The Hotline: July 2018

By Lincoln Pigman

US President Donald Trump’s controversial performances at various summits in July—the NATO summit in Brussels and Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki—have been widely hailed as victories for Russia. But while the optics of a divided transatlantic alliance certainly favor Russia, Trump’s actions have and will continue to undercut Russia’s interests in significant ways.

Trump’s open attacks on both individual NATO allies and the transatlantic alliance benefit Moscow by straining Washington’s relations with its European (and Canadian) partners. The deterioration of transatlantic relations has far-reaching consequences for the coordination of policy that extend to issues not overtly related to burden-sharing among NATO allies, which Trump is determined to make more equitable. Consider Europe’s continued consumption of Russian gas. Germany will feel political pressure over any decision to proceed with Nord Stream II’s construction given the harsh rhetoric of a US president, whom German voters consider to be less competent and a greater threat to international security than his Russian counterpart.

However, even if US and European approaches to countering Russia diverge over time as a result of Trump’s behavior, this will not necessarily see Europe soften its overall stance towards Russia. Moscow’s recent break with Athens – widely recognized as one of the EU’s most Russia-friendly governments – demonstrates that Europe has and will continue to have its own reasons to push back against Russia’s malign activities, regardless of the US’s stance on and willingness to confront Russia.

Trump’s behavior aside, this year’s NATO summit was disappointing for Russia’s neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, whose determination to join NATO has fueled conflict with Russia since the turn of the century. Kiev achieved little at the summit and was denied a NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting by Budapest. Hungary fiercely opposes the passage of a controversial Ukrainian language law, and its decision to derail Ukraine’s push for a place in the spotlight in Brussels reflected its strategy of holding Ukraine’s EU and NATO aspirations hostage in order to secure concessions for ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. That said, Georgia and Ukraine did not anticipate a breakthrough to occur this summer—nor should they have. Among NATO member-states a consensus on their accession remains a distant dream, an obstacle that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently acknowledged.

Yet, Russia should not get ahead of itself when it comes to Trump’s impact on NATO. By advocating fairer burden sharing, Trump is essentially if ineptly advancing a vision of a stronger NATO. Should he succeed in pushing NATO allies to spend more on defense, it will clearly not be in the service of Russia’s interests, something Moscow would have done well to keep in mind during its first exercise in Schadenfreude of the month.

Plus, even if Trump fails to mold NATO in his preferred image, his rhetorical assaults on the alliance—from its key principles to individual allies—cause the Democratic Party to further consolidate its pro-NATO stance. Since the 2016 presidential election, which exposed an internal rift over foreign affairs, the Democratic Party has largely defined its foreign policy platform in opposition to Trump’s own views. Accordingly, between 2016 and 2018, support for NATO among Democrats increased from 58 percent to 78 percent, a staggering 20-point difference. This, on top of Democrats’ transformation into what Micah Zenko has called the ‘anti-Russia party’. Sooner or later, Russia will have to reckon with these shifts—whether because of Democratic gains in the upcoming mid-term elections or a Democratic victory in the next presidential election.

That same dynamic—Trump embarrassing his country’s allies, its bureaucracy and his fellow Republicans to boot, ostensibly to Russia’s advantage, only to generate problems for Russia in the mid- to long-term—was visible in Helsinki. On the one hand, Russia was left to shape the narrative surrounding the Helsinki Summit on its own, as President Trump declined to provide details on what occurred behind closed doors to both government officials and journalists. The humiliation that Americans officials and lawmakers experienced as Russia singlehandedly decided what information to release only reinforced the anti-Russian feeling that the Helsinki Summit unleashed in the US.

The backlash to Trump’s overtures to Putin has taken on a number of forms, from increasingly vocal charges of treason being directed at Trump to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee publicly interrogating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to members of Congress proposing new measures against Russia. As Aaron Schwartzbaum has noted for BMB Russia, a fresh round of sanctions promises to inflict economic pain on Russia, generating further uncertainty and obstructing economic growth. All this leaves Russia facing concrete—and credible—threats and without any concrete concessions to show for its travails. The unfavorable outcomes of the Helsinki summit for Moscow have been obscured by Trump’s controversial remarks about Russian interference in US elections.

Does Russia seek to reduce US politics to chaos, or does it wish to lay the groundwork for a lasting Russian-American détente? Although it is up for debate, neither answer casts the Helsinki Summit as a resounding win for Moscow. Even if the Kremlin derives pleasure from instigating a political civil war in Washington, the costs in the long run of such a policy are certain to exceed the benefits. And if Russia does, in fact, desire the resumption of bilateral cooperation on issues of mutual concern, from strategic stability to Syria’s post-war future, its overtures to Trump have left the White House further constrained by a furious Congress and increasingly powerless to improve Russian-American relations.

That may be why Russia tentatively rejected the idea of taking part in a second presidential summit in 2018. Moscow’s abrupt change of heart may reflect its belated realization that Trump is too constrained to offer Putin significant concessions. As Anatoly Antonov, Moscow’s man in Washington, said at a post-summit debriefing in late July, it is not the number of summits held that matters but rather their substance. After the failure of Putin’s first full-fledged meeting with Trump, Putin may be taking his own advice and pursuing a “more … rational” foreign policy that prioritizes concrete results over intangible dividends. But with US opposition to reconciliation increasingly visible on both sides of the aisle, Putin should expect acutely painful setbacks, not lasting and meaningful gains.

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