In Russia, Vladimir Putin embodies a certain kind of machismo. Whether he’s packing heat, riding a horse shirtless, or throwing his opponents in a judo match, the Russian media focuses relentlessly on the authoritarian president’s manliness. Across the Atlantic, news outlets report on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s preoccupation with this masculinity, especially the size of his hands and the sex appeal of his female family members. As Trump runs for the Republican nomination, Putin and Trump have complimented each other, their similar personas playing a role in this exchange. But the bond between the two men may run even deeper.
Recently, Putin commented that Trump is “very bright and talented,” according to news coverage by The Guardian. A key member of the Russian Parliament called for Trump to be Time’s “Person of the Year.” And Russian state media has piled on, describing the business mogul as the true voice of the American people and his opponents as desperate elites. These comments from Putin paint a Russia that may desire a Donald Trump presidency, or that at least wants American leadership to diverge from the establishment. This interest adds yet another layer of controversy to an already divisive candidate. It raises questions about Russia’s hopes for American leadership, about Trump’s foreign policy, and about America as a global actor.
Any presidential candidate’s foreign policy would affect Russian interests should said candidate take office. In the case of Donald Trump, this policy diverges from those that many establishment advisers and politicians hold, and it may be what is intriguing Russian leaders.
The most explicit representation of Trump’s uniqueness comes with his panel of foreign policy advisers. This “expert” panel is comprised of a 2009 college graduate, a former Department of Defense inspector general forced to resign following corruption allegations, and a slew of others generally unknown in expert foreign policy circles. But in the end, these advisers take a back seat to Trump, who said on an episode of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” “My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.” Given the sometimes contradictory nature of his public statements, it is difficult to form a comprehensive picture of Trump’s approach to international strategy.
In reviewing his public comments, one can glean a sliver of what Trump’s foreign policy might be. “Putin and Trump share a rhetoric about America’s over-sized role in the world,” said Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich in an interview with The Politic. Sestanovich was the US ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, and now works as the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Trump’s talk about how big leaders need to ‘get along’ is very welcome [for Russia],” continued Sestanovich. The Kremlin is accustomed to American leadership attempting to impose its will on Russia. Counter to this is Trump, who seems to advocate for a hands off approach wherever U.S. interests are not directly at stake. In some instances, this means negotiating reduced or eliminated costs for an expensive military presence in allied nations such as South Korea. But more relevant to Russia is Trump’s position on NATO. Trump believes, “NATO is obsolete. NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger—much larger than Russia is today.”
NATO has helped achieve U.S. interests abroad since its formation in 1949. It has allowed the U.S. to maintain strong economic and political strength throughout the globe, a positive result that comes at relatively little cost. The United States currently provides 22.1 percent, or about $521 million, of NATO’s directly funded budget. This constitutes less than 0.1 percent of the U.S.’s $585 billion defense budget.
Donald Trump is correct when he claims that the U.S. is spending more on NATO than any other member nation. But it does not seem clear that this spending is hurting the U.S. in any way. In fact, given past examples of NATO helping the U.S., particularly in Afghanistan, it may be shortsighted to try and reduce the amount of funding that the U.S. provides the organization. But Trump does make a point when he claims that other member nations are not pulling their weight.
NATO requires member nations to spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense. Currently, only five of NATO’s twenty-eight member states meet this requirement. “[Other member nations] certainly could be doing more; whether it’s easy to talk them into that or not I doubt,” stated Jeffrey Bergner, former Assistant Secretary of State and current adjunct professor at Georgetown’s National Securities Program, in an interview with The Politic.
Trump boldly states that if member nations want to take advantage of the protection NATO can offer them, they need to contribute what it asks. Trump would refuse, he says, to continue funding the bulk of NATO’s operations while so many states are content to take advantage of NATO membership without burdening themselves with the cost of adequate defense. And unlike most of his positions, this animus against allies “free-riding” on American largesse has been part of Trump’s repertoire for decades. As early as the late 1980s, the businessman published a series of full-page newspapers ads accusing allies as diverse as Japan and Kuwait of taking advantage of the American security umbrella.
But, as Bergner expressed, it is unclear whether Trump would be able to get other member nations to contribute more. The real estate mogul claims he can negotiate a better deal. But this negotiation may involve threats of reduced U.S. NATO spending, or even U.S. withdrawal, threats that a future president might not want to fulfill. Jochen Prantl, associate professor of international relations at Australia National University, told The Politic that “U.S.-heavy military involvement with NATO can be easily seen as the sine-qua-non for the maintenance of peace and security in Europe.” By reducing U.S. funding to NATO, Donald Trump may open the door to Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe and even undermine Europe’s defenses against terrorism.
The U.S. has repeatedly stepped in to prevent Russia from following through on its expansionist tendencies, and a U.S. military presence in the form of NATO has kept Putin and his military largely at bay, at least in comparison to the worst-case scenario alternatives. The most recent incident involving Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea is a powerful example of European nations requiring the support of both the U.S. and NATO. Eastern Europe and the Baltic states remain particularly vulnerable to the influence and strength of the former Soviet Union, and NATO’s strong presence serves to deter Russia from encroaching on any NATO members or their allies.
In regard to the Ukraine crisis, Trump told The Washington Post that the U.S. was right to impose sanctions on Russia, but that it should not have been the only country doing so. This comment comes in spite of the fact that the EU also imposed sanctions on Russia. Trump seems to espouse the view that America should not intervene in any conflicts that do not directly affect U.S. interests or combat terrorism. He has consistently claimed that the U.S. should not be solely responsible for helping other nations. He claims that he can strike better deals with foreign nations, getting them to join in U.S. efforts abroad. But what if he can’t?
In the face of failed deal-making, Trump’s logical next step would seem to be to threaten to withdraw U.S. support. He maintains a hard line that the U.S. should not be the only nation responsible for maintaining peace. His policy for ISIS falls along similar lines. He claims that he would put pressure on other nations to fight the Islamic State, while keeping American troops safe at home.
Again, it is important to ask what would happen if Trump’s threats did not lead to any action from other nations. A scenario might arise where other nations refuse to send more troops to combat ISIS, which would force Trump to follow through on those threats and withdraw U.S. support, or to maintain the status quo. “I think we’ve had experience with Barack Obama’s so-called ‘red line’ in Syria,” said Bergner in his interview. “A flat threat to withdraw is not the best idea unless one actually intends to do it.”
And what about with NATO? Tad Oelstrom, a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General and current Director of the National Securities Program at the Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, told The Politic that if Trump threatened to reduce U.S. funding, it “will only be useful to NATO if in fact other countries within NATO are willing to step up and increase their support marginally to offset that.” So Trump’s threats would have to be effective in getting other nations to contribute more to NATO in order for those threats to do any good.
“If it were decreasing support for the sake of undercutting NATO, that will be a horrible mistake,” he warned. So given the role that NATO plays in deterring Russia from achieving its goals in Europe, it makes sense that Putin would desire a President Trump if that means reduced U.S. support for NATO’s operations. But even if Trump would never decrease U.S. funding to NATO, a scenario that seems far more likely, Russia still has a vested interest in seeing the New York businessman take the Oval Office.
The alternative, in the Kremlin’s eyes, is Hillary Clinton. Clinton took a hard line with Russia during her tenure as Secretary of State, a stance that would likely remain were she to win the presidential election. Her campaign website even has “Standing up to Putin” as one of the key aspects of her national defense plan. President Barack Obama has already proposed quadrupling U.S. military spending in Europe as part of his final budget. This increase is meant to reassure NATO allies of American support given recent Russian actions in Ukraine.
Russia has every reason to oppose the election of a woman who has a past history of little to no tolerance of its expansionist policies, and who would likely maintain the increased European defense spending that Obama proposed. In contrast, it seems difficult to believe that Trump would allow the budget to go uncontested if he were to enter office, especially given that, according to him, European nations are already reaping the rewards of American generosity.
Trump’s anti-establishment narrative could also serve as an opportunity to improve U.S.-Russia relations. Such a shift in attitude would open the door for Russia to pursue further interests abroad. The American establishment, represented well by Hillary Clinton, has maintained respectful but cautious relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War. These relations have only soured in recent years, as Putin has taken his country toward illiberal authoritarianism and revanchism. It would be in Russia’s interest to embrace a candidate who seems much more open to adopting friendlier terms with the Kremlin. Putin desires an American president who will interfere a bit less with Russian interests, allowing him to maintain greater control in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe.
But it may also be the case that Trump is merely being opportunistic in his dialogue with Putin. In an interview with The Politic, Paris Aslanidis, a Yale University lecturer in Political Science, stated, “If the time comes that [Trump] can use the anti-Russian anti-Putin card, he will use it,” and it would fit right into the rest of his foreign policy narrative. Trump has never had trouble flipping positions before why should this time be any different?
Putin may be aware of this possibility. But regardless of whether Trump is sincere in his praise for Putin, having the anti-establishment Republican candidate in office would almost certainly be better for Russia than the alternative: Clinton, whose policy is more about keeping Russia in line than working with it.
It is almost certain that a Trump presidency would give Putin greater opportunity to advance his country’s interests abroad. It would give him a freer hand in controlling the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, giving the Kremlin a vested interest in seeing the businessman take office. This dynamic underscores the importance the United States plays as a global actor. It also forces us to remember: American interests are not the only ones at stake this November.