Russian Reset: Trump Style, part 1

by Aaron Spitler

December 20, 2016

The triumph of Republican Donald J. Trump over Democratic Russia hawk Hillary Clinton not only rattled Washington’s consensus on how to wrangle our longtime adversary, but also sent a message to Moscow that a diplomatic breakthrough could be on the horizon. Trump’s promise of detente and reconciliation has struck an unlikely chord with the Kremlin, drastically changing years of contentious rhetoric between the two powers in a matter of months. Russian President Vladimir Putin has even embraced this paradigm shift, noting that his country was willing to fully cooperate for global security, even if it involved a “difficult path”. However, despite the strikingly civil tone, many pundits argue that President-elect Trump’s lack of international affairs expertise creates a dangerous opening for Russia to shed economic sanctions and re-exert its influence on a global scale. His reticence to uphold North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military agreements and indecision regarding coordination in Syria are just some of flashpoints where he’ll be tested by Putin’s adventurist foreign policy. Though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lauded the billionaire dealmaker as seeing “eye-to-eye” with Russia regarding worldviews, we may soon learn that intense diplomacy was more than Trump bargained for.

Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for National Security Adviser, has had choice words regarding NATO’s purpose in modern warfare, charging that member states are not investing enough in the defense bloc and that a re-organization is in order: “frankly, if you are part of the club, you’ve got to pay your bill, and for countries that don’t pay their bills, there has got to be some other penalty.” Flynn’s call for reciprocity in matching alliance commitments and his business-minded approach to managing the organization may change dynamics between Western Europe and Russia, yet this has not stopped countries geographically closer to Moscow from expressing wariness. Poland, with its staunchly conservative government, has welcomed Trump and Flynn’s hardliner stance on reforming a lackadaisical NATO as a way to re-energize the coalition. However, Trump’s cosiness towards Putin is cause for alarm and has lead many Polish officials to prepare their own contingency plans. Jerzy Targalski, a right-wing analyst that affiliates with the ruling party, states that a potential shakeup could result in disarray, pushing many vulnerable partners into Putin’s grip. “What Poland can do is keep increasing its military capabilities, keep a low profile and just wait for Putin to show his true colors. And it won’t take too long” The imminent threat of Russian aggression seems more like an eventuality, not a probability, for the neighbors that sit along Moscow’s periphery. It has cast serious doubt on the viability of NATO, as Trump’s unpredictability leaves many to wonder if the United States can reliably come to their aid.

The Baltic nations also share these grave concerns in regards to balancing regional forces, as their proximity and cultural overlap makes them a “target” for Russian-sponsored insurrection and intervention. Newt Gingrich, a Trump surrogate and influential figure within his private circle, dismissed the prospect of encroachment by painting Estonia, a country with a sizeable ethnic Russian community that nearly accounts for one-fourth of the total population, as nothing more than “the suburbs of St. Petersburg”. Minimizing realistic anxieties and leniency with Russia that borders on appeasement is a lethal combination that has many looking over their shoulders, as this wild generalization plays into generational fears regarding Russia’s spectre. Lithuanian writer Radvile Kasperaviciute recalls as much in an opinion piece for The Guardian, posing that the need for American solidarity is not new, but steeped in historical realities dating back to the Soviet years. “This fear is not merely rooted in the hearts of the people who lived through the USSR. It is a political and very abject fear.” Emphatic action is necessary to calm the minds of those who are aware of and recognize the harshness of foreign oppression. For Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians alike, President-elect Trump’s revamping of NATO and shakiness on protection are not nearly enough to change opinion. Now, many plan to turn to ally and European powerhouse Germany.

A greater emphasis on defense spending and bilateral military cooperation may be foisted upon Berlin if Washington reneges on its NATO agreements, saddling Germany with increased responsibilities to halt Putin’s incursions. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel would be compelled to watch her eastern flank on behalf of a continent uncertain of its future, spending trillions to fortify their position if the U.S. pulls out. German leadership may be essential to repair frayed ties in the region while adapting to a post-American presence in the modern era.

Aaron Spitler is a Sophomore B.A. student at the College of William & Mary and an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.