On July 20, Donald Trump shocked the Western politico-military establishment when he told The New York Times that the United States would protect Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the three formerly Soviet Baltic countries that joined NATO in 2004, from a Russian attack only if they have “fulfilled their obligations to us.” In one fell stroke, Trump proposed to jettison the alliance’s foundational Article 5, which guarantees collective defense, in favor of some impromptu financial calculus. Then, during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention two days later, he declared NATO “obsolete” for failing to “properly cover terror,” adding that "many member countries [are] not paying their fair share [into the alliance]. As usual, the United States has been picking up the cost."
Trump’s various offenses aside, on his latter point, there can be no doubt: of NATO’s 28 member states, only five spend the recommended 2 percent or more of their GDP per year on defense; Estonia is the sole Baltic country to meet the 2-percent benchmark.* The United States, meanwhile, covers 72.2 percent of NATO’s budget. Though even President Barack Obama has complained about NATO’s European “free riders”—given that the EU’s GDP may exceed that of the United States, the critique seems reasonable—Trump, by suggesting that a future U.S. president may, amid a hypothetical crisis of unprecedented magnitude, evaluate treaty obligations by consulting the alliance’s balance sheet alone is unprecedented. Add to that Trump’s apparent personal affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusations from Democrats (even if they turn out to be groundless) that his business interests might predispose him to act in Russia’s interests, and his invitation (possibly proffered sarcastically) that Russia intervene in the U.S. presidential campaign by ferreting out Hillary Clinton’s illegally deleted emails, and you end up with a media maelstrom of his own making.
Yet the very questions Trump has raised about relations between Washington and Moscow—whether a de facto new Cold War is inevitable, and whether there’s any way out of this potentially catastrophic standoff—are worth asking. The ensuing debate would demand serious consideration by policymakers, a willingness to see matters from the Russian perspective, and, given the stakes, the involvement of the American public. After all, during the Cold War, public sentiment about the Soviet Union, and, by extension, the likelihood of nuclear war, influenced national politics in ways scarcely imaginable these days. Present circumstances require a similar reexamination now.
As a starting point, the debate should assess whether NATO’s relentless expansion—begun during the 1990s and proceeding in waves, with Montenegro’s eventual accession, once-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia having been promised membership, and even historically neutral Finland and Sweden now pondering participation—played a role in Russia’s increasingly aggressive posturing toward the West. As the world’s most powerful military alliance slid up to Russia’s borders, the West couldn’t have expected Putin to sit idle. After all, what would the United States do if Russia began stationing troops in northern Mexico? History offers a precedent: When the Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, President John F. Kennedy took the world to the brink of nuclear war to force their withdrawal.
Before the Baltic nations acceded into NATO, Putin was disinclined to consider the alliance an enemy. But since 2007, he has objected to the “unipolar world” that, in his view, the United States has sought to establish, with utter disregard for Russia’s security interests. Expanding NATO (and using it to replace the EU, according to Putin ) was the key means of imposing such hegemony in Europe. In March 2014, after masterminding Russia’s stealth occupation and annexation of Crimea, under Ukrainian control since 1954, Putin stated that the prospect of NATO taking over naval bases located there and leased by Russia prompted his intervention. But the matter goes far beyond Crimea. It concerns Russia’s place in a world dominated, since the end of World War II, by the United States and NATO. The alliance was established, after all, to counter Soviet military might in Eastern Europe. In 1990, a year before the Soviet Union’s collapse, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker offered his Russian counterparts “iron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward” if Moscow permitted the reunification of Germany. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev accepted the deal, but never actually got it in writing.
NATO’s continued European expansion through the decades, like its bombing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia to coerce an end to internecine wars tearing the region apart, demonstrated a willingness to use force in Russia’s backyard against one of its historical allies. This marked the beginning of Moscow’s ever-more troubled relations with the West. NATO’s plans to take in Georgia and Ukraine set the stage for Russia’s 2008 war with the former, and turned the latter into a potential strategic threat. These tensions only further fed Russian fears that Washington would stop at nothing to challenge Moscow, even in its “near abroad.”
From Putin’s point of view, NATO’s campaign in support of the rebels in Libya in 2011 appeared duplicitous, to say the least. The intervention exceeded what the United States had agreed to with Russia under the relevant U.N. Security Council resolution, and led to the death of Muammar Qaddafi. Then came Vice President Joe Biden’s stated opposition—declared in Moscow, no less—to Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, Putin’s suspicion that the United States had backed mass protests against him in 2011 and 2012, and the occasional backhanded insult from President Obama (who has said Putin acts like a “bored kid in the back of a classroom,” and that Russia is no more than a “regional power” that threatens its neighbors out of “weakness”). Seen through Russia’s eyes, this adds up to decades of humiliation, dished out by a triumphalist United States eager to draw attention to its shrunken sphere of influence, question the legitimacy of its government, and treat the country as if it were, in Putin’s words, “vassal” of the West—not the Great Power it had been since the days of Peter the Great.
After the Maidan protest movement led to the ouster of Ukraine’s President Yanukovych in early 2014, tensions, provocations, and military maneuvers, escalated dramatically between Russia and the West, especially following the annexation of Crimea. NATO now plans to station (or, officially, rotate in and out, to avoid violating the NATO-Russia Founding Act) four battalions in the Baltic states and Poland. In May, a NATO-operated missile defense shield went online in Romania. During the Cold War, such shields were regarded as inherently destabilizing and were mostly banned. But in 2001, the United States announced plans to withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with the Soviet Union 30 years before. Russia considers the missile defense system a threat to its nuclear deterrent, and yet one more reminder of NATO’s encroaching military might.
It’s fair to ask why NATO, in the absence of a Soviet or Soviet-level threat, or any real public debate, has been expanding beyond its historical mandate. As far back as 1993, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar announced that NATO had to “go out of area or out of business.” After 9/11, it did indeed go out of area—to Afghanistan. By 2011, though, conservative columnist George Will was warning that, with the NATO-coordinated no-fly-zone over Libya, the alliance “which could long ago have unfurled a ‘mission accomplished’ banner, is now an instrument of addlepated mischief.” Will advised that, when this misadventure is finished, “America needs a national debate about whether NATO should be finished. Times change.”
Or they should have. A movement to abolish or reform NATO has yet to emerge; any such proposal would entail a sober reassessment of U.S. security interests and political realities. What if Russia did, in fact, attack the Baltics? Would the United States risk a nuclear holocaust and go to war with Russia over Tallinn or Riga? Most Americans would likely respond by asking where those cities are, and why they should die for them (at least one Russian security expert has credibly proposed that the Kremlin understands this, and could call the United States’ bluff). NATO’s decision to invite the Baltics to join, when we now know that Russia could seize the region in 60 hours, seems, to say the least, short-sighted, and predicated on Russia remaining as weak and passive as it was in the Yeltsin years. Far from making NATO stronger, inducting the Baltics may have turned Article 5 into a dead letter, and “the most important military alliance in world history,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called it, into a paper tiger.
Some perspective is in order. When Russia, in its Soviet incarnation, was strong, the United States did not intervene to thwart the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 or combat the Soviet invasions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nor did it counter Poland’s imposition of martial law in 1981. As much as the United States supported Eastern European movements for democracy (rhetorically, at least), it recognized they were taking place within the Soviet sphere of influence, where strategically, militarily, and geographically, Moscow held all the cards.
This is all the more so in Ukraine. At the very least, NATO would be wise to evaluate the outcome of its expansions and U.S. support for the post-Yanukovych, pro-NATO regime in Kiev: nearly 10,000 deaths in a stalemated civil war in Ukraine’s east, plus the effective loss of the two embattled ethnic Russian provinces; a politically paralyzed, pro-Western Ukrainian government that is likely at least as corrupt as the one it replaced; the takeover of Crimea; an ominous military buildup in Russia; a risk of nuclear conflict now perhaps as high as it was during the worst years of the Cold War, or higher. George Kennan’s prediction about what would happen if NATO expanded—“a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia”—may yet be realized. And if the West hoped to hurt the still-popular Putin by “isolating” Russia, it has, if anything, helped strengthen his hold on power and gin up anti-Western sentiment in Russia.
Trump, meanwhile, has warned that any attempt to retake Crimea could lead to World War III. One hopes that no such plans are underway. Decision-makers in both Washington and Moscow should, perhaps, consider a Détente, 2.0.—a policy that will ease tensions between them, reorganize U.S. strategic priorities, address both the bankruptcy and danger of the current confrontation, and capitalize on the benefits that would follow from renewed cooperation with Russia. Moral absolutists, take note: Détente 2.0 is advisable, regardless of your feelings about Putin. The original version of the policy involved U.S. engagement with the Soviet Union under then-Premier Leonid Brezhnev, who oversaw a statewide security apparatus far more repressive than anything Russia has known since 1991.
Détente 2.0 would entail the renunciation, in writing, of NATO’s plans to invite Ukraine and Georgia, coupled with Moscow’s recognition that both countries retain the right to join whatever economic or political union they desire; a draw-down of Russian and NATO forces in the Baltics region; the cancellation of Western sanctions on Russia, and vice versa; a U.N.-supervised referendum in Crimea to determine its status (with the United States prepared to respect the results, even if, as polls in Crimea show, they indicate a desire to remain within Russia); the removal of nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert; the renewal of serious arms-control negotiations; and, finally, the implementation of the Minsk Agreement to end the civil war in Ukraine’s east.
A restored relationship with Russia would serve everyone’s interests and make an increasingly dangerous, more chaotic world safer. It is a good idea—even if Donald Trump suggested it.
* This article originally stated that spending 2 percent of GDP on defense is an obligation under the NATO treaty. It is not a requirement, but a goal, set by the leaders of the alliance member countries in 2014, that is to be reached by 2024. We regret the error.