The Testing Ground for Trump's Russia Policy

The vice president embarks on a tour of Eastern Europe—and wades into the contradictions of the administration’s approach to Moscow.

Along the Estonian-Russian border (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

At the moment, U.S.-Russian relations could be thought of as a live experiment in the “Great Man” theory of history, which attributes historical change to the actions of exceptional individuals rather than impersonal forces that transcend any man or woman. If it were up to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, it seems, Russia and the United States would be teaming up to defeat terrorism, leaving the bitter days of sanctions and election meddling and proxy wars behind them.

The evidence to date, however, suggests it’s mostly not up to the two men. Despite all the speculation about the American president cozying up to the Kremlin, the United States under Trump has repeatedly done the opposite. Yes, Trump has echoed Putin talking points, wavered on clearly committing to defend NATO allies, and ended some U.S. funding for rebels fighting Russia’s ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad. Yet since Trump took office, the U.S. government has also attacked Assad’s forces, admitted another country to the NATO military alliance over Russian objections, and advanced new sanctions to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Many members of Congress and Trump’s own administration, including the president’s defense secretary and national-security adviser, consider Russia a U.S. adversary. Many Americans, amid investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, are suspicious of any White House concession to the Kremlin. And so far, these views, as well as the clashing geopolitical goals of the two world powers, have proven stronger than Trump’s desire to pursue friendlier relations with Moscow.

In the latest sign of the Russia hawks prevailing over the Russia doves, Vice President Mike Pence departs Sunday for a four-day trip to Eastern Europe, where he’ll seek to reassure U.S. allies who see nearby Russia as a threat—and to shore up NATO in particular as a bulwark against that threat.

In Estonia, he’ll meet with the leaders of the three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who are among NATO’s easternmost members. In Georgia, an aspiring NATO member, he’ll visit troops involved in a NATO-affiliated military exercise. And in Montenegro, a new NATO member that has never before received such a high-ranking U.S. official, he’ll attend a summit of current and potentially future NATO members.

According to the White House, Pence is making the trip “at the direction of President Trump.” And surely there’s some truth to that. But the direction of President Trump—especially when it comes to Russia—is far from clear. The countries on Pence’s itinerary offer examples for how the administration’s perplexing, bifurcated approach to Russia could be poked and prodded in the coming months and years. Small nations such as Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro, which straddle East and West, literally test the limits of the America-First president’s commitment to U.S. allies and to fundamentally changing America’s relationship with Russia. And unlike another testing ground for Trump’s Russia policy—his response to Russia’s alleged intervention in the U.S. election—the one in Eastern Europe will yield results that don’t primarily affect Americans. It isn’t all about “us.”

It’s also very much about Estonians and Georgians and Montenegrins: The vice president is visiting a region that is “somewhere in between the EU and NATO and Russia,” Vesko Garcevic, a former Montenegrin ambassador to NATO, told me. “Therefore, for Russia, this is really a battleground—a place where Russia can influence countries.”

Or consider the view from Moscow: “The Baltic states right now are seen as a U.S./NATO foothold close to Russia’s main [power] centers; Georgia is a U.S. ally in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region, a sensitive area in security terms,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an email. As the Kremlin sees it, Pence “will be visiting the new U.S. sphere of influence. Russian conventional thinking maintains that the U.S. is supporting the Balts, Georgians, and Ukrainians not because they are democratic or strive for democracy but because they are vehemently anti-Russian and are only too happy to lease their territory to the Pentagon, CIA, et al.”

In each country that Pence is visiting, the perceived threat from Russia looks different. In Georgia, which fought a war with neighboring Russia in 2008 that left two Georgian breakaway regions in de facto Russian control, there are fears that the Kremlin could do what it did in Ukraine in 2014: support separatists and seize control of just enough territory to keep the country in Russia’s sphere of influence and out of the West’s. Moscow currently seems content to nibble around the edges of Georgian territory, in what Georgian officials have condemned as “creeping occupation.”

In Montenegro, the threat is more political than military. The former Yugoslav republic joined NATO in June despite Russian vows to retaliate against its onetime ally for taking a “hostile course”—one that would cut the Russian navy off from the Adriatic Sea and reduce Russia’s sway in the Balkans. And several Serbian and Russian nationals will soon go on trial in Montenegro for allegedly planning a coup last fall that would have overthrown the nation’s pro-West government, brought the pro-Russia opposition to power, and thwarted Montenegro’s bid to become part of NATO and eventually the European Union. Montenegrin authorities claim the Russian government was involved in the plot, which the Kremlin denies. Montenegro is a young, fragile democracy, Garcevic observed, and Russia has exploited its “democratic deficiencies” to “gain greater geopolitical influence in the region.”

In Estonia, a former Soviet republic that is now a thriving democracy ensconced in NATO and the EU, the main concern is Russia manipulating Estonian politics and policy by, for instance, launching cyberattacks, tampering with energy supplies, engaging in information warfare, or carrying out limited military provocations. The present preoccupation involves Russia’s plans to stage large-scale military drills, known as Zapad (“West”), in Belarus this fall, ahead of which NATO has rotated troops through the Baltics and Poland. Baltic leaders are now increasing their defense budgets—already among NATO’s most robust—and asking the alliance to permanently deploy anti-aircraft weapons in their countries as further deterrents against Russian aggression.

The wide open question, however, is the extent to which Pence’s reassurance tour can really reassure these countries.

“People here, politicians, are puzzled with the new administration’s position toward Russia,” said Garcevic. There are moments when that position “seems to be very friendly and forthcoming to Putin,” which suggests the United States is “turning its back to the Balkans,” he explained, and other moments when it appears to be a “more traditional American approach” of fully supporting NATO and America’s European alliances.

“Sometimes it seems like an unguided missile,” Garcevic mused. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Since Montenegrin officials “are interested in having good relations with the U.S.,” they try to “minimize and downplay, water down, what President Trump says, particularly in his tweets,” Garcevic added. But when I presented him with a scenario—Pence tells the Montenegrin government everything it wants to hear, only for Trump to complain about NATO on Twitter a couple days later—Garcevic acknowledged the limits of this approach. “If Trump says this, this would be like a cold shower,” he responded. “This will cast a shadow over what I’m assuming the vice president will do in the Balkans.”

I found Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who left office as Estonia’s president shortly before Trump was elected, similarly mystified. “There will be cyber cooperation [between the U.S. and Russia], there won’t be cyber cooperation, now there is cyber cooperation,” he said. You have Trump and his supporters “trying to dream up some kind of conspiracy on the part of Ukraine against Trump and then you have [Trump’s Ukraine envoy] Kurt Volker saying … there are more Russian tanks in Ukraine than there are tanks in Western Europe.”

“Were I to be in office right now, the concern would be trying to [determine] what is exactly the [U.S.] policy that we’re going to have to count on,” Ilves told me. So, I asked, how would he describe that policy?

He laughed. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really does.”

It’s wrong to picture Estonian leaders panicking, Ilves said, but they’re probably confused. “How do we proceed?” he asked. “Do we spend more money on [defense]? Do we start pushing for something in the European Union? Do we want NATO to have a shift in focus?”

It used to be that “when the [American] president says something, it becomes policy,” noted Ilves, who served as Estonia’s president for 10 years, spanning the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Now he’s unsure, especially when it comes to Trump’s tweets. “I think that they don’t reflect policy,” he said.

Trenin, for his part, dismissed the idea behind much of the unease in Eastern European capitals: that Russia is poised to act aggressively against another country in its neighborhood, as it did in Ukraine. The worry is based on the assumption that Russia has some inherent desire to “expand, invade, [and] subjugate others,” Trenin argued, and that assumption is mistaken.From the Kremlin’s standpoint, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine [after a revolution overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych] was a defensive move. The importance of Ukraine to Russia’s security and the Russian psyche can hardly be overestimated.”

There “is only one Ukraine,” Trenin added.

Nearby countries such as the Baltic nations will remain fearful of Russia, Trenin conceded, but those fears have less to do with Russia itself than with the West, whose leaders failed to protect them during the World War II era. (The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a 1939 agreement in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union secretly staked out spheres of influence in the Baltics and elsewhere in the region, is “the big national scar” for Estonia and the other plundered countries, Ilves told me. From the Estonian perspective, great powers made a deal “about you,” he explained. This left a legacy of “paranoia” that “is always a subcurrent” of the public’s thinking on Russia-related matters.)

“In 1939-40, Britain and France did not much help [these countries] against the Nazis,” Trenin wrote to me. “Now they are not sure whether the United States would defend them against a nuclear superpower. During the Cold War, the unanswered question was whether Washington would REALLY risk losing Chicago for Hamburg. Would it do so now for Tallinn? Since there can be no clear answer, there will always be fears”—whether Donald Trump is in office or not.

As for the Trump administration’s contradictory Russia policy, and the latest move in Congress to impose additional sanctions on Russia in legislation that also slaps sanctions on Iran and North Korea, Trenin had this to say: “I think the Kremlin views the U.S. as a dysfunctional polity, with its political class at war with itself and its society deeply divided along cultural fault lines. Under these circumstances one hardly expects a consistent policy.”

“The president has to bow to the prevailing anti-Russian consensus in the policy establishment,” he continued. “The new sanctions bill, which puts Russia into the same category of U.S. worst enemies as Iran and North Korea, is a very candid statement that virtually nothing positive can be achieved between the U.S. and Russia for a long time to come,” despite the hopes of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement that initially followed Trump’s election.

“Bad as they are now, U.S.-Russian relations continue to get worse, edging ever closer to a kinetic collision between their armed forces somewhere: in Syria, over the Baltic and Black Seas, or Ukraine,” Trenin warned. Putin’s decision this week to retaliate against America’s retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 election, which included the seizure of U.S. diplomatic properties and a demand that the United States cut its diplomatic staff in the country, “will usher in a new and harsher round of rivalry” between the two countries, he predicted. On Sunday, Mike Pence wades into the territory where that rivalry is fiercest.