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Putin got exactly what he wants from NATO this week, thanks to Trump

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump
President Trump has enjoyed a chummy relationship with Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin

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  • Russia's main strategy to deter NATO is to encourage splits that will paralyze the alliance's ability to respond to aggression in a unified way.
  • NATO only works as long as all its 29 countries remain continuously on board with "Article 5," the promise that they will automatically fight if any of them are attacked. 
  • This week, Trump said Article 5 was merely a "question."
  • Trump has also driven Turkey into a compromising arms deal with Russia.
  • The US president is so toxic that, internally, NATO officials regard him as a security risk.
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is afraid to be seen with him.
  • These splits are exactly what Vladimir Putin wants. 

Russia is not a member of NATO, obviously, and thus Vladimir Putin is not present at the NATO meeting in London on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

Nonetheless, the Russian leader got pretty much exactly what he needed from the meeting, thanks in large part to US President Donald Trump.

The context here is "Article 5," the fundamental guiding principle that underpins the US-Europe military alliance, and its role in deterring military aggression from Russia. Article 5 states that if any member of NATO is attacked, then all of NATO will rush to defend that country.

On paper, it's a scary prospect for Moscow: If Russian troops were to attempt maneuvers in even a small country such as Slovakia or Latvia — which both used to be part of the Soviet Union — then troops from the US, UK and Turkey would rush into war to defend them.

Of course, NATO only works as long as all its 29 countries remain continuously on board with the promise that they will fight even if the war doesn't directly involve them.

This week, Trump said Article 5 was merely a "question."

"I'm going to be discussing that today," he told reporters. "And it's a very interesting question, isn't it?"

This is exactly what Putin wants to hear

Russia's main strategy to deter NATO around its borders is to encourage splits and division within NATO that will paralyze its ability to respond to aggression in a unified way. From Putin's point of view, it doesn't matter that NATO controls up to 3.5 million military service personnel — 500,000 more than Russia — if the NATO troops are too busy arguing amongst themselves when the tanks start rolling.

This "mindset" is a key difference between the way Putin views the world and the way NATO's leaders do.

Since the end of the Cold War, Europe and the US have enjoyed the "peace dividend." They went into the 21st Century assuming the big global conflicts were over. Future wars would be minor, asymmetric skirmishes that superior firepower would easily quash. The Western mindset, in other words, is that the world would be a largely benign place in which democracy would flourish.

Putin, by contrast, is a creature and a product of the former Soviet Union, the KGB, and its successor agencies. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw many of its former countries and territories cede away from Moscow and ally with Europe.

This wasn't just a blow to Russia's national ego. For the Russian state's national security apparatus, it represented a security threat.

Russia's hatred of "encirclement"

For decades, Russia has officially regarded the growth of NATO as an "encirclement" that threatens Russia, in much the same way that the West's Cold War alliances did.

Its defence against the threat is to make sure it retains as much influence as possible in the countries that line its borders. Failing that, it wants those countries weak and disabled, so that they form a confusing buffer zone around Russia's actual border.

The conflict in Ukraine is a good example of that. Russia has outright invaded Crimea, claiming it for its own. Simultaneously, it is conducting low-level, ongoing guerilla combat operations in Donetsk and Donbass, making it impossible for Ukraine to control its territory, but not explicitly declaring it part of Russia.

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who played the nation's president in a popular TV series, and is running for president in next month's election, is photographed on the set of a movie, in Kiev, Ukraine.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

The strategy is clever. It creates a situation where even if NATO wanted to wade-in full scale to reclaim Ukraine's borders, the mission would be confusing and diffuse. Which place would be the priority — Crimea or Donbass? And would NATO be willing to keep troops in both territories, given that the Russian military would be amassed in comfortable readiness, indefinitely, just yards across the border?

NATO, in other words, largely assumes peace is the world's default setting. Russia assumes conflict is the norm.

NATO's false assumptions have led to a troubling decline in military capability

That false assumption on the NATO side has had disastrous consequences for the UK's military readiness. Military funding has dwindled. The British military is no longer big enough nor capable enough of defending the country against a Russian attack, according to General Sir Richard Barrons, the recently retired chief of the UK's Joint Forces Command.

In a 10-page "private" memo to the UK Ministry of Defence, he warned that Britain no longer had the military management or training to defend the country.

"Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force — let alone both concurrently — could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort," he wrote, in a copy of the memo obtained by the Financial Times.

NATO officials regard Trump as a security risk

The divisions in NATO don't end there. Internally, as Insider's Mitch Prothero reported in August, NATO officials regard Trump as a national security risk. The president has a famously chummy relationship with Putin, and willingly takes meetings with him that no one else attends.

This makes them afraid to take a hard line against Russia's provocations — such as testing nuclear-propelled weapons —  or tell the president national security information. He might just blurt it out in a conversation with Putin.

Trump has tweeted classified information in the past, including one incident where he published a photo of an Iranian rocket launch site. That gave the US's adversaries a clearer idea of the US's intel-gathering capabilities.

And then there is Turkey

Turkey controls the largest military force in Europe, and the largest force in NATO outside the US. It also occupies the most strategically sensitive area of NATO — the border with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Its military is constantly active.

And yet Trump has gone out of his way to annoy Turkey. In 2018, he imposed economic sanctions on the country, beggaring its currency and plunging the nation into a sharp recession.

In response, Turkey made a $2.5 billion arms deal with Russia for a new missile system. That deal will give Russia — NATO's main enemy — a new microscope into the capability of Europe's most important military force.

Boris Johnson is afraid to be photographed with him

Trump is so divisive that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is afraid to be photographed with him. Last night Johnson hosted drinks for the NATO leaders at Downing Street. According to Politico, "Johnson was so keen not to be photographed with the U.S. president that he did not even greet him at the door when he and wife Melania arrived at No. 10." 

trump macron handshake brussels
Trump with French president Emmanuel Macron.
Peter Dejong/AP

"The edge of a precipice"

This is why French president Emmanuel Macron told The Economist: "What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO." Macron believes Europe stands on "the edge of a precipice."

Trump's actions have helped Russia's strategy — to sew confusion inside its rivals. The rot has reached Article 5, the fundamental basis of European defence. Europe cannot fight a war against Russia unless NATO is a functioning institution. Right now, Trump is raising questions about that capability.

Putin could not have hoped for more.

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