by Gordon M. Hahn
Judging from his statements on the campaign trail, it was generally expected that as president Donald Trump would seek a major reform of what he in many ways properly called “obsolete” NATO and move to reduce tensions between this unprecedentedly powerful military alliance and the regional power excluded de facto from it – Russia. Instead, President Trump has chosen a policy that amounts to the worst of two worlds: more militarization and less clarity on intent to defend NATO members. This is destabilizing for international security in Europe-Eurasia.
Based on Trump’s campaign claims on NATO’s superfluousness and calls for improved U.S.-Russian relations, a reduced emphasis on military aspects in favor of political ones as well as a declaration of a moratorium on its persistent expansion east along Russia’s borders were some of the potential NATO policy changes that could have been in the cards. But nothing of the sort has emerged.
Instead, President Trump has maintained support for the Barack Obama administration’s deployment of thousands of additional NATO troops and thousands more pieces of military hardware to the Baltic states and Poland on the background of the continuing Ukrainian crisis and civil war. Other military deployments elsewhere only up the ante. Such deployments do virtually nothing to prevent Russian troops from traversing these states (especially the Baltics) in an instant if the Kremlin should desire, but they also deepen Russian paranoia about Western intentions while simultaneously creating a ‘tripwire’ whereby even the perception of any NATO casualties being Russian-induced — even if they were in fact only the impression created by some, say, third party’s clandestine provocation — would mean an immediate NATO-Russian military confrontation. In addition, the only campaign pledge regarding NATO President Trump has held to so far has been his demand made at the recent NATO summit that all alliance members keep to their commitment to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on the military. These two policies taken together make NATO’s military capacity against Russia even more robust, putting aside that NATO defense budgets already outstrip Russia’s by a factor of ten.
At the same time, NATO has stepped up its strategic communications (stratcomm) efforts targeting Russia and its idiosyncratically popular president, Vladimir Putin. Intelligence and strategic communication centers and NATO member-sponsored, Russian oppositional conferences have sprung up all over Eastern Europe, especially in the Baltic states — two intel and stratcomm centers in Latvia alone. Meanwhile, U.S. officials, in particular U.S. Defense Department operatives, are issuing irresponsible threats against Moscow. One Defense department ‘analyst’ recently signaled that the Pentagon might have contingency plans to attempt an occupation of Russia by threatening should war break out in the region that the U.S. military will defeat the Russian army “in 10-20 days” and Washington will “take over leadership of the country until the election of a democratic government in Russia.” This statement was made in the eye of the storm – in a journal published in ‘frontline’ Ukraine (https://gazeta.ua/articles/world-life/_nato-voyuvatime-z-rosiyeyu-ne-bilsh-yak-20-dniv-analitik-pentagonu/727238).
On the background of this increasingly threatening military-political posture, President Trump omitted of a pledge to fulfill membership obligations per NATO’s Article 5 during his recent trip to Europe and a NATO summit, supposedly disappointing and even surprising his national security staff (www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/06/05/trump-nato-speech-national-security-team-215227). Such a mix of a threatening, increasingly forward-leaning NATO military and stratcomm posture and an unclear commitment to defend allies creates uncertainty on Arbat Square, Lubyanka and likely the Kremlin itself about U.S. intentions.Is Trump driving policy or is this incoherent policy the consequence of internal tussling over Russia policy and what might this tussle’s endgame look like? Is the U.S. preparing to foment a crisis in Ukraine — as it helped do from 2003-2014 — on the eve of Russia’s presidential election in order to foment an election time ‘color revolution’ on the patter of those in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia and elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood? Is Washington prepared in the event of a re-start of the Donbass war in earnest to deploy NATO troops to Ukraine? If Russia responded to such a deployment militarily will Washington encourage or try to restrain Poland, other NATO countries, and/or NATO troops deployed in one or another NATO member-country to avoid a shooting war with Moscow? Given the Kremlin’s pattern of upping the ante in the largely Western-fomented 2008 Georgia-South Ossetiya, the 2013-2014 Ukrainian overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, and Maidan Ukraine’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against Donbass wars, will the U.S. and/or NATO, will the U.S. and/or other NATO members fulfill any obligations under Article 5 of the NATO Charter? If President Trump failed to reassert this commitment, will others fail to fulfill it should the U.S. decide to do so despite Trump’s omission?
These are the kinds of questions that Trump’s inconsistent policy has given rise to both in the Kremlin and in capitols across Europe and Eurasia. The Trump administration must fish or cut bait. It must either restate the American commitment to Article 5 in no uncertain terms or seek a resolution of the Ukrainian crisis and the tensions with Russia that have arisen as a result of two decades of NATO expansion, US-sponsored or -condoned color revolutions, and the like in Russia’s neighborhood. An alternative, wholly acceptable option would be to undertake both these policies. The former would assure America’s NATO allies about the viability of the alliance, while the latter would ease tensions with Russia, making any eventual carrying out of Article 5 mutual defense measures unnecessary. As part of a deal between Moscow, Brussels, Washington and Kiev, the Trump administration should be prepared to declare a moratorium on any further NATO expansion east.
Even the late Zbigniew Brzezinski in his last years came to realize his mistake in repeatedly calling for NATO expansion as far east as to include Ukraine, converting to my own view that Ukraine, the West and Russia will all be more secure if Kiev commits to a non-bloc status, guaranteeing Russia that its most important neighbor will never become a NATO member. Towards this end, the robust US involvement in the Minsk II process or some other Ukrainian negotiating format is an absolute imperative. Otherwise, the ongoing NATO-Russia security dilemma will only continue to confound European and Eurasian stability. Russia is a great power and creating instability and uncertainty inside and along her borders is fraught with potential, rather dire consequences for both Russia ad the West.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct (russia-direct.com) and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com).