Is Putin Playing Donald Trump? CSPC Senior Fellow James Kitfield

Is Putin Playing Donald Trump?

By James Kitfield

Donald Trump’s disregard for convention, disdain for foreign policy elites and soft spot for dictators are well documented. When he dispensed with a half century of bipartisan U.S. policy by implying late last week that a Trump administration might not defend NATO countries against a Russian attack, however, he wandered into uniquely perilous territory. Trump may have been trying to look tough by calling out supposed NATO freeloaders, or he might have hoped to advance his strange bromance with Vladimir Putin (a “very bright” and “strong leader” in the estimation of Trump, who wondered in a 2013 tweet whether the Russian strongman would attend his Miss Universe Pageant and “become my new best friend?”)

When embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee reportedly hacked by Russian intelligence were released to WikiLeaks over the weekend – presumably to embarrass Democrats and Hillary Clinton on the eve of their convention, and improve Trump’s chances in November – it suggested that Putin is playing a deadly serious game.

A little history illustrates the point. There’s no doubt that Trump’s over-the-top threats to NATO highlight a genuine problem. Only five of NATO’s 28 countries, to include the United States, meet the alliance commitment to annually spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. Trump joins a long line of U.S. officials and politicians in complaining about this inequity in alliance burden-sharing. On the NATO side of the ledger, the alliance has invoked its bedrock Article 5 commitment to come to the aid of any besieged member only once: after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. When the U.S. military became stretched dangerously thin after the Bush 43 administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 – an extremely unpopular proposition in Europe – NATO dutifully stepped in to take charge of the war in Afghanistan. European troops have remained there alongside their U.S. counterparts for over a decade.

Yet when asked by the New York Times whether his administration would fulfill the Article 5 commitment and come to the aid of NATO’s Baltic members in the event of a Russian attack, Trump suggested he would first consult a calculator and a schedule of dues payments. “If they fulfill their obligation to us, the answer is yes,” said Trump, who has during the campaign described the alliance as “obsolete” and “no longer affordable.” “I’m saying that right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.”

The problem with dictators is they tend to view the world in zero-sum terms, and in balance-of-military-power calculations. Putin and his hardline cronies in Moscow have ever viewed NATO as both a threat and a betrayal, since Russian leaders assumed at the end of the Cold War that the alliance would not expand eastward towards the borders of the former Soviet Union (the breakup of which Putin has called “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”).

When NATO instead adopted a policy of “enlargement” to the east in order to establish a Europe “whole and free,” Putin and his cronies seethed, and have been looking for payback ever since. In 2008, with the Bush administration distracted by the war in Iraq and NATO forces straining to keep a lid on Afghanistan, Putin realized that the alliance was writing membership checks that its military forces could no longer cash. Moscow vetoed the membership aspirations of Georgia by invading that country and occupying breakaway provinces with Russian-speaking populations. When the European Union tried to entice Ukraine into Europe’s economic sphere in 2014, Putin conducted a similar balance-of-force calculation, and reached the same conclusion. Russian military forces seized and annexed Crimea and fomented insurrection in Eastern Ukraine, ending Kiev’s hopes for a peaceful reorientation westward.

Now the Russian Bear has its eyes locked on the vulnerable Baltic countries and former Soviet satellites of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Because they are the kind of small and weak neighbors that Putin believes it is a Russian birthright to dominate, the NATO membership of these Baltic countries especially grates. When Estonia had the gall to relocate a statue of a Soviet soldier in 2007, Moscow thus launched a massive cyber-attack that crippled the tiny country’s critical infrastructure for weeks. In 2014, President Barack Obama visited Estonia to calm the nerves of its leaders in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Just two days after Air Force One departed Estonian airspace, Russian forces attacked an Estonian border post, crossed into Estonian territory, and kidnapped one of its counter-intelligence officers, who was subjected to a show trial. Putin’s message about the relative balance of military forces in Eastern Europe, and the still potent power of geography, was received loud and clear in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

After its recent Warsaw Summit, NATO announced that it will forward deploy four battalions to the front-line member states of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. This rekindling of the Cold War concept of deterrence is long overdue, but a few thousand NATO troops would serve only as the merest trip-wire if Russian forces actually chose to invade. The only real deterrence is NATO’s ironclad commitment that such an attack would be treated as an attack on the entire alliance. As Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump has just undermined that pledge.

Some experts will argue that Vladimir Putin would never send his “little green men” into a NATO country and risk World War III, just because a new, untested American president had voiced skepticism about Article 5 during the campaign. They are probably right. But bloody wars have started over misunderstandings of commitment in the past. After the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein in 1990 that the United States had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” the Iraqi dictator interpreted that as a green light to invade, precipitating the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in 1950 describing America's "defense perimeter" in the Pacific and Far East, and left out South Korea, North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung similarly interpreted it as a sign that the United States would not interfere in an inter-Korean conflict. He launched the invasion that precipitated the Korean War that same year.

In Vladimir Putin’s zero-sum worldview, any setback for the Western alliance – the Brexit vote, an anti-immigrant backlash, the rise of rightwing populist movements across the European continent – represent a net plus for Russia. The former KGB officer has a keen sense of weakness, and in Republican nominee Donald Trump’s rhetoric supporting many of these developments and questioning the foundation of the transatlantic alliance, he inevitably smells opportunity. By leaking the DNC’s emails on the eve of the convention, the Russian strongman is almost certainly trying to seize it.