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The aging Russian bear is yet again prowling the forests of Eastern Europe. From the Baltics to the Nordic states—and everything in between—European leaders are girding themselves for inevitable conflict with Moscow. Since 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to challenge America’s unipolar world order, Russia has engaged in a series of military campaigns aimed at breaking U.S. influence in what Moscow belligerently calls its “Near-Abroad” (mainly Eastern Europe and the Caucasus but also parts of the Middle East). Russia has further extended its reach in places farther afield, such as Africa, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific.
The good news is that the Russian threat today is nowhere near as potent as it was during the Cold War. Still, the Russians are able to threaten the world with advanced missile technology, the world’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile, and they have significant capabilities in cyberspace, space, and in the realm of public diplomacy.
Russia’s military threat is most profoundly felt in Eastern Europe. Here, Russia shares a porous land border with these countries and Moscow possesses a large, though old, tank force poised to strike deep into these poorly defended lands, at any time Moscow should decide to do so.
NATO in the Age of Trump
Since taking office, President Donald J. Trump has had to contend with the view, propagated by his political opponents around the world, that he is a “Russian stooge.” This claim is based on lies and partisan rancor. In fact, Trump has been the toughest president on Russia since Ronald Reagan. Trump has also reinvigorated NATO, contrary to what his opponents claimed he would do.
The NATO of today, unfortunately, is not the NATO of yesterday.
During the Cold War, NATO was truly the greatest defensive military alliance in history. Its members shared the burden along with the United States to protect Western Europe from Soviet aggression. Key members, such as the United Kingdom, West Germany, and Turkey guarded the frontiers of freedom against the threat of Soviet totalitarianism.
Today, NATO is fraying. It has become too big for its own good and the interests of its European members are drastically diverging.
NATO’s once-pivotal southern defensive point of Turkey has become a threat to the West; Germany is weak and looking for a new political paradigm away from Trump’s America; and France is more interested in playing the middle-man between Russia and the United States than they are in protecting Europe from a Russia that their elite continuously lists as a strategic threat. The United Kingdom is also struggling to determine its own future, making its contribution to NATO suspect. Other NATO members, such as Italy and Spain, are too preoccupied by the issue of illegal immigration from North Africa and the Middle East to be concerned with the Russian threat in the east. Greece has strengthened its ties with the West, yet the fact remains that Greece shares deep cultural ties with Russia, due to their Eastern Orthodox Christian faith.
In the east, where the Russian threat is most profoundly felt, it is only Poland that is strong enough to mount a reliable defense against Russian revanchism. In this way, then, Poland is playing the role that West Germany once did against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yet, in contrast with the Cold War, both Washington and Brussels (where NATO is headquartered) refuse full support to Poland in its efforts to deter Russian aggression. Further, traditional NATO partners, such as those in France and Germany, seek to stymie the enhancement of Polish power relative to their own within the framework of the NATO alliance.
Building Fort Trump in Poland
Earlier this year, the president called for the creation of a massive U.S. base in Poland—jokingly referred to as “Fort Trump”—wherein scores of American combat troops and equipment would serve alongside Polish forces, in an effort to deter any potential Russian aggression.
Rather than fulfill these ambitions, Washington has opted instead to deploy a meager 1,000 noncombat U.S. troops to Poland. As Rachel Rizzo of the Center for New American Security commented, “I don’t see the added deterrent effect of sending an extra 1,000 troops. The U.S. already has rotational forces in Eastern Europe that have proven to be effective in deterring Russia.”
Rizzo’s assessment is correct.
The proponents of this limited move claim that this is much better than the creation of “Fort Trump” in Poland because it will “not violate a 1997 security agreement that prohibits the permanent basing of NATO troops in Warsaw Pact countries.” This is bizarre, considering that Washington has spent the last 30 years ignoring other agreements made with Moscow about the limitation of NATO and European Union expansion into former Warsaw Pact states.
In fact, the United States precipitated the current geopolitical crisis with Russia.
For decades, Washington encouraged the seemingly endless expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, knowing full well that Moscow viewed these places in much the same way that Washington views Latin America. Washington would never countenance the presence of Russian or Chinese forces in Cuba or Mexico, yet Washington expected Moscow simply to accept unlimited NATO expansion into their western periphery as a fait accompli. And, now that the Russo-American relationship has broken down to nearly Cold War-era levels of animosity, Washington has opted to undercut its own interests by denying Poland the resources needed to better defend against Russian aggression.
While President Trump has been tougher on Russia than any president in the last 30 years, he has also indicated his willingness to do the mother-of-all geopolitical deals with Russia. Yet, in order to negotiate effectively with a counterpart like Vladimir Putin, Trump needs to have leverage and come from a position of credible strength. Placing “Fort Trump” in Poland would be the leverage Trump needs to get his deal. At the same time, it would enhance the defensive capabilities of those NATO states most threatened by potential Russian aggression.
Russia Can Be Dealt With from a Credible Position of Strength
Russia is a pest under Putin but it is not, we can be thankful, the Soviet Union.
Putin is a conservative imperial nationalist with a transactional and realist foreign policy. No matter what Russian propaganda may say—or what Putin may personally despise about the West—if Washington presents Moscow with a deal, Russia will compromise and opt for diplomacy rather than force.
If present trends continue, then Russia may be compelled to take an irresponsible military action against the United States and its partners if only because the West has pushed Russia away diplomatically while at the same time the West has failed to enhance its defensive perimeter with adequate strength—particularly in Poland.
The mere threat of building “Fort Trump” in Poland, coupled with the Trump Administration’s other bold moves against Russia globally, would accomplish the West’s goals of deterring Russia, strengthening NATO, and preventing a military confrontation of any kind with Russia.
After all, the world needs Washington and Moscow cooperating with—rather than competing against—each other. Protecting Poland would go a long way in achieving these goals. Continued weakness on the part of Washington invites more aggression from Moscow.
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Photo Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images