The contrast between President Donald Trump’s meetings in Warsaw and his encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg could not be starker. The first was a reunion with one of America’s closest allies that supports US leadership to keep Europe secure. The second was a session with America’s primary adversary whose aims are to undercut US links with Europe and open up the continent to predominant Russian influence.
Both the US and Polish administrations stood to benefit from Trump’s visit to Poland before the President headed to Germany for the G20 Summit. For the White House, it demonstrated and clarified US commitments to the NATO alliance and to its article 5 guarantees of common defense in the event of attack.
Trump’s speech in Warsaw and his meeting with several Central and Eastern European (CEE) leaders gathered for the “Three Seas Initiative” is a significant move to generate trans-Atlantic solidarity when confronting a belligerent Moscow. The Three Seas Initiative is a Polish-led forum assembling twelve EU countries spanning half of continental Europe between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas and designed to bolster regional cooperation in energy, trade, and infrastructure.
Trump’s stopover in Warsaw also pinpointed Poland as a dependable ally than does not shirk from its military responsibilities. Poland is one of five NATO countries that currently spend over 2% of its GDP on defense, although several of its CEE neighbors will soon join the frontrunners. Trump’s visit underscored that the White House remains wedded to the NATO alliance and is urging other members to strengthen trans-Atlantic bonds by increasing their military contributions. Warsaw also serves as a valuable example of increasing energy independence from Russia. Poland is boosting its imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US and seeks to multiply the presence of American business.
For the government in Warsaw, Trump’s visit was important for two reasons. First, it highlighted Poland as a key ally and reinforced its diplomatic and military defenses against Russia. Second, it provided much needed international legitimacy to the Law and Justice Party government, which has been under criticism from its EU partners for increasing party controls over state institutions and the official media.
Trump’s national security team must also be calculating that the President’s learning curve about NATO and Russia was reinforced by his Polish visit. President Andrzej Duda and other interlocutors heightened Trump’s awareness that the most dangerous security threats along NATO’s eastern flank stemmed from Kremlin policy, particularly in Ukraine and toward the Baltic states.
In contrast to the Warsaw sessions, the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg was hyped as a unique event for both Presidents. They reportedly discussed a range of questions – from Syria and Ukraine to cyberspace, terrorism, and Russia’s election meddling. But despite all the fanfare, pleasantries, and verbal commitments, in practice the fundamental strategic differences between the US and Putin’s Russia cannot be resolved by any US President even if some temporary agreements are made. Moscow’s overarching goal in the wider European theater is to reverse US influence and raise Russia’s stature. Indeed, Putin’s Russia defines itself as the global anti-America, preying on the vulnerabilities of its key adversary.
Each incoming US President seems to minimize or overlook Kremlin objectives and engages in a courtship ritual with Russian officials. A high-level engagement is arranged usually with overblown expectations, the new US President dismisses his predecessor’s failure to reach accommodation with Moscow, and makes a bold declaration to cooperate against some global menace. In their counter-ritual, Russia’s high officials pose as reliable partners and trumpet Russia’s indispensability in resolving pressing global problems.
Inevitably, after a short affair, it transpires that the vows made between the two capitals were not symmetrical. In retrospect, there are few if any gains for America, but the dalliance has provided Moscow with breathing room to engage in new international offensives and offered strategic advantages vis-a-vis the US. This was the case in 2009 when the Obama administration cancelled plans for installing a missile defense system in Central Europe in an effort to placate the Kremlin. The move was perceived by several US allies as an act of betrayal displaying naiveté toward the Putin regime.
Any US-Russia flirtation also enables Moscow to gather intelligence on US capabilities and intentions while lulling Washington into a false sense of security as the Kremlin prepares for its next act of international assertiveness. Even though Trump signaled in Hamburg his interest in a new relationship with Russia, his advisors will urge him to remain skeptical and be prepared for disappointments, so that America is not extorted and duped once again.
After the Trump-Putin meeting, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that Washington was seeking a commitment from Moscow that it will not interfere in American and other elections in the future, a claim that Putin has fervently denied despite all evidence to the contrary. The Secretary described this as a potentially intractable disagreement. Fortunately for President Trump, his national security team appears to be well versed in Moscow’s tactics and understands Putin’s objectives to make Russia great again at America’s expense.