Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was widely derided in the U.S. and Europe as a public relations disaster with dire implications for the geopolitical world order.
Yes, Putin came away looking better than the U.S. president. But there’s no point in letting the event’s admittedly bad optics overshadow the substance of the thing itself.
Europeans fretted about the end of NATO. But seen from Moscow, the military alliance still appears to be very much alive. Trump’s harsh words to his allies on spending haven’t changed that. Russia is all too aware that the alliance is focused on its eastern flank, and not only rhetorically. Since it rediscovered Russia as a threat in 2014, there have been new deployments, a higher degree of mobility, and more military exercises along the Russian border, from the Barents to the Black Seas. Hardly a boon for Russia.
It was clear at last week’s NATO summit that allies agree on the need to upgrade the bloc’s military efforts. Germany, Italy, France, the U.S. — they all agree members’ defense spending should go up. Whether by 2 percent of GDP as agreed in Wales, or by 4 percent as now demanded by Trump, is, of course, important. However, with Russia’s GDP often likened to that of Spain, or the state of New York, either figure is considered significant in Moscow, given that the money will be spent with Russia in mind.
NATO allies also worry about Trump’s comment this week that it is problematic for the U.S. to come to the defense of smaller NATO allies such as Montenegro. But let’s not forget that at the height of the Cold War it was never 100 percent certain what the U.S. would do in case of an attack on West Germany. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt would not have asked for U.S. medium-range missiles in Europe in the 1970s had he had full confidence in NATO’s largest member. Nor is NATO enlargement off the table completely. Macedonia has just crossed a major hurdle in its push for membership.
Predictions that Trump would recognize Crimea at the Helsinki meeting were also overblown. There was never any question of the U.S. accepting Crimea’s status as part of Russia, or Washington leaning on Kiev to fulfill its side of the Minsk II accords. In Helsinki, Trump and Putin simply acknowledged the issue, and moved on. The U.S. continues to support both Ukraine and Georgia in their conflicts with Russia and to promote their eventual membership in NATO, which most in the West privately regard as increasingly dangerous.
NATO is still very much exerting pressure on Russia. It’s considered more of an annoyance than an immediate threat in Moscow, but also keeps the country in permanent “war mode” vis-à-vis the U.S. Because Moscow is focused on Washington, this means Europeans usually get a pass.
As for Russia’s own intentions, two things are clear. There is no interest in Moscow in attacking the Baltic states or Poland. These countries are as safe now as they were before 2014. Suggestions otherwise simply point to the deep wounds in both nations’ psyche, which will not be healed for many decades.
Should Ukraine’s leaders decide to repeat Mikheil Saakashvili’s mistake in 2008 and launch a major offensive to retake Donbas — however unlikely — the Russian response could indeed be devastating and lead to Ukraine’s loss of sovereignty, as Putin recently stated. But does this mean Russia will move on Ukraine unprovoked? Most certainly not.
Putin’s main concerns are largely domestic. He has an ambitious program that logically calls for more economic ties with the West. To move forward, he is looking to ease tensions with the EU and the U.S. What Putin wanted to get out of Helsinki was mainly to start a dialogue with Washington.
Those hopes are now visibly going up in smoke. It is safe to bet that Russia will continue to face the same opposition from a coalition of U.S. and EU interests.
The first détente in the hybrid war between Russia and the West was indeed nipped in the bud by Trump’s behavior and the vehemence of his domestic critics. So be it.
Moscow will not capitulate, and will indeed push back. But it’s not likely to take the form of an aggressive, overt military attack. Fears of new wars are far from accurate.
Moscow’s strategy should now be one of patience, leaving America and Europe to their own devices and focusing on relations with countries far more relevant to its future: Asia and the Middle East.