I: The Trump-Putin Relationship and the Implications for the Nordic-Baltic Region
Convened by the Oxford Changing Character of War Centre
Generously supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation
On 1 February 2017, the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford, in conjunction with the Ax:Johnson foundation, convened a round table discussion on the Trump-Putin Relationship and the Implications for the Nordic-Baltic Region. By bringing together government personnel, members of the armed services and academics from several countries, we were able to discuss, candidly, the trajectories of American and Russian policies and assess the likely impact on northern and eastern Europe, and on the United Kingdom. The seminar was convened under the Chatham House Rule so names are not attributed to the record of the discussion and the deductions have been rendered with care, such that no individual can be identified.
The Discussion: Main Themes and Points
1 Trump’s Policy Direction and Responses
There was discussion on the personal style and agenda of the US President. One of the most striking observations was that, when his commitment is in doubt, President Trump has a tendency to ‘escalate’ with gestures towards policy (such as extreme vetting, announced at the beginning of February 2017); he is interested in making deals, especially bi-lateral ones in America’s favour. Trump was, it was argued, in danger of isolation from his own party and the government apparatus. Nevertheless, it was thought that the expansion of the numbers of government personnel will tend to calm some of the hasty policy announcements made in the first two weeks of the presidency. Trump’s personal ‘agency’ to act, it was posited, is likely to be curtailed, as Obama discovered in the first two years in office.
The suggestion was that a focus on what is consistent about US foreign policy yields more certainty in terms of policy-projection. The US governments in the last two decades have stressed the need for burden-sharing in defence and security. It was a constant complaint from Washington that the Europeans tended to take American defence spending, and therefore the security umbrella, for granted. American administrations have also argued that the NATO alliance must be relevant to the problems that the nations within it face, especially terrorism. American governments have also emphasised the need for adaptability and value for money. It is widely known that many Europeans states have consistently failed to spend 2% of GDP on defence or meet their fair share of defence commitments, either within Europe or globally. Germany, it is alleged, has been an offender in this regard, protecting its economy and using the United States to pay for its defence, while claiming that its history prevented it from contemplating a more flexible or expeditionary defence posture. Across Europe, the capability of the various forces lags a long way behind that of the United States. Indeed, only France and the United Kingdom have truly expeditionary armed forces. Some smaller nations, like Denmark and the Netherlands, have opted to nestle their forces within a deployable NATO contingent.
The most significant, if as yet unproven change in American policy has been Trump’s announcement that he would welcome a closer relationship with Russia in order to conduct a mutually beneficial offensive against Da’esh (Islamic State). Trump also hinted at strategic arms reduction in nuclear weapons with Russia, although this was contradicted by a threat to conduct an arms race with several nations. The most recent threat, announced in the first week of February 2017, was against Iran. It involved the re-imposition of US sanctions in retaliation for a ballistic missile test by Tehran. Iran has been a close partner of Russia over the Syrian civil war, and this brings Trump into conflict with Russia indirectly.
The deal that Putin would like from Trump would be a lifting of the economic sanctions imposed after Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Putin would also like Trump to accept the annexation as de jure, rather than de facto as at present. The bette noire of Moscow has also been the concept of a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system across eastern Europe. Putin is likely to want to establish a personal, one to one relationship with Trump, in the hope of exploiting Trump’s inexperience in international relations. The advice of the seminar participants was to prepare for the meetings with Putin very thoroughly, to rehearse various policy positions and responses, and to engage with Russia only in team meetings. The Russian approach to Trump will be to study him and conduct intense ‘profiling’ of his character. Moscow will want Trump to accept Russian primacy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and its wider sphere of influence (namely Syria and the Caucasus).
Trump’s advisors believe they can ‘face down’ any country, including Russia. Yet, Mattis and Dunford are highly-principled men who will advise against hasty arrangements with Russia, or policies which jeopardise NATO. That said, Trump fires those who reject his policy-line. It remains unclear if Trump is principal agent or will be constrained by Congress or his immediate advisors.
It may be worth noting that, at several stages of Trump’s advance to the presidency, observers argued that Trump would moderate his position. He did not. There may therefore be strong grounds for taking Trump at his word. He clearly intends for there to be a wall with Mexico. He has stated clearly that he will cancel trade deals he thinks do not serve America’s interests. He insists that foreign allies will have to pay more for their own defence. These assertions should be taken seriously.
Russia is proceeding cautiously. If it announces a warming of relations with America and attempts, but fails soon after, to enjoy normalised relations that lead to the end of economic sanctions, Putin’s authority will be questioned.
The view of the nations in northern and eastern Europe was an anxiety that Trump might ‘sell-out’ the region. Trump’s policies are likely to be driven by domestic agendas, and already the new administration has been characterised by severe criticism of the European Union, the Euro as a currency run by Germany (‘a Deutsch Mark in all but name’) and of Angela Merkel’s ‘open door’ refugee and asylum seekers policy in 2015. The criticisms reveal much about Trump’s own priorities: economic regeneration in America with protection against unfair deals from foreign competitors; and limitations in immigration flows, especially those that use the conduit to foster terrorism. European nations and the UK are likely to be criticised by the Trump administration for allowing Muslim communities to develop their own enclaves and for failing to insist on adherence to Western norms and values under the guise of multiculturalism. The criticism is not new and right-leaning movements in Europe echo the grievance. Expertise does not appear to appeal to President Trump either, and criticism of established political elites, intelligence services and economic leaders is frequent. His approach is to ‘make deals’ and maximise leverage, and he is likely to try and bring the approach to international relations, even where more long-term multilateral negotiations are the norm. But Trump is likely to be assertive.
The European Union will need to open a dialogue with Trump rather than offering only criticism. The UK government has already changed its approach, offering a dialogue and honest, open differences of opinion, while emphasising common ground and mutually advantageous (bilateral and alliance) policies. By contrast, the EU appears to have no clear policy line or negotiating position. Unable to manage financial crises, Greek debt, the migration surge or robust negotiations with Russia, the EU struggles with crisis response. The requirement to consult all member states, to incorporate the debates of the European Parliament and the guidance of a project designed to harmonise a single Union will make approaching the Trump administration more problematic.
The Europeans also need to consider the wider global situation, from the high north and changes in the Arctic region, to the United States’ increasing focus on the Asia-Pacific and the challenges posed by China. Yet the Eastern Europeans and the UK will continue to concentrate on Russia as they have no choice. Russian overflights of Nordic and Baltic airspace, subversion, interference in elections, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian FSB in London, data theft and cyber disruption, the illegal seizure of the sovereign territory of Ukraine and a proxy war in the Donbass against the government in Kiev cannot be waved away as Russia acting defensively because it feels threatened. Moscow’s measures suggest a more active and forward policy.
2 Russia’s Stance Towards the United States and the Nordic-Baltic Region
Putin has been leader of Russia from the 1990s, watching American administrations come and go, and remaining consistent in his policies. By contrast, consistency has not characterised Western policies. In the late 1990s, Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to bring Assad and Gadhafi in from the cold; in 2003, he joined the United States in the invasion of Iraq which brought down Saddam and attempted to democratise the Middle East; there was an attempt to stabilise Afghanistan and Iraq by establishing national governments, but the West then intervened military against both Gadhafi and Assad. In these various cases, the Russian perception would be that the West has been willing to use its military power to reorder the Middle East and North Africa. In some policies Russia has common interests with the West, if not shared interests and values. It might share concern about Jihadist terrorism, but it has not seen eye to eye over its old ally Syria.
We may anticipate competition over energy (not trade) and a refusal to accept BMD. America won’t negotiate on BMD and only wants to discuss offensive missile systems.
There are important domestic imperatives for the Russian government to consider. Moscow is eager to show economic improvements following any talks with the Americans. If oil prices remain low, this will be important. Russians are nostalgic for their former Superpower status and Moscow wants to be regarded as a country with some primacy, especially in regional matters. Economic modernisation has proved difficult however. While it continues to export energy, grain and weapons, it is not known for its high-tech sector. It is wealthy in foreign exchange reserves (a useful wartime asset, should it be contemplating conflict), but much of its industry is obsolete.
There are several unfinished regional issues for Russia to resolve. The Ukraine conflict is not over, and, as anticipated, Moscow has used ceasefire violation disputes to prepare the case for further military intervention (with expected advances towards Mariupol). Ukrainians don’t believe the United States will come to their aid. Georgia is another postponed conflict; Moldova is more pro-Russian but Belarus remains a thorny interlocutor.
Russia is continuing with its military modernisation programme and will be looking to develop a new suite of weapon systems fit for the twenty-first century. Russia is particularly anxious about technological advances in the West, and concerned about the next generation of American systems. On the other hand, Russian military hawks believe the Anglo-Saxon century is coming to an end and that there is an opportunity for Russia to make gains. They would be anxious about close co-operation in the Middle East with America, which might lead to commitments or exposure to American interests. It was also suggested, but not widely accepted by other participants, that Russia is concerned that, if it does break up NATO, it might end up with a nuclear armed Poland or Germany in the hands of the far-right.
The difficult Russian relationship with China is an important area. There are coherent and shared ends and even a grand strategy at work over the long term in both countries. Their division would give the West strategic leverage.
The West appears more vulnerable than in the past. Its economic inter-dependence gives less room for redundancy or shortages in the event of crisis. There are no stockpiles and systems operate in the optimistic space of ‘just in time’ delivery. But herein lies an important negotiating position with Russia: that it too is dependent on global systems. The Russians are aware that Turkish closure of their waters and denial of navigation in the Baltic would cause severe difficulties for their economy.
3 The Frontline: Estonia, Finland and the Baltic Sea
For Estonians, the annexation of Crimea by Russia evoked painful memories of 1940. Moreover, Trump’s apparently warm statements about Putin provided a chilling echo of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Estonia’s capabilities are very small, but there are plans for more significant protection. The threat of a coup de main or stirring of ethnic Russian Estonians to facilitate a hybrid conflict or even takeover is, however, not seriously considered. Ethnic Russians prefer the Euro and their standard of living to the lifestyle and political economy offered by Russia. The manipulation of minorities, of course, can be exploited by Russia, but whereas Ukraine was unprepared for this line of policy, Estonia has anticipated it.
The issue of greatest concern is that Russia only conducts military exercises on the lines that it prepares to execute them, and recent Russian exercises appear to fit an assault on the Baltic states. Estonia therefore takes the view that it would offer a robust defence to any incursion from the outset, including combat operations against ‘green men’ (unidentifiable) hybrid forces.
Finland faces only one existential threat, and that has always emanated from Russia, so its policy positions are well-rehearsed. It does not anticipate assistance from outside and tends to look to its own resources. It operates a comprehensive society security policy. Bilateral co-operation with NATO states would be the aspiration.
Russia regards Finland as strategic depth, especially for its northern flank.
Working with President Trump will require a transactional style and the adoption of policy lines with which he concurs or that his advisors can mediate on. Outright criticism of Trump, his agenda or his aspirations will evidently be counter-productive. Trump can nevertheless be persuaded: a clear exposition of a collective position and its logic will carry weight. Failing to keep one’s own side of the bargain (such as defence spending by European members of NATO) will not.
European negotiators will have to prepared carefully for talks with the Trump administration and acknowledge American policy priorities. American negotiators will profit from studying Putin, Svechin, Lavrov and the Russian agenda, avoiding hasty bilateralism and carefully working through possible negotiating strategies and responses.
Russia must be encouraged back into legal paths of policy and be consistent in its defence policy. Moscow will study Trump and his new administration, hoping to dissuade the president from continuing with sanctions or BMD. Russia will want Trump to believe that Russia should have a free hand in the CIS and should be a highly-respected partner, who must be consulted in all policies, including counter-terrorism. Putin has already demonstrated that if Russia does not get its way, it will increase its interference, active deterrence or outright, unilateral and illegal military actions.
European NATO countries have to anticipate Russian subversion, information campaigns, funding of certain nationalist parties, and other active measures. It needs to orientate resources to countering subversion, using the power of the free media to exposure ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’ and misinformation campaigns. In the long run, these will discredit Russian-inspired information operations.
NATO must be reinforced, endorsed and strengthened by more robust spending than in the last twenty years. Russia is anxious about American technological superiority but sees an opportunity to weaken if not break up NATO (by drawing away Turkey, discrediting the alliance in some way or dividing the Europeans from the Americans and each other). Russia is less concerned by the Baltic States compared with the CIS, but it may use their proximity to test, discredit or fragment NATO in the future. Russia notes that the European NATO states do not have the capability on their own to conduct operations.
NATO (or the northern group) has to rehearse and practice its military co-operation. This helps to define it, to signal its position and improves capability.
The European Union
The EU needs to open dialogue with the Trump administration and cease its criticism of the President or risk isolation.
Sweden and the EU have defined themselves by co-operation and negotiation. Sweden may now have to reappraise its cultural position in international relations and take a firm line with Russia alongside its regional partners.
The EU and the Euro may not survive so policy lines should be worked through rather than avoided in the hope they won’t happen (as the British government found over Brexit).
Areas for Further Work
Information Operations and Strategy
Trajectories of Russian foreign relations
Annex: The Initial Questions for Discussion
Several questions were posited in order to generate discussion, and some participants were pre-selected and briefed to raise certain issues that they felt were of significance, either as context, to interpret the present situation or to assess likely policy directions or outcomes. The (deliberately frank or provocative) questions were:
Does Trump genuinely admire Putin; what specifically appeals to him?
What are Trump’s vulnerabilities in foreign affairs?
What would appeal to Trump, as an alternative to the Putin iconography?
Can we clarify the Russian/Putin view of Trump?
What are the implications of Trump’s policy preferences for the Nordic-Baltic region and the United Kingdom?
Mattis or Trump: which perspective will prevail on the future of NATO?
If Trump is driven by business deals and transactions, what is transactional in or about the region?
What is the future of NATO without full American participation?
Is the Russian policy to keep this region or front quiet and maintain the status quo?
Do the Russians believe they can ‘roll back’ the EU, NATO and Western influence?
Will the Russians exploit the relative indifference of Trump towards Europe? If so, how will they do it?
Can we forecast the most likely scenarios that will affect the region over the next five years?