Trump, Russia and the NATO alliance

President Donald Trump wants to (1) force European allies to commit to more than double their military spending to meet the Russian threat and (2) engage in peace negotiations with Vladimir Putin without consulting European allies.

On the one hand, Russia is a menace that the NATO allies must unite against.  On the other hand, Russia is a normal country with which normal negotiations are possible.  And, by the way, U.S. dealings with Russia are no business of our European allies.  So which is it?

Donald Trump

President Trump presents himself as a master negotiator, but he weakened his negotiating position by advertising and widening the divisions in the Western alliance.   I can’t tell what his objectives are, or even if he has specific objectives.

My best guess is that the Putin-Trump talks, like the Trump-Kim Jong-un talks, will end in vague generalities that each side will interpret differently.  Trump’s erratic behavior frightened the South Korean government into talking with North Korea on its own.  Maybe his current behavior will be to frighten the European nations into making their own agreement with Russia.

That’s not to say that a summit meeting with President Putin is a bad idea.  It is just that Trump by his actions has shown that he can’t conduct normal diplomacy.

So what should U.S. policy toward Russia be?  The most important fact about Russia is that it is the only nation with enough nuclear weapons and missiles to destroy the United States.  To be sure, this would involve the destruction of Russia itself.

So American leaders should avoid backing Russia leaders into a position where they might think they have nothing to lose, or in which a nuclear war could be triggered accidentally.

The missile defense systems put in place by the U.S. in Poland and Romania, and the deployment of nuclear missiles to the borders of Russia, gave the Russian leaders reason to think that the U.S. was planning a nuclear first strike.  Their response has been to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons with which they could strike the United States.

The aim of negotiations should be to reduce the nuclear threat on both sides.  I don’t think President Trump understands this issue, and he has surrounded himself with war hawks such as John Bolton who see no point in negotiation.  This is dangerous for both sides.  We need new negotiations to wind down the nuclear threat.

It was unwise to expand NATO to include former Soviet satellites and even nations that were part of the old Soviet Union.  Continued expansion of NATO adds nothing to U.S. or European security.

Nevertheless the U.S. government has made a commitment to defend its new eastern European allies.  It would be dishonorable to abandon them at this point.  This is includes the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were part of the old Soviet Union and whose independence is most threatened by Russia today.  Their governments have made a decision not to submit to Russia, based on American promises.  It would be dishonorable to abandon them at this point.

Vladimir Putin

The most that the U.S. can promise Russia is a guarantee that eastern European countries will not be used to launch an attack on Russia.

President Trump criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel for agreeing to a new natural gas pipeline from Russia.  He said Germany can’t treat Russia both as an enemy and as a supplier of a vital resource.  If I were Merkel, I would say that is an argument against treating Russia as an enemy.

Russia and Germany are natural economic partners—Russia selling gas and oil and Germany selling industrial products.  Sanctions against Russia hurt both countries.  Sanctions have driven Russia into the arms of China.  If the U.S. government regards China as its chief opponent, logic says it ought to be trying to pull Russia (and also North Korea) away from China, not driving them together.

Another area of conflict is over Russian policy in Ukraine.  I don’t think Putin can be pressured into giving up the Russian naval base in Crimea or support of the Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.  I think he would regard bringing Ukraine into NATO as an existential threat, as the introduction of Soviet nuclear missiles into Cuba in 1962 was a threat to the United States.  The best thing for the United States is to leave the Ukrainian question to Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.

Vladimir Putin is not a nice person.  He is devious and ruthless.  But he is effective in standing up for Russian national interests.  These interests do not conflict with the vital national interests of the United States.  There is no good reason for a continuing cold war with Russia.


Trump, NATO and Russian ‘aggression’ by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

Trump and Putin meet under a nuclear cloud by Grace Vedock for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

‘They Will Die in Tallinn’: Estonia Girds for War With Russia by Molly K. McKew for POLITICO magazine.

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4 Responses to “Trump, Russia and the NATO alliance”

  1. whungerford Says:

    If we could have better relations with Russia on honorable terms, that would be good. If that is our goal, the State Department, Congress, and allied governments should be involved; the idea that one person, the President, can arrange this single-handedly in a meeting with V. Putin is folly.

    I agree that It was unwise to expand NATO to include former Soviet satellites and nations that were part of the Soviet Union. The security of those nations depends on maintaining good relations with Russia. Not threatening Russia may be good policy, but it is no guarantee that Russia won’t be aggressive.


  2. whungerford Says:

    I don’t agree at all with the article on Estonia cited–Estonia’s interest is in non-violence–see the movie “singing revolution,” not in confrontation with Russia.


  3. whungerford Says:

    If Estonia seeks to determine it’s future with violence it will fail. If it continues to act wisely, it may succeed. (I am the husband of an Estonian who may or may not share my views.)


  4. whungerford Says:

    What happened to the link Phil posted? Here is is again:


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