In a peculiar way, the five EU leaders who gathered last week in Berlin for a farewell meeting with Barack Obama, closely followed the outgoing American President in his hard line stance against Russia and Vladimir Putin. The Obama administration has been persistently pressing the Europeans to impose more sanctions on Russia on various reasons including the Syria and Ukraine issues. Despite that, during the many years of the Ukrainian crisis, Germany, France and Italy had been much more flexible towards Moscow’s interference in the Russian speaking eastern part of the devastated country than the belligerent Americans.
Berlin has been insisting for a political solution all along the Ukrainian civil war. Together with France, Germany had come to terms with Russia, in a deal that Washington did what it could to undermine, by supporting the most aggressive right-wing elements in Kiev. As for the Syrian civil war, only days ago the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said he couldn’t see the connection between more sanctions against Russia, with the facilitation of aid to the Syrian people. However, now that Donald Trump, the US President-elect has won the White House on a cooperative approach with regard to Russia, the Europeans make a full U-turn and adopt the aggressive attitude of the outgoing US administration. Why? Let’s try to dig a bit into that.
Europe changes its stance
Last week, Barack Obama – visiting Europe for the last time as President of the US – met in Berlin the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the British Prime Minister Theresa May, the French President Francois Hollande, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The EU leaders unreservedly joined their American guest, when he advised Trump to continue being hostile against Russia.
This European policy change becomes even more significant, because the new President-elect had just criticized NATO and stated that he opts for warmer relations with Russia. Last Friday, Trump, with a characteristic delay, spoke over the telephone with Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO. Afterwards, it was announced that the two men agreed that the Organization is of “enduring importance”, an obvious understatement about this mighty politico-military Organization.
Trump criticizes NATO-Europe
Surprisingly enough, this is all Trump had to say about NATO and Europe. In contrast, after the Berlin meeting, the White House announced that the six leaders (Obama+ 5 Europeans) “affirmed the importance of continued co-operation through multilateral institutions, including NATO”. No need to underline the differentiation between Trump and Obama, regarding the way the ingoing and the outgoing Presidents sees the US relations with Europe. Trump, on many occasions during his electoral campaign, had stressed he expected the Europeans to stop counting on American defense spending and aggressively asked them to search deep into their pockets, to foot the NATO bills.
Obviously, the Europeans are not ready to pay and thus support the US political and military presence in Europe, through increased contributions to the NATO budget. The EU has already adopted other options. Incidentally, after the Brexit, France and Germany found the opportunity to plan the strengthening of EU’s autonomous security and defense abilities, outside NATO structures. This will be realized along the lines of the ‘EU Common Foreign and Security Policy’. According to the EU Foreign Affairs Council of 14 November this initiative “will enhance EU’s global strategic role and its capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible”. Understandably, if there will be no partners, the EU can alone interfere militarily all over the globe on its own account.
Franco-German plan for own defenses
To be reminded, that, as long as Britain retained the ‘veto’ power in the EU decision making process, London had been blocking similar defense initiatives of Franco-German inspiration, on the basis that it would get in the way of the NATO structures. Of course, very possibly it will. This British standpoint was clearly inspired by Washington. Up to now, the Americans through NATO have had a tight watch over what is happening in Europe. Yet, after Trump’s criticism of NATO and amity with Russia, it seems that France and Germany have decided to spend more money for their defenses, but not through NATO.
Strategically then, if Trump chooses to make concessions to Russia in order to achieve a “constructive cooperation” as he agreed last week with Putin, the EU and more so Germany will be obliged to increase own defense and security capabilities. In this way an unbiased observer can explain both the new EU security and defense initiative and the willingness of the Europeans to distance themselves from the Trump – Putin rapprochement, and instead follow Obama’s caution vis-à-vis Russia. It is characteristic that after the telephone conversation between Trump and Putin the US President-elect staff issued a very telling statement.
According to Reuters “The statement said Trump told Putin he was looking forward to a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and its people. The two men will maintain contact by phone and seek to meet each other in person, the statement added”. The Kremlin went even further. In a Press release it said, “The importance of creating a solid basis for bilateral ties was underscored (by the two leaders), in particularly by developing the trade-economic component”. Presently, the US is implementing extensive economic, financial, trade and administrative sanctions on Russia and on a long list of physical persons, reaching the entourage of Putin.
If Trump really means what he says about a ‘strong and enduring relationship’ with Russia, then a lot of things will change in Europe and elsewhere in the world. This possibility became even more probable after Trump made retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn as his National Security Adviser. Flynn has a reputation of ‘Russia lover’ and last August he delivered a paid speech in Moscow and then had dinner with Putin. He is considered as an enemy of the Muslim world and sees Russia as an invaluable ally in the war against the ISIS jihadists. At the end of the day it seems that the Americans are so deeply divided, as to choose and fight different…enemies.
There is no doubt then, that Trump will, or at least try to, rewrite the book of the United States foreign affairs.