NATO’s Perfect Storm: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

Photo Credit: NATO

By: Andrew Watts, Columnist

In his first press conference since voters elected Donald Trump into the Oval Office, President Obama sought to reassure allies that the president elect has “a great interest in maintaining our [US] core strategic relationships” and that “there [will be] no weakening of resolve” when it comes to America defending its allies.[i] European leaders, however, have met these reassurances with justified trepidation. A bevy of challenges have confronted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) through its 70-year history, and perhaps none have the potential to be more dangerous than the tandem of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Together, these two leaders could pose an existential threat to the alliance.

NATO is reliant upon American financial and material support, let alone US leadership and commitment. Nearly three-quarters of NATO’s defense spending is undertaken by the US. Only four European members—Great Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia—meet the NATO goal of spending at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense.[ii] Most European members are spending less as of late on defense as a share of economic output. A decline of 1.5% in NATO defense spending in 2015 marked the sixth straight year of overall defense cuts, punctuated by a 12% decrease in Italian defense spending.[iii] This uneven distribution of spending is the primary source of Trump’s animosity for the alliance system. In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times, then-presidential candidate Trump suggested that American military support for NATO allies would be conditional on whether or not they meet their financial obligations to the alliance.[iv] While past US presidents have referred to their European counterparts as “free riders” and have pressured them to increase their defense spending, Trump’s attempt to treat NATO as a commercial enterprise rather than a mutual defense compact could devastate the bloc.

The rhetoric coming out of Washington is of particular concern to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The three Baltic States joined NATO and the European Union in 2004 when Russia was in a relatively weak position. Russia views their integration into the Western bloc as an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence, which is troublesome considering Putin’s intent to restore Russia’s great power status. The Baltics are of geopolitical importance to Moscow not just because they border Russian territory, but because they also separate Russia from Kaliningrad—an enclave that hosts the Russian Baltic fleet and numerous weapons systems. Defensibly, the Baltics are fearful that Putin may orchestrate a Ukraine-style incursion into their territories. Recently retired NATO deputy supreme allied commander Richard Shirreff argues this scenario is not all that far-fetched, as “we have seen recently, regularly, Russian so-called snap-exercises of 30-40,000 troops in which the exercise scenario is the occupation of the Baltic states.”[v] Even more concerning, the Rand Corporation concluded after a series of war games in 2014 and 2015 that not only did NATO not have enough mobilized resources to defend the Baltics from a Russian invasion, but also that Russian forces could reach the capitals of Estonia and Latvia 36-60 hours after the invasion began.[vi]

The bedrock of NATO is Article Five, which in short stipulates that the alliance will come to the defense of a member under attack in order to restore North Atlantic security. Shirreff makes the argument that this is the “blank check that says, ‘if you get attacked, whatever happens, we’re going to come to your aid.’…as soon as you get into a sort of transactional approach, that completely undermines the strength of collective defense.”[vii] Policymakers and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic are fearful that the Trump administration may shy away from its Article Five responsibilities in the event that Russia orchestrates a move against the Baltics. The Russians, for their part, have met Trump’s election with near-jubilation. The parliamentary nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky was pictured celebrating with champagne while many senior Russian officials believe that the Trump administration will respect Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Europe.[viii] These reactions hint that Moscow trusts the Trump administration to cater to Russian interests, particularly when it comes to Eastern Europe.

The present situation does not bode well for the future of NATO. A revisionist Putin may gamble on Trump’s antipathy towards NATO to achieve his goal of expanding Russian power in its traditional sphere of influence. The Baltics could therefore serve as the flashpoint that causes the alliance to collapse. This outcome would undoubtedly fracture and weaken Western Europe, thereby expanding the relative power of Russia. For NATO to weather this perfect storm, president-elect Trump must clearly communicate the United States’ unwavering commitment to the security of the Baltic States and the NATO system. A clear and convincing articulation of this message would likely deter Putin from jeopardizing the future of NATO during the Trump administration.

[i] Juliet Eilperin and Greg Jaffe, “Meeting the Press for the First Time since Trump’s win, Obama says president-elect is committed to NATO,” Washington Post, November, 14, 2016,

[ii] Armin Rosen, “NATO is now facing ‘the biggest security challenges in a generation’ – and European defense spending is rebounding as a result,” Reuters, January 28, 2016,

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Donald Trump, “Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World,” Interview by David Sanger and Maggie Haberman, New York Times, July 21, 2016,

[v] Uri Friedman, “What if Russia Invaded the Baltics – and Donald Trump was President,” The Atlantic, July 27, 2016,

[vi] David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, Rethinking Russia’s Threat to NATO, Arlington, VA: Rand Corporation, 2016,

[vii] Friedman, “What if Russia Invaded the Baltics.”

[viii] Neil Buckley, “Putin’s Delight at Trump’s Win May Soon Wither,” Financial Times, November 20, 2016

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