President Trump’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization visit caused quite a stir. He rebuffed the Europeans and Canadians for their lack of will to spend even the minimum of what they pledged on defense.
Beleaguered German Prime Minister Angela Merkel was rebuked for working back-channel deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin to purchase 69 percent of her nation’s energy needs from Russia. This makes Germany the Achilles heel of the alliance. While other nations such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are working hard to get off Russian oil and gas, Germany is becoming addicted to it.
Finally, Trump admonished the NATO alliance for taking advantage of America’s generosity and goodwill in defending them by creating socialist utopias on the backs of the American taxpayers. The president’s comments regarding many of the NATO member states are justified. The strategic environment in Europe changed abruptly in 2014 when Putin began his four-year war against Ukraine.
Although all of the NATO members pledged to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, few have achieved that goal. This shortcoming includes several of the economically prosperous nations, such as Germany, Canada and France. The United States has been very patient, perhaps too patient on this issue, especially when Germany’s Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau have no misgivings about shamelessly ranting against American foreign policy.
Vladimir Putin’s Series of Escalating Aggressions
Now it’s Putin’s turn. His rise as the uncontested leader of Russia has unleashed a troubling reactionary ethno-centric nationalism. This included glorifying even the dark days of the Soviet Empire and doing all that could be to raise Russia back to an important international player.
The first manifestation of Russia’s growing hostility towards NATO and NATO-inclined nations began in 2007 when Moscow unleashed a crippling cyber-attack against Estonia. This was punishment for moving a Soviet-era memorial located in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. This was followed in 2008 by a devastating Russian attack on Georgia, resulting in the complete loss of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But not until 2014 did NATO begin to dispel its fantasy of a post-Cold War world with a friendly and cooperative Russia. That year, the pro-Moscow government was replaced by a pro-western one. Fearing the loss of its strategically vital Black Sea ports, Putin unleashed his army. So-called “little green men” appeared across Crimea and, without firing a shot, seized this Ukrainian territory.
At first Putin denied that these “little green men” were Russian troops. This flabbergasted the weak President Obama and feckless European leaders, who dithered about what to do. Putin then quickly annexed Crimea, declaring that it was his duty to protect ethnic Russians wherever they live. Not since Adolf Hitler’s 1938 Sudetenland speech did a leader declare such a policy in the continent.
This was followed quickly by a Moscow-orchestrated “ethnic Russian” uprising in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk). The war has been raging now for four years with no resolution or abatement in sight. The Kremlin’s new adaptive approach is what I call the “Strategy of Ambiguity.”
Moscow’s Strategy of Ambiguity
The “Strategy of Ambiguity” exploits the advantage Moscow has with any ethnic Russian population residing in neighboring countries. It practice, this begins with Russian special forces and intelligence officers appearing in ethnic Russian enclaves in neighboring countries, dressed as civilians and endeavoring to export an uprising to destabilize and area.
The purpose of this ambiguity is to avoid a direct confrontation with NATO. Should NATO uncharacteristically quickly respond to such a threat, Putin has plausible deniability and simply walks back from a potential clash with the West. He used such a cloak of ambiguity to confound North American and European decision makers regarding Ukraine.
Should the NATO alliance get caught up in endless debates and inaction, it would then be time to turn up the heat with a “local” and “civilian” proxy takeover of the enclave that would eventually appeal to Moscow to send in its army to help the besieged ethnic Russian populace.
At risk for such a Moscow-inspired “attack” are the NATO Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three have a border with Russia, with Estonia and Latvia including a sizeable ethnic Russian population living in their nations.
Compounding matters is their geography. The so called “unsinkable Russian aircraft carrier” of Kaliningrad sits astride Lithuania and Poland and is positioned to make air and sea reinforcement of the Baltic nations difficult, if not impossible, with its advanced weaponry. This leaves a narrow land corridor only 60 miles wide connecting Poland to the region. Called the Suwalki Gap, this area is of vital strategic importance should war come to the area.
How This All Bears on Trump’s Meeting with Putin
President Trump’s first meeting with Putin was designed to begin healing of some of the issues standing between the Russian Federation and the United States. Putin may have captured the essence of the Democrat Party’s unusual hostility towards Moscow by rebuffing them for trying to implicate Russia in a domestic internal power struggle.
This seems to be the rub for the American Left. Despite the hand-wringing and remonstrations about what President Trump did and did not say to Putin, there is much to contend with between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Sadly, the ongoing Mueller investigation and its ill-timed indictments of 12 Russian operatives shifted focus from more pressing issues concerning American relations with Russia.
One of the most important issues that should be addressed is regional security in Europe. President Trump should make clear that, although the United States has concerns with NATO, America stands by its commitment to Article 5 (an attack upon one is an attack upon all). Putin needs to understand that no infringement of NATO nations will be tolerated and that the Kremlin’s propaganda blitz directed toward the Russian diaspora living in the Baltics must end.
What Else the Administration Should Do about Russia
Additionally, Moscow’s war against Ukraine must end, with a return of Crimea to Kiev. Trump should also announce a modest increase to the American force posture in Northern Europe to back up his commitment with action, fulfilling his policy of peace through strength. The current rotational force levels are woefully inadequate to serve as a deterrent against Putin-inspired adventurism in the Baltic States.
As one Estonian official told me, 300 American soldiers in the Baltics are worth more than 30,000 in Germany. Russia has a long history of attacking weak nations, and Putin must understand that he can’t meddle or intervene in any NATO country, especially Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Kremlin perceiving a misstep or perceived weakness in the NATO alliance could have catastrophic consequences. A moderately stronger forward U.S. troop presence in the Baltics would go far to draw a line in the sand against any foolish notions that Putin may entertain.
If anything, the lessons of history are clear: weakness results in war, while strength and resolve leads to peace. We have a president who speaks the hard truth to advance an America First agenda. Peace and stability in Europe are in the interests of the United States.
Yes, the allies must do much more to share the burden of defense. Yes, the allies must renegotiate one-sided trade deals that rob American wealth. And yes, American prestige is on the line should Putin attempt to undermine the NATO alliance with a risky move. Reaffirming the American commitment to Article 5 of the Washington treaty would go a long way to send a clear message to Putin that he must not meddle with our allies in Europe.