Headlines such as “Trump calls NATO obsolete,” “Trump bashes allies,” and “Trump says Putin meeting easiest” fuel speculation that the U.S. is on the verge of abandoning its traditional allies in Europe in favor of an improved relationship with Russia. Of course, President Donald Trump’s own inflammatory comments are the source of much of this speculation, particularly his solicitousness towards Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit that sparked outrage among even his Republican allies for his acceptance of Putin’s denial of Russian interference in U.S. elections. Yet, the actions of the current administration speak to a very different reality. Rather than weakening, the U.S. military commitment to Europe has actually increased during Trump’s presidency in ways that send direct signals to Russia and limit potential Russian involvement in Europe.
Despite the harsh tweets and awkward summit meetings, the U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe from Russian action has undeniably strengthened over the past two years. This can be seen in personnel choices for key positions in the administration, an increased American military presence and specific capabilities in the region, and energy development in the U.S. that undercuts Russia’s leverage in Europe. Developments in any one of these areas could be dismissed as coincidental, but there is a distinct pattern emerging that demonstrates a coordinated effort to boost American deterrent power in the most vulnerable parts of Europe.
The Trump administration’s personnel choices show a strong preference for policy professionals known for their firm approach toward Russia. National Security Advisor John Bolton is known for his abrasive comments about Iran and North Korea, but Bolton often reserves his harshest comments for Russia and Vladimir Putin. In recent years, Bolton has referred to Putin as a habitual liar, arguing in 2017 that, “for Trump it should be a highly salutary lesson about the character of Russia’s leadership to watch Putin lie to him. And it should be a fire-bell-in-the-night warning about the value Moscow places on honesty…negotiate with Russia at your peril.” Bolton consistently argues for a harder line on Russia and sanctions that would affect the Russian elite.
Kay Bailey Hutchison was selected by the Trump administration as the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO. As a Senator, Hutchison was a strong supporter of the Alliance, and she did not shy away from calling out Russia for its actions to destabilize Europe at her confirmation hearing. “Russian disinformation campaigns and malign influence activities targeting NATO Allies and Partners,” said Hutchison, “seek to undermine Western democratic institutions and principles, and sow disunity in longstanding transatlantic bonds.” Nothing in her actions as Ambassador suggest anything other than a firm U.S. commitment to the Alliance and skepticism that Russia can be brought into a productive relationship in the near future.
The Trump administration placed Jakub Grygiel on the Policy Planning staff at the State Department and nominated A. Wess Mitchell as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, two key positions for shaping transatlantic policy. Grygiel and Mitchell are known for their 2016 book The Unquiet Frontier, a volume that was highly critical of what they viewed as an overly accommodating policy of Russia during the Obama administration. Grygiel and Mitchell advocate a policy that bolsters the Alliance network in Central and Eastern Europe, where it is most subject to Russia’s probing.
The point here is not to catalog the statements of every official involved in the transatlantic security relationship, but rather to underscore that the personnel choices reflect a distinct worldview that sees Russia as a strategic competitor in Europe that must be deterred. It views the American alliance system and the U.S. commitment to its most vulnerable members as critical to American credibility. The Trump administration could have filled these positions with individuals representing a worldview of realist restraint, or of greater accommodation of Russian interests in Europe. Instead, the president turned to a group of policy professionals that are known for their hawkish views on Russia and their commitment to the U.S.-led alliance system in Europe.
Personnel choices mean little unless those advisors’ recommendations are acted upon. Since the start of the Trump administration, the U.S. has both doubled down on the Obama administration’s policy to reinforce the Baltic states and increased the U.S. presence in Ukraine. The U.S. military presence in the Baltic states is part of the European Reassurance Initiative to bolster the defense of the most exposed members of the Alliance. Each Baltic state and Poland has a brigade of Allied forces stationed in it with the U.S. taking the lead role in Poland. This is a continuation of a policy begun under President Obama, but the U.S. has bolstered its commitment under President Trump. First, the U.S. sent special forces trainers to work with Baltic troops on guerrilla warfare techniques in March 2018. This took place during a scheduled exercise focused on more conventional tactics and was a clear indication to Russia that even a rapid conventional military victory in the Baltic states would not be the end of the conflict. Second, the U.S. is boosting its conventional power in the region. In May 2018, the U.S. tested its ability to rapidly move heavy military equipment into Europe with a massive movement of 87 Abrams tanks and more than 500 other armored vehicles. But in probably the clearest message to Russia, the U.S. began to openly consider deploying a carrier strike group in the Mediterranean Sea as a specific deterrent to Russia that would free other U.S. Navy vessels to patrol the Baltic and Black Seas.
The U.S. also increased its presence in, and military assistance to, Ukraine. The sale of lethal arms including Javelin anti-tank missiles beginning in 2017 is a significant change from the Obama administration policy that denied Ukraine such assistance. In addition, the U.S. began building a maritime operations center in 2017 on the Black Sea coast in Ochakiv, Ukraine. The official purpose of the operations center is to “maximize European reassurance initiatives” and “deliver flexible maritime capabilities through the full range of military operations.” Building such a facility as close as possible to the contested Crimea and the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet surely did not go unnoticed in Moscow.
In addition, the U.S. sent a strong signal to Russia in Syria about its willingness to use force in a confrontation with Russian military contractors in February 2018. A key part of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is the use of non-uniformed military personnel in eastern Ukraine that allows Russia to deny its military is engaged in the conflict. Similarly, the Russian government often uses “contractors” in Syria as part of their effort to militarily assist the Bashar al-Assad regime. When U.S. special forces found themselves and their Syrian allies being advanced upon by a column of Russian contract soldiers, they issued a warning as per the agreed upon deconfliction policy. When the column continued its advance, U.S. forces killed and wounded approximately 300 Russian contractors. The message cannot be mistaken in Moscow: if its “little green men” come in contact with U.S. forces in Ukraine, the Baltic states, or elsewhere, the results may be deadly.
The U.S. is also undercutting Russian influence in Europe through its gas exports. The American gas boom began under the previous administration, but it has increased with the Trump administration’s emphasis on “energy dominance.” With the construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bulgaria, the mix of gas sources in Europe is changing. American gas exports to Europe are likely to remain a relatively small part of European consumption, but American natural gas production has driven the global price down to low levels that cut into the profits of the major Russian gas export company, which is seen as a “piggy bank” for Kremlin activities. Gazprom maintains its grip on European markets, but its ability to raise prices for political purposes is hamstrung by the effects of American gas production and exports that set an effective ceiling on prices. If Gazprom were to play an aggressive game in the future that looked anything like the gas wars of the mid 2000s, the result would be to make U.S. (and other) LNG sources much more competitive in the European market and reduce Russian market share. The amount of American gas entering Europe is small, but the reduction of Russian leverage it creates is disproportionately large.
The core of the transatlantic security relationship will remain strong, not because of sentiment or vague commitments to shared values, but because of mutual national interests. For the U.S., blunting Russia in Europe is a key priority as defined by the National Defense Strategy set forth under the Trump administration. That strategy could have gone in other directions, defining security and the national interest in terms of other priorities put forward by the administration such as checking illegal immigration or defeating radical Islamist terrorist groups. Instead, the key points are about reorienting the use of American military power to counter the influence of strategic competitors, especially Russia and China.
Rather than hanging on every tweet from President Trump, his rhetorical bombast should be understood for what it is: part of a negotiating strategy to bring the administration closer to its goals. In terms of Europe and the transatlantic relationship, those goals are relatively consistent with those of previous administrations despite the vast differences in style. Once again, the National Security Strategy is very clear as to what the U.S. perceives as the main dangers to itself and global order, and a robust defense of Europe from Russian interference is plainly stated as a main priority.
Thus, the U.S. will remain involved in the defense of Europe, but the administration clearly wants Europe to do more to defend itself from Russian involvement and other potential threats such as those emanating from the southern frontier of the region. This is nothing new, and the Obama administration pushed for the same thing. At least on paper, this is also what many U.S. allies in Europe claim to want as well. There is an opportunity to forge a new strategic relationship that recognizes the differences in interests, but also the common interest in blocking Russian influence in Europe. What might emerge is a somewhat more balanced relationship that finally allows Europe more independent influence in the international environment but retains a strong transatlantic link based on minimizing Russian disruption of the region. Provided that this does not lead to weakness that can exploited by Russia—and the increased U.S. military commitment to Europe is aimed at preventing that—this is a moment to forge a new relationship that would suit both long-term U.S. and EU objectives, as well as bring NATO back to its original purpose. To get there, however, we need to collectively move beyond an obsession with Trump’s seeming inability to play according to the rules of diplomatic behavior.