Did Russian President Vladimir Putin seek to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election? More seriously, was there collusion between elements of the Trump organization and Russian insiders to shape the campaign, and did those interventions lead to the disclosure of damaging information on Hillary Clinton at critical moments in the closing months? FBI Director James Comey was summoned before Congress to testify and present evidence, or confirm the lack thereof so that these questions can be settled, at least on an official level. The only bombshell of information he has provided so far was that the FBI has been investigating since July 2016 into contacts between the Russians and certain Trump campaign officials –clearly this cloud over the Trump presidency will endure for some time.
Whatever Comey says about the Russians and the 2016 campaign, there is a consensus that the Russians favoured Trump over Clinton. The expectation was that an untested leader like Trump would sow discord within the NATO alliance, fray relationships with China, create uncertainty in the Middle East around commitments to allies like Turkey, all of which would create opportunities for Russia to project power, influence events and fill the diplomatic and military void. In the short term, Russia seems to be getting what it wanted. Projecting out over the next few years, the Russians may face a reversal of fortune in their spheres of influence. The arrival of Trump in the White House may force a new paradigm that the Russians never expected.
During the election, Trump made repeated reference to the projection of American power abroad and made specific mention of the defence of Europe. Citing the percentage of gross domestic product spent by European allies on defence, he detailed how France, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Canada spend below the mandated 2% GDP level. The only major NATO members spending more than 2% are the US and the UK. It is no surprise, therefore, that UK Prime Minster Theresa May was the first official foreign head of state to visit the White House and there were certainly candid discussions as to the future of the US commitment to the NATO alliance. Upon her return to the UK, the PM must have sent an analysis of her meeting with Trump to other NATO leaders, certainly to Chancellor Merkel of Germany and President Hollande of France. European allies must understand that either the deficient NATO members ramp up their defence spending or the US would stage a further withdrawal of forces from NATO bases and lighten their commitment to military exercises and land-based strategic nuclear deterrent.
Rather than weakening the alliance as the Russians desire, I believe that Trump’s arrival in office, his vacillation towards NATO and his blunt diplomatic skills will convince Europe’s leadership that they must seriously commit to their own defence with or without the United States. NATO members will increase military spending and strengthen the alliance on their own, and the reality of a resurgent, assertive Russia on their borders will compel them to develop a level of cooperation not seen since the depths of the Cold War of the 1960s and 70s. I predict that the scenario the Russians expected for Europe, one of weakness, discord and disarray, will develop into the opposite – a coordinated, resurgent and committed NATO where the European partners willingly assume leadership of the alliance, replacing the US-centric organization it has been since its inception. Furthermore, the arrival of Trump-like right-wing political actors across Europe are likely to create governments with greater support for their militaries and they will take a harder line against Russian expansionism than previous governments where socialist parties held larger shares in their parliaments. Trump may get what he desires – spending less on NATO and receiving a stronger alliance at the same time.
In Syria, the Russians used American weakness under Obama to create permanent military bases along the Mediterranean coast and allow Russian forces to launch vicious strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s enemies – ISIL and, unfortunately, rebel Kurd forces and the Free Syrian Army aligned with western governments. Trump is not going to back away from the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and will likely stop the hesitation towards assisting Turkey and the Free Syrian Army. Trump will push back against the Russians, coordinating where necessary, as in joint airstrikes against ISIL, but preventing al-Assad’s forces from reasserting control over the totality of Syrian territory. With US support for Turkey, the Syrian Free Army and even clandestine support for the Kurds, the war in Syria will end with a split of the territory, likely a partition with an emasculated al-Assad left to accept a transition of power to an interim government with the promise of asylum in a neutral nation. The Russian dream of Syrian territorial integrity and a stable client-state will not come to pass.
Who speaks for America – Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson, VP Mike Pence, Special Advisor Steve Bannon or Press Secretary Sean Spicer? If you are confused, imagine how the Russians must feel. The lack of consistent messaging out of the Trump Administration could be deliberate, to keep both friends and foes guessing while the administration pursues its chosen policies at home and around the globe. The Russians thought that Trump was an admirer of Putin who would withdraw American power abroad and willingly create a void to be filled by Russian influence. What they are getting so far is an erratic performer who will not hesitate to act in America’s interest even if the results are messy. Messy for whom is the real question, and the answer could be – for the Russians.