fighter jets have been sold to several allies along NATO’s eastern flank. And Ukraine and Georgia have purchased Javelin anti-tank missiles to bolster their defenses against Russian forces.
NATO has also increased the volume of military exercises in Europe. The Defender 2020 exercises, scheduled between February and June 2020, will be the third largest alliance mobilization in Europe since the Cold War. This strategic level exercise, involving more than 20,000 troops and heavy equipment, will test the U.S. Army’s capabilities in rapidly deploying large units to deter Russia’s persistent military threats along NATO’s eastern borders.
Despite all these important initiatives, the president has issued various statements that bolster Kremlin hopes that its expansionist offensives will be overlooked because Trump seeks a rapprochement with Putin. For instance, his description of NATO as “obsolete” fanned fears that Washington would downscale its presence in the alliance. Trump’s persistent dismissal of Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary helps convince Putin that future election interventions will provoke minimal sanctions. Trump has also talked about inviting Putin to the White House and bringing Russia back into the G-7 inter-governmental political forum from which it was expelled following its invasion of Ukraine.
The Trump White House’s worst move was the blocking of lethal military assistance to Ukraine despite overwhelming bipartisan congressional approval. NATO allies and partners could conclude that U.S. assistance is subject to presidential decisions over domestic politics and may also be influenced by Kremlin propaganda or Putin-friendly American journalists. Fears may also grow that NATO initiatives along the eastern flank could be reversed if Trump decides that U.S. troop numbers should be downsized either to pacify Moscow or to rally support among voters weary of military engagements abroad.
Of course, Trump is not the only who can be blamed for legitimizing and emboldening Moscow’s diplomatic and disinformation offensives. In recent months, Russia has been allowed back into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This despite that Moscow has not withdrawn from occupied Ukrainian territories and its domestic human rights record continues to deteriorate. At the same time, Germany and other West European countries are allowing Russia’s North Stream-2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea to proceed even though it will place greater energy pressure on Ukraine and other Central European states.
Trump is clearly not alone in harboring both naivety and admiration for the Putin regime. But at least he has some credible excuses. He is not a global strategist, does not seem to grasp the threat that Moscow poses to neighboring countries and Western institutions and his businesses have reportedly benefited from investments by Kremlin-linked Russian oligarchs. Presumably, the same excuses cannot be made for the leaders of several Western European allies.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.”