Russian President Vladimir Putin is gaining a political edge in Europe, thanks in large part to President Donald Trump, a recently retired US Army commander in Europe told Business Insider.
To recap all the recent tumult: Trump began a NATO summit earlier this month with more criticism of the alliance, calling Germany a “captive of Russia” and saying other countries were “delinquent” in their defense spending. He ended it by demanding NATO members increase their defense budgets to 2% of GDP by January, six years ahead of the agreed-upon deadline.
He followed the NATO summit by meeting with Putin in Helsinki. What was discussed in the meeting remains largely unclear, but in a press conference afterward Trump discounted US intelligence agencies’ determination that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Hours later he appeared to cast doubt on his commitment to the collective-security agreement that underpins NATO by suggesting Montenegro, NATO’s newest member, could drag the alliance into war.
Trump’s apparent indifference, and at times hostility, toward NATO undercuts US leadership of a defense alliance that Washington helped form after World War II — and it strengthens Putin’s hand, according to former Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who headed the US Army in Europe before retiring at the end of 2017.
“Right now, the fact that the American leadership of the alliance, at least at the presidential level, is in question, that’s a huge vulnerability,” said Hodges, a West Point graduate and infantry officer who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan during his 38-year Army career. “I mean, in all my Army life, I’ve never even imagined an American president not being 100% committed.”
Putin, “because he wants to reestablish a world order where Russia is once again a great power, he has to undermine NATO, and he has to undermine the European Union, and he does that by sowing distrust and creating or exploiting divisions between the nations, causing us to lose confidence in our institutions,” added Hodges, who is now the Pershing chair in strategic studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC.
A president or senior official suggesting that the US was not committed to the defense of a fellow NATO member “is like a gift to President Putin,” Hodges said, adding that the Russian leader likely “now feels emboldened that he can put more pressure on Baltic countries or certainly on Ukraine and other places like that.”
Trump’s wavering stance on Russian interference in the most recent US presidential election may stem in part from concerns that admitting it occurred could undermine his victory. But the US is far from the only country in which Russia has sought to influence national leadership.
Under Putin, Russia has extended assistance in the form of cooperation, loans, propaganda, and political support to parties on the far-right and those that are skeptical of the European Union. In addition to Euroskepticism, such parties tend to back tough law-and-order policies and oppose immigration, as well as supporting Russian policies or the Russian government.
That assistance appears to have been extended across the continent, including in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Russia is also believed to have supported Catalan separatists in Spain and pro-Brexit campaigners in the UK.
Hodges pointed specifically to misinformation campaigns as one method of Russian interference.
“Anybody that’s paid any attention to Russia knows that this is how they operate,” he said. “Open societies are always going to be a little bit vulnerable to that, and so … societies have to be very resilient in order to resist the constant barrage of lies that come out of Russia at all levels.”
US leadership was needed to help NATO weather attempts to undermine it, Hodges said, “because the cohesion of the alliance is our big advantage.”
Even with those political advantages, Russia still faces challenges — many of which are related to the resources it can muster.
While Moscow can count on more than 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons, its conventional forces are of mixed quality . The US has a clear advantage, though military effectiveness often depends on a country’s objectives, and Russia has successfully used hybrid- and irregular-warfare techniques.
Despite its size, Russia’s “capacity is limited,” Hodges said. “Russia has two elements to its economy, its energy exports and weapons exports, so they’re vulnerable in that regard.”
Russia has rebounded somewhat in the years since the 2014 collapse in oil prices sent a shutter through oil exporters. It has also added to its exports, topping the US to become the world’s biggest wheat exporter , though poor infrastructure are likely to limit those exports in the immediate future.
Overall growth may be hindered by the country’s population, which is on a downward trend even as Russians are living longer. Russia’s working-age population is expected to contract by 4.8 million over the next six years, the economy minister said in late 2017.
“They’re on the wrong side of a demographic equation in terms of their own population,” Hodges said.
Alongside demographic and economic issues, Russia faces geographic and security challenges.
“They have a worse challenge with Islamic extremism than the rest of us do that they’ve got to deal with,” Hodges said. In the far east, some 6 million Russians live next to nearly 100 million Chinese in the border area between Siberia and northern China. Russians in the region have expressed frustration with the growing Chinese presence and with Moscow’s concessions to Chinese commercial interests. China also has a growing presence in Central Asia, where Russia has long held sway.
“The Chinese are coming into Siberia, and it’s almost unstoppable. So they’ve got quite a few challenges that they have to deal with,” Hodges said. “In fact, the safest part of Russia’s border is the part that touches from Norway to Bulgaria, down to the Black Sea,” he added. “We only have less than 100 American tanks in Europe. They would all fit on one football field.”
The size of that force undercuts the Russian narrative of Western encroachment, Hodges said. (The US and NATO have deployed more units to Eastern Europe as a deterrent in recent years.) But, he added, in Eastern Europe, Russia faces another challenge to its influence — one of aspirations.
“I think we have a better story to tell, the West, democracy, opportunity. There’s a reason people in Ukraine looked over and they saw Poland, how much better life was, [and] probably wanted to be a part of that,” he said. “I think this is a vulnerability for Russia.”