As US president, Trump needs to understand that Putin is not a friend.
In the past few years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed European borders with war and other machinations and cast a long shadow across the Baltic states. Russia’s neighbors now also face unanswered questions about the new leader of the free world. The United States remains central to Baltic security. How Donald Trump defines his country’s role in the world — especially regarding Russia and the greater region — will have deep-reaching consequences.
Trump should understand that, as he transitions from American insurgent to American president, Putin is no longer his ally, but his adversary. Putin has defined Russia’s relationship with the U.S. as one of animosity; this will not change with a new president because the perception of Russian power depends on it.
Trump should not make the same mistake as President Barack Obama: putting Russia in a position of primacy from which it can dictate U.S. policy on regional and global affairs. His reliance on ‘deal-making’ could make it easy for him to fall into the same traps, engaging in fruitless negotiations that give cover to Russian actions and leave America waiting.
Throughout his campaign, Trump displayed refreshing bravado on a range of issues – only never in reference to Russia and to Putin, who defines the U.S. as Russia’s primary adversary in the world.
Throughout his campaign, Trump displayed refreshing bravado on a range of issues – only never in reference to Russia and to Putin.
This is a subject Trump should have jumped on. Russia has created conflict across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, weakened American allies and formed new alliances that have left America less secure. And this fits well into his narrative of an Obama administration that projected weakness and hurt American interests.
But Trump and his advisers, many of whom have unexplained financial and other ties to allies of the Kremlin, refused to speak ill of the Russian president or his tactics, and lauded him as a strong leader and a role model. They echoed Kremlin talking points: NATO is outdated, they said, and the Baltic states are effectively “suburbs” of Russia. Repeatedly accused by the Democratic Party for cozying up to the Kremlin, Trump’s campaign benefited from this imagined Russian favoritism in ways that we will be defining for years to come.
But this relationship with Russia, real or imagined, will change once he is in the White House. Trump is right that words — and strength — matter. If Trump and his advisers continue to send the message that the Baltic states are outside the security architecture that the U.S. will defend, then Putin will act, and as a result, Trump’s legacy will be defined by incomparable weakness or incomparable war.
The flip side of this is that Trump is in a position to become the founder of a new American security architecture in Europe — if he is brave enough to take up the task. These alliances are not business transactions: They are insurance, and they require American investment.
As the countdown to the Trump presidency begins, it is worth highlighting what he gets right, and how this can enhance Baltic and NATO security.
The success of Trump’s campaign was in presenting a narrative of American failure — of a weak America losing influence in the world — and in capturing the attention of what he called the silent majority of ‘forgotten’ Americans. Now he must understand that he is responsible for and accountable to those Americans.
Trump has talked about adequately funding the American military and about rebuilding capabilities and capacity. He owes it to American servicemen and women to live up to that promise. He owes it to them to listen to what they have seen on the front lines of wars and conflicts across Europe and the Middle East — things most Americans have heard nothing about. He owes it to them to acknowledge that American lives have been lost in wars that Russia is funding and fueling because chaos is Putin’s preferred method of control and domination.
Trump should take his own advice. He needs to remember that Putin only respects strength.
Trump should take his own advice. He needs to remember that Putin only respects strength. He must understand, above all else: The Kremlin thrives on uncertainty, and it will continue to operate in uncertain and unstable places with a free hand.
The Baltic states need strong words from the U.S. president-elect. Only his unwavering support for the enhanced NATO footprint in the Baltic states and Poland can end the current uncertainty, enhance stability, and make clear that what is ours is ours, and not up for negotiation.
It is possible that Trump has the character to take a stand where less certain men have not. This will, for no cost, enhance American security, power, and influence in the world. It would also mark the beginning of a legacy of Trumpian strength in global affairs that could turn his campaign slogans into reality.