Opinion: Dear Mr. Trump–don't appease Putin at Eastern Europe's expense ({{commentsTotal}})

Jüri Estam
Jüri Estam Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

I and many other Estonians await the summit between the United States and Russia in Finland taking place today, Monday. 16 July, with a certain sense of unease. I hope I'm wrong, but the feeling gnaws at us nonetheless. Situated across the narrow Gulf of Finland from us to the north, Helsinki – the city hosting the US-Russia summit – happens to be located little more than a stone's throw away from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

The view from Northeastern Europe

The Russian President Vladimir Putin can be expected to see if he can extract one or even several concessions from Donald Trump in Finland, with the issue of policy towards Iran and other bargaining chips presumably lying on the table even now, as the meeting nears, and is in fact taking palce.

What the American president does or doesn't do during his meeting with the Russian leader could impact particularly the Baltic States, but also the other countries sandwiched between Russia and Western Europe. All of this could go in either a positive or a chilling manner for us. Depending on what it is that Putin might try to get the US President to concede, there's a good chance that the agenda of the meeting is going to impact on lots of people, going far beyond the personal instincts of Mr. Trump.

It isn't excessive to say that Eastern Europe has been sold down the river on several occasions in history (or abandoned or let down, regardless of how you want to phrase it). This makes us leery in anticipation of the possible outcomes of the Helsinki summit. If you lived in a geopolitical china shop as we do, you too would want Western allies to remain mindful of regional concerns and sensitivities.

What might Putin be attempting to gain from this meeting?

If I were Vladimir Putin, what goals would I be gunning for as I head off to negotiate and parlay with Trump? Putin can be expected to encourage Mr. Trump to follow through on the President's impulse to remove U. troops from Europe.

If he fails at that, Putin can try to extract a promise from the American leader that Washington and NATO will never base troops in the Baltic States or elsewhere along the eastern flank of Europe on a permanent basis. The comparatively small garrisons currently posted to the three Baltic States by allied nations (including the US) are here on a rotational basis. While we're genuinely grateful for their presence here, the sense of the potential impermanence of such a rotating arrangement does keep us on edge a bit. Isn't it possible that while Vladimir Putin protests too much, the western countries just plain pay too much attention to his complaints, which ultimately results in near-paralysis, instead of attending to self-interest?

If I were Russia, I'd want the Baltic States to stay vulnerable and remain unable to defend their air space with Pershing or other heavy-duty interceptor missiles. My overall goal would be that Eastern Europe as a whole must never be given the chance to attain a credible and sufficient deterrent capability.

There are actual reasons why the US should want Eastern Europe to achieve a sufficient defensive posture, such as the vital need to keep NATO from losing its credibility in the event of a potential conflict. Certainly one of the reasons why the US used to keep large numbers of troops on European soil was to try to "keep it in Europe", helping to avoid future conflict from physically spilling over onto America's home turf.  

Why not shift American presence from Germany to Northeastern Europe, where it's needed more?

Warsaw has asked the US if Washington might not consider positioning an American armoured division on Polish soil. Not for free, but with Poland ponying up a proposed US$2 billion to the US for the upkeep of that armoured deterrent.

If I were Putin, I'd try real hard to nip something like this in the bud. After all, the Baltic States might get similar ideas, and maybe there are policy makers out there somewhere who might try to work out long-term leasing or other payment arrangements that would enable Estonia and others to procure expensive but nonetheless vital American and other military hardware that the Baltic countries don't quite seem to be able to afford yet.

Although we're working to do better, the Baltic States and several other countries neighbouring Russia, continue to have lamentably weak defensive postures. As things now stand, successfully sending reinforcements to NATO's Achilles heel of the Baltic States in a crisis situation would be a tough nut to crack, which is how Moscow would like to keep it.

Never mind the fact that Russians have been methodically upgrading their own war fighting capabilities in recent years. Although things are slowly moving in the right direction for the Baltic States, NATO resources aren't yet being applied in a truly determined fashion in the Baltic corner, which is where the rubber of additional investments should actually be hitting the road without additional delay.

America needs to remain committed to traditional policy concerning aggression

If I were Donald Trump's conversation partner in Finland today, Monday, I'd very much encourage the US President to keep vacillating in the area of international law. I'd push him to break with America's long-standing doctrine that refuses to legitimize the use of aggression for territorial gain. I'd push Trump to approve the annexation of the Crimean peninsula (in writing, if possible), creating a catastrophic precedent for our era. Should the US stop condemning the belligerent takeover of territory, abandoning the unified stance that the Western community has stuck to for decade upon decade, I – Vladimir Putin – would be hopping up and down with glee, but only on the inside, hiding my feeling of accomplishment behind my deadpan face.

For more than half a century after World War Two, the US and her allies never recognised the forcible annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the USSR. Maps printed in the US back in those days included a printed disclaimer to that effect. Awareness that America was legally and morally standing by the Baltic States gave the citizens of these three countries a lot of comfort throughout the truly difficult years of Soviet occupation.

If the US were to dispense with non-recognition policy, even if just for the duration of the Trump presidency, this would do much legal damage internationally, and could embolden Russia to continue to try to take other territory in Europe. Other players elsewhere might also take this as a green light.

One additional questionable outcome that the Trump-Putin meeting could have would be the freezing of participation by US troops in military readiness exercises in the Baltic region, or even in Northern Europe more generally. A precedent of this kind was recently set in respect to South Korea.

A withdrawal of US naval vessels from the Baltic Sea region would be equally problematic. Should this happen, the Baltic could start to resemble a "Russian lake", meaning a body of water substantially dominated by the Russian warships and aircraft that even now shuttle back and forth on a frequent basis between the naval bases of St. Petersburg and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

It's important that the Baltic remain a "free sea" ("mare liberum"), as opposed to a closed sea ("mare clausum"). The only thing that can keep the Baltic sea open is for vessels from many countries to keep putting in regular appearances in this body of water, to include making port visits. 

Stand firm

It would be peculiar if the Russian leader were not to try all kinds of gambits in Finland. I was initially going to aver that he would "attempt to set traps for Donald Trump", but you get my drift. 

Having past experience with secret protocols and secret clauses, many of us in Eastern Europe would prefer it if Mr. Trump didn't go into the meeting unaccompanied [which in fact he did - ed.], and that he keep his guard up.

"Do no harm": Lead Vladimir Putin not into temptation! This is Eastern European experience speaking, not paranoia. It would of course be welcome if something good can come of the Trump-Putin summit without harming other Western interests, such as an improved nuclear arms control climate. One way or another, we'd be like to be able to breath more easily, knowing that decisions won't be made over our heads in Helsinki that might lead to the worsening of the position of the Central and Eastern European countries in great power politics.

Donald Trump has shown a lot of brazenness in Brussels and the UK over the past few days. When push comes to shove, Putin remains in essence a troublemaker. Some of the chutzpah that is usually so characteristic of Trump would thus surely be welcome on Monday in Helsinki too, "mano a mano".  

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Jüri Estam is a journalist and consultant who lives in Estonia. In the 1970s he was an Engineer NCO in the US special forces, and in the 1980s a member of the Estonian editorial board at Radio Free Europe in Munich, and in the 1990s he worked in the media in Estonia including as a television presenter, political commentator and documentary film producer, and the director of a chain of commercial radio stations.

Editor: Andrew Whyte



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