Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a joint news conference outside Moscow, February 2016.
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 LOOKS WEST 

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 Ronald Reagan, the United States played an active role in supporting anticommunist opposition in almost all these states and took an increasingly hard line against their communist governments. Following the rise of democracy and the free market in the region in 1989, U.S. President Bill Clinton promoted NATO expansion in central Europe in the 1990s, marking its complete separation from the Eastern Bloc. Bush, confronted with 9/11, viewed central Europe as a new and reliable ally in the struggle against global terrorism and antidemocratic backsliding in many post-Soviet states.

During Obama’s first term, central Europe was considered a safe and peaceful region facing no real security threats; it could therefore take care of itself. As Vice President Joe Biden put it in a 2009 speech in Bucharest: “In America, we no longer think in terms of what we can do for central Europe but, rather, in terms of what we can do with central Europe.” Two years later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates commented that the time had come for all Europe to invest in its own defense.

But in 2014, the war in Ukraine put the region back on the map again. As the eastern flank of both the EU and NATO, central European countries fear Russian aggression. This is true especially for the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—former Soviet republics bordering Russian territory, each with a significant Russian minority population. And they are right to be nervous; according to the 2014 and 2015 war-game reports prepared by the RAND Corporation, Russian tanks could reach the outskirts of the Latvian and Estonian capitals in as few as 36 hours. Meanwhile, Poland is disturbed by Putin’s transfer of nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to the Kaliningrad oblast, a neighboring Russian federal subject located on the coast of the Baltic Sea, as well as by growing military expenditures in the planned 2017 Russian budget (30.4 percent). 

Russian tanks could reach the outskirts of the Latvian and Estonian capitals in as few as 36 hours.

In truth, Russia has never accepted central Europe’s westward turn. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry once noted, current Russian leadership tends to think about geopolitics through a nineteenth-century lens, with a focus on increasing Russia’s military power and sphere of influence. Moscow still considers these central European countries as falling under its purview, something Obama came to understand only at the end of his tenure. In response, he quadrupled military spending in Europe in his final budget and backed deploying four NATO battalions totaling 3,000 to 4,000 troops on a rotating basis to the Baltic states and eastern Poland, as well as of expanding U.S. military infrastructure in Poland and Romania (the SM-3 missile launcher bases). 

THE TRUMP FACTOR

Donald Trump at a campaign event in North Carolina, November 2016.
Donald Trump at a campaign event in North Carolina, November 2016. 
Carlo Allegri / REUTERS

Trump will likely propose his own reset to Putin, one that may even entail lifting sanctions. That gesture wouldn’t be disturbing in and of itself—again, Bush and Obama made similar overtures. But the level of rhetorical praise Trump has heaped on Putin thus far suggests that the next reset may not be just a short prelude to yet another wake-up, but rather it could come to define U.S. foreign policy for Trump’s full time in office. Consider Trump’s referring to Ukraine as a “mess” and openly questioning American commitments to NATO. Consider also his advisor Newt Gingrich’s referring to Estonia as “the suburbs of St. Petersburg” and questioning the need of NATO to defend it from invasion, his former adviser Carter Page’s ties to Russian energy giant Gazprom, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s ties to Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s deposed pro-Russian president. All of this leaves many central Europeans worried that the newly elected U.S. president will sell them out to Russia.

The curious paradox is that it has traditionally been the Republicans who have viewed rapprochement with Russia in a skeptical light and demonstrated stronger willingness to support their central European allies. In that way, Trump will have to contend with the positions of U.S. congressional Republicans (for instance, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz.), where he faces some opposition.

FACING UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS 

Aside from Hungary’s illiberal and Putin-admiring Viktor Orbán, who supported Trump from early on in hope of stopping the unprecedented level of harsh criticism directed at his regime from Washington under Obama, very few of central Europe’s leaders seem to fathom the gravity of Trump’s election. The fact that he has been utterly incoherent on almost every single foreign-policy issue means no one knows precisely what he will do once in office. Trump is as likely to usher in the end of NATO as he is to be the most hawkish U.S. president of the twenty-first century to date. With this unpredictability in mind, central Europe and the continent at large would do well to prepare itself to handle ever more of its own security, and anticipate the prospect of soon living in a post-American world, following the popular saying: Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Trump’s victory should thus speed up plans for EU defense integration and for the EU to strengthen aid to Ukraine.

The fact that Trump has been utterly incoherent on almost every single foreign-policy issue means no one knows precisely what he will do once in office.

Given Trump’s ignorance of what is going on in the world, it is important for central Europeans to fight for his attention and to remind him that isolationism has never ended well for either the United States or the world at large. They should also make clear that Estonia and Poland have been leading the way for NATO members to meet defense spending goals, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia planning to increase their defense spending next year.

Currently, relations between the United States and central Europe are strong: support for the United States in the region has maintained its traditionally high level, with Poland (74 percent in favor) as a current leader. Bearing that in mind, central European leaders must stress that U.S. credibility is at stake. If Trump chooses the role of Putin’s enabler, it will damage the image of the United States in those countries for decades. 

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  • DARIUSZ KALAN is a central Europe correspondent, political analyst, and the 2014 Kosciuszko Foundation Fellow at the Edward A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He has written for The National Interest and Prospect Magazine, among other publications.

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