President Trump's careless talk puts Nato on high alert

Russia's incursions into Ukraine reawakened the West to the threat posed by the superpower after a quarter-century slumber. In Estonia, however, they say wariness of their eastern neighbour is handed down with mother's milk, and citizens of the Baltic state never forget what it means to share a border with an unpredictable superpower.

American soldiers at a welcome ceremony in Olszyna, on Polands German border, earlier this month. Picture: Natalia Dobryszycka/Getty

“History has told us that as a small country on the border of the free world, we have to lean towards our stronger allies in the west,” says Marko Mihkelson, a member of the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament, and chairman of its Foreign Affairs Committee.

Collective security under the umbrella of Nato is “existentially important” for Estonia, Mihkelson says, with overwhelming political backing for the transatlantic alliance. “This is our insurance policy – Nato and the EU.”

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Estonia sent troops to Afghanistan, with nine killed during their mission. Now it is one of the countries along Nato’s Russian border hosting a 5,000-strong Very High Readiness 
Joint Task Force, including troops from the UK.

But with Donald Trump in the Oval Office praising Vladimir Putin as a “very smart” leader he wants a “great relationship” with, questions are being asked about whether the US can still be relied upon.

On the campaign trail, Trump claimed Nato had become “obsolete” and suggested he wouldn’t come to the defence of allies unless the US was “reasonably reimbursed” for the “tremendous cost” of protecting them.

Countries who weren’t pulling their weight would be told: “You’ve gotta pay us or get out. You’re out, out, out.”

US complaints about the amount European Nato members spend on defence didn’t start with Trump. President Obama regularly called on allies to an obligation to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, agreed at the 2014 Nato summit in Wales.

His last overseas visit as president was a reminder in itself, with Obama stopping in Greece, one of only four EU countries currently meeting the target, along with the UK, Poland – and Estonia.

But Trump went further, saying that “it’s possible that we’re going to have to let Nato go”. His criticism went further, claiming Nato wasn’t fit for the modern world because it is “not meant for terrorism”.

“Maybe Nato will dissolve,” he warned, “and that’s OK, not the worst thing in the world.”

In response, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reminded Trump that the only time the alliance has invoked Article 5 of its charter – which sets out the obligation to defend an ally under attack – was after 9/11. Over 1,000 soldiers from European Nato allies were killed in Afghanistan as a result, almost half of those from Britain.

All this leaves Theresa May, who became the first leader to meet Trump since his inauguration last week, with an unenviable task – changing the Donald’s mind. In a speech to Republican congressmen, she flattered and cajoled the Trump administration, hailing of “a new era of American renewal” but calling for continued US leadership in Nato, and warning of a need to “engage but beware” when it came to Russia.

Following a meeting at the White House, she said the president was “100 per cent behind Nato”. Yet a week into his presidency, Trump has still to unequivocally renounce his campaign rhetoric, despite US troops being deployed to Poland in the last days of the Obama administration as part of the Nato “trip-wire” force.

And with speculation growing that the US could unilaterally lift sanctions on Russia imposed for its actions in Ukraine, there are fears that a “great power deal” between Trump and Putin could see Europe sidelined, smaller allies like Estonia ignored, and Nato undermined.

“The biggest security concern for Nato is Russia,” says Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute and special adviser to former Labour foreign secretaries Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett.

“It would be a very bad signal for Nato if the US were to unilaterally lift sanctions against Russia without extensive consultation with European partners before doing so.”

Chalmers adds: “There are many in Europe who would welcome an American president having another go at de-escalating tension with Russia, but the concern is that an American president and a Russian president will talk over Europe’s head and seek to negotiate the future of Europe without Europeans being in the room.”

Alexandra Hall Hall served from 2013-16 as the UK’s ambassador to Georgia, whose brief war with Russia almost a decade ago was a foretaste of the conflict in Ukraine.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that can insulate itself,” she says. “Until there is a very strong push back, the Russians will keep pushing as far as they can get.”

Even speculation about the US commitment to Nato caused by Trump’s rhetoric is “immensely damaging” and risks emboldening Putin with unknown consequences, says Hall Hall, now a senior fellow at Washington-based international affairs think-tank the Atlantic Council.

“The risk of a miscalculation, an attempt to take advantage, is very high with that kind of rhetoric,” she warns.

Russia’s reaction to equivocation from the Oval Office could be to expand the conflict in Ukraine, or try to have its annexation of Crimea recognised, says Chalmers.

“There’s a real danger of triumphalism in Russia right now, where after their success in Syria, their relative success in the Ukraine in keeping that country off balance, and their apparent success in influencing the outcome of the American election, they will think they can continue to win,” he says.

“The danger is that Russia will overplay its hand in a way that could see Donald Trump swing 180 degrees.

“The risks of conflict are perhaps greatest in a situation where Russia misreads American red lines as a result of a triumphalist mindset.”

When General Sir Richard Shirreff, the retired former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, imagined the worst-case scenario last year in his novel 2017: War With Russia, he assumed the US would ride to the rescue. With President Trump in the White House, that is no longer certain.

“We’re right at the turning point now,” Shirreff says. “If he comes out loud and clear with a strong commitment to Nato, a strong commitment to the effective deterrence of a resurgent Russia, and says ‘thus far, no further, now let’s talk’ – then we may have an opportunity to build a relationship, which we need.

“If, on the other hand, he carries through with his line about not being prepared to come to the aid of a Nato member that is attacked, and then throws himself into a deal with Putin where he recognises Putin’s sphere of influence in Europe – then we’re in really big trouble, because that I think spells the end of Nato.”

Shirreff claims the Russian president is “rubbing his hands” at the prospect of the US being “decoupled” from European defence. It would represent the realisation of a goal Putin himself set out ten years ago in a speech to the Munich Security Conference, in which he railed against a “unipolar world” and accused the United States of having “overstepped its national borders in every way”.

Since then, argues Mihkelson, Russia has consistently worked to “diminish the role of the United States as the leader of the free and democratic world, and undermine the trust of the people in democratic institutions”. Using cyber warfare and social media disinformation, Mihkelson claims Russia has backed populist figures who are sympathetic towards Putin to exploit divisions and destabilise western democracies.

“I believe Russia would be happy if all of Europe would be Finlandised,” says Mihkelson, referring to Finland’s adoption of neutrality in the Cold War to avoid conflict with the neighbouring USSR. “That’s why Russia is helping politicians like Marine Le Pen and others, who have quite extreme views.”

In Washington, May and Trump set a future course for Nato, agreeing the alliance needs to reform its mission 
and take a greater role in counter-terrorism that could see attention diverted from eastern Europe towards the Middle East.

The Republican obsession since the Reagan administration with missile defence could also see Nato move in that direction, although Trump has said an enhanced missile shield would be aimed at protecting against China and North Korea – without mentioning Russia.

Even if May can exert a mellowing influence on the new president, there are a number of challenges to the UK in its traditional role as the bridge between the US and Europe on security.

One is Brexit, which Shirreff says will make coordination more difficult. “I base that on my experience as a senior Nato man, who was not only the deputy supreme commander but also an EU operation commander [in Bosnia and Herzegovina] with a voice in the European Union council,” he says. “To be able to mediate, you’ve got to be inside the club.”

The other is the so-called “enhanced interrogation” programme run by US security services in the years after 9/11, with its network of “black sites” and rendition flights, which Trump wants to see revived.

“We all got our hands badly burned during the first term of the Bush administration,” says Hall Hall. “Not only would it have an impact on security cooperation – but it should.” Chalmers, who dealt with the aftermath of the US torture programme in government, says people were “scarred” by the experience and warns that “were the US to go down the route of using torture, it would have significant implications” for security cooperation.

“I think we’re still some way from the American security guarantee to Europe going away,” he says. “But the more doubt that is cast on the American security commitment to Europe, the more there will be calls in European states to do more on defence, and cooperate more on defence, and play a more leading role in Nato.”

There are already signs that is happening. Countries like Lithuania that were spending less than one per cent of GDP on defence four years ago are set to meet the Nato target in 2017. Even after Brexit removes UK opposition, Chalmers highlights “very strong” obstacles in the way of an integrated EU army and says a future Nato with greater European leadership is a more likely outcome.

Mihkelson, who travelled to the United States last week and met almost two dozen senior Republican congressmen, is hopeful.

“I don’t think Trump is so naive as to believe that making America great again is possible without good allies and friends,” he says, adding that he was encouraged by the “very strong commitment” expressed during confirmation hearings by Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and his Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis.

“You have to look beyond what is happening in the White House, and look to the Pentagon and State Department. Those are the professionals who will formulate the US position on Nato.”

Mihkelson adds that there is a “very narrow range of cooperation that is currently possible” between Washington and Moscow, with the Kremlin still seeing the US as the main threat to its interests internationally. “It’s hard to see how one person could change that understanding.”

But concerns remain. “Here we are 100 years after the first Americans arrived in Europe during the First World War, and for 100 years America has been critical to European security,” says Shirreff. “Trump could go both ways, and it would be a tragedy if he went the wrong way.”

Whether the western alliance can adapt in the face of Russian attempts to undermine it remains to be seen, as does the more fundamental question of whether the new US president can be trusted, either to carry out his threats or abandon them.

“With Trump, there are more question marks than ever before,” says Mihkelson. “He is unlike any president we’ve known in the past.”