Central Europe’s Uncertain Future

Donald Trump’s Praise for Vladimir Putin Should Worry the Region’s Liberals

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a joint news conference outside Moscow, February 2016. Maxim Shipenkov / REUTERS

The worst-case scenario for central Europe once Donald Trump assumes the U.S. presidency would look something like the following: after questioning the future of NATO and continuing his campaign-season praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Trump declares a lack of interest in what Russia is doing west of its borders and accepts an offer by Putin to set up a new Yalta-esque geopolitical tradeoff. As with the Soviet Union in 1945, Russia would be given effective control of the eastern part of Europe. Putin would then have free rein in the rest of Ukraine (under whatever pretext he chooses), the Baltic states (justified by the need to save Russian minorities from alleged persecutions), and possibly Poland—all with the tacit blessing of the United States. 

Is such a worst-case scenario ever likely to happen? Trump’s fawning comments about Putin surely present cause for concern. Yet both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations began their time in office with overtures to Moscow. In 2001, Bush famously relayed how he looked Putin in the eyes and found him “very straightforward and trustworthy.” After U.S.-Russian relations soured at the end of Bush’s second term, Obama began his presidency with an offer to “reset” the relationship. Neither could prevent Russia from changing borders in Europe, first in northern Georgia in what turned out to be the first European war of the twenty-first century, in 2008, then in southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, in 2014. Thus both Bush and Obama ended their White House tenures disillusioned about negotiating with Putin.

In Trump’s case, the pattern may well hold. The fundamental question is how far he will go in his initial rapprochement with Putin. The map of central Europe in 2020 may depend on that. 


Central Europe, the group of countries east of Germany that joined the European Union between 2004 and 2007, has long been positively disposed toward the United States. Under the leadership of U.S. President

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