Commentary: Trump, Putin and a nervous NATO

As Donald Trump takes up residence in the White House next January, one of the most powerful NATO forces in years will be preparing to move into Eastern Europe.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds a glass during a ceremony of receiving diplomatic credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

The Alliance is sending four armored battle groups as part of its strategy to bolster defenses against Russia. Led by Britain, Canada, Germany and the United States respectively, the battalions will go to Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The force, which will also draw in troops from multiple other NATO nations, will include armored fighting vehicles and tanks – a dramatic increase in NATO’s eastern presence.

The mission was first announced at the Warsaw Summit in June, just days after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. What was intended as a strong signal to Vladimir Putin of allied unity, however, now comes against the backdrop of Trump’s surprise win. Some in Europe worry that the Russian president may already be rubbing his hands with glee.

During the 2016 election campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton accused Trump of pledging to pull the United States completely out of NATO. In fact, he never quite said that. He did, however, describe the alliance as “obsolete” and pledged to “take a look” at U.S. membership because it was “costing us a fortune”. His victory is seriously unsettling senior NATO officials, with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warning it was no time for Europe or the United States to try to “go it alone”.

This weekend, Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Today enthusiastically picked up on German media reports that NATO officials were preparing contingency plans in case Trump pulls U.S. troops entirely from Europe. Whether the new president will be quite so pliant to Russia’s demands and hopes, however, remains unclear.

Judging from the early signs, however, it appears that – at least to begin with – the U.S.-Russia relationship will be considerably warmer than under the administrations of Barack Obama or George W. Bush.

Russian expectations vary. Some Russian officials have said they believed Trump would swiftly ease sanctions imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine – but Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev this week said he expected them to remain in place for now.

Trump and Putin have yet to meet – and when they do, it will be closely watched for clues as to what kind of relationship they might have. Much will come down to their extremely idiosyncratic personalities – but with the U.S. president-elect in particular renowned for being somewhat thin-skinned, even an early “bromance” is no guarantee of a permanent friendship.

According to the Kremlin, Russian officials remained “in contact” with members of the Trump campaign throughout the election. Some of Trump’s former senior advisers have previously worked for Putin allies such as former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. But while Trump and Putin paid each other a raft of compliments during the U.S. election campaign, they could equally find themselves testing each other’s strength.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Russian officials talked in terms of resuming cooperation unilaterally with the United States on a wide number of fronts. Further statements this weekend, however, suggested a true “detente” might be rather more conditional – for example, on scaling back the upcoming NATO deployment.

The Russian leader, of course, faces no shortage of his own challenges. The Russian economy is struggling against the backdrop of slumping energy prices. The 64-year-old Putin’s grip on power remains robust, as does his health – at least for now. But he has no obvious successor, and as the years go by questions will grow about his future.

Still, Putin is riding high for the moment. In Syria, the Russian military intervention has allowed him to dominate the agenda and frustrate any hopes the Obama administration might have had to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and influence a future political settlement.

In Europe, the 2014 annexation of Crimea – and the war that followed in eastern Ukraine – has left Russia isolated, but also much more feared. There are clear limits to its military power: Moscow has so far shown little appetite for pushing militarily beyond the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, suggesting it doubts it could hold additional territory. On balance, however, the more muscular approach has succeeded in unsettling Western governments and whipping up pro-Putin sentiment amongst the domestic Russian population.

Russia has clearly been doing what it can to spread disinformation and support the rise of unorthodox politicians, perhaps including Trump himself. The rise of right-wing parties and leaders in mainland Europe and unraveling of support for the European Union – particularly following the migrant crisis – has unquestionably played into his hands. The collapse of Estonia’s pro-western government this week could add to that, potentially bringing a party supported by the Russian-speaking minority population into the governing coalition.

Fear of a U.S. pullback from Europe, however, might well prompt other regional governments to ramp up their defense spending – something the most exposed nations such as Poland and the Baltics have already done. But it might also prompt Moscow to overplay its hand – potentially dangerous, particularly given the somewhat unpredictable nature of the new U.S. leader.

If Clinton had won, it would have been different – although not necessarily safer. The Democratic candidate was by far the most hawkish on Russia since President Ronald Reagan. She and her most senior advisers clearly regarded Putin as an almost existential foe, particularly after allegations of Russian hacking during the campaign. Putin and those around him almost certainly viewed Clinton in a similar way, a legacy of toxic relations while she was secretary of state.

As well as backing Washington’s NATO allies to the hilt, Clinton might well also have escalated the already growing confrontations with Russia in Ukraine and Syria. In the latter, she was openly considering imposing a “no-fly zone”, something that might well have seen U.S. and Russian pilots trying to blast each other from the sky.

That prospect now seems much more remote. For all the uncertainty, it seems likely Trump will be willing to give Putin more room for maneuver in both Syria and non-NATO member Ukraine, where the government in Kiev would have hoped a Clinton administration would be much more likely to ramp up military and diplomatic support.

Avoiding an unnecessary fight with Russia clearly has its upside – no one wants even a limited war, particularly given the risk of nuclear escalation. Still, Moscow seems almost certain to continue to try to assert itself along its borders, sometimes extremely aggressively.

As with so much else from the president-elect, we simply don’t know what his statements will actually mean when he takes office. NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” mission is still likely to go ahead on schedule next year.

A risky face-off in the Baltic between Russia and NATO remains entirely plausible. How it might now play out, however, is now even less predictable.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.