Early in his introductory remarks following two hours alone with US President Donald J. Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia and the United States face a whole new set of challenges, including “dangerous maladjustment of mechanisms for security and stability.” Putin continued by naming regional crises, terrorism, and criminality, but the first part of his statement caught my attention.
Security and Stability Mechanisms
Let’s unpack what Putin said, beginning with the subject of the statement mechanisms for security and stability. What comes to mind? Given the events of the week, NATO is at the top of the list. The UN Security Council would always be included, but it strains credibility to say the Council receives much more than a peripheral interest in the Kremlin and White House.
Could this part be a hint that the U.S. and Russia will come closer to one another within the Council? That would not be supported by reference to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and her comments about Russia since taking office. However, these are the two heads of state standing side by side, implying that some sort of readjustment in international security regimes is underway.
The American president met Putin just days after a tense and sometimes odd set of bilateral and multilateral meetings with NATO allies. Trump’s mission regarding NATO is to rectify what he sees as a maladjusted or unbalanced security mechanism; Putin’s phrase fits perfectly in this context. As I emphasized in a previous opinion piece, Trump is infatuated with NATO’s funding formula. Former presidents have also criticized the financing but never has this disrupted Alliance solidarity as may be happening now.
In a sign of NATO consensus this past week, the Allies agreed to U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ 30-30-30-30 formula for enabling the deployment of significant military force in a short period of time. President Trump has chosen to leave this issue to his team and not even mention it as an indicator of NATO strength, although it did garner the attention of Russia’s national security apparatus.
The Kremlin-owned news agency Tass quoted the head of the Russian upper house’s Defense and Security Committee Viktor Bondarev responding to the formula: “Do their plans to assemble 30 battalions and 30 air squadrons capable of deploying in 30 days pose any threat to Russia? No, they don’t. Even if these plans are implemented.” Bondarev added that Russia is “capable of countering any potential military threat.”
There are no guarantees, of course, that the NATO partners will live up to their new commitment or that it will make a difference in Russia’s strategic calculations. The point is that Trump’s public berating of the allies just before providing cover to Putin’s denial of Russian election meddling does not enhance international security or American interests. Put simply, Russia does not have much to offer to the United States, hence the many questions about Trump’s performance expressed throughout Washington, DC, after the press conference in Helsinki.
The benefits of being the leading member of NATO are often obscure to the American people in an out of sight, out of mind sort of way, and Trump seems to see the matter in entirely fiduciary terms. This does not help his nation to understand, for example, the strategic benefit of always having an American as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Considering the past quarter century of (often valid) Russian complaints about post-Cold War NATO, a strategic operator like Putin cannot help but be bolstered by witnessing the American president openly question the utility of the Alliance.
What then, do we make of the dangerous maladjustment part of Putin’s statement? What are Putin’s complaints about NATO, and can they shed light on the meaning of this curious phrase? NATO enlargement after the Cold War, beginning in 1999 and continuing with the recent membership of Montenegro and the membership invitation issued to Macedonia, has been a primary source of Russian ire.
Additionally, the bolstering of defenses in the Baltic members of NATO has been a point of contention. Much to NATO’s chagrin, Russia has reportedly redeployed Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, the country’s outpost nestled between Poland and Lithuania. Because Iskanders can carry nuclear and conventional warheads, this deployment is also a factor in both sides complaining about the other over the effort to salvage the bilateral INF Treaty that eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles and launchers with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometer.
Finally, and directly related to the Iskander deployment, Putin has been critical of the deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, despite NATO’s rebuttal claiming the defensive technology is not deployed out of concern for Russian missiles, but to protect Europe from Iranian missiles.
In sum, from NATO enlargement to the deployment of resources in the Baltics to missile defenses in Poland and sanctions over Crimea, Putin clearly sees an imbalance in the scales of power, and he would like to see President Trump cooperate in his effort to counterbalance.
After the meeting in Helsinki, Tass reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the talks were “better than super,” leaving us to question what a Russian diplomat considers to be better than super.
Trump’s refusal to fully acknowledge the veracity of the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in U.S. elections, much less to confront Putin on this matter, is a source of confidence for Putin and his cohorts – confidence that they have a real and unprecedented opportunity to damage the Atlantic Alliance. Putin and Trump mentioned working together on a variety of security threats and Trump offered no retort to the allegations of maladjusted security mechanisms. We can only guess as to what kind of adjustments or rebalancing the two leaders have in mind.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.