The Trump administration offered a bear hug to Moscow. But the countries that should have scared the most are thrilled with Trump so far.
- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
An affinity for Russia fills the air in some sections of Washington these days. President Donald Trump himself constantly talks of wanting to work well with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the Oval Office, Trump apparently shared sensitive intelligence with Russian officials. Despite some reassuring noises from corners of the administration, Trump continues to browbeat NATO over its relevance and its cost.
All of which should make Central and Eastern European countries who’ve spent the last seventy-odd years under the heel or under the shadow of Russia more than a bit nervous. During the campaign, Trump seemed to imply the United States may not honor its NATO commitments if a member state like Estonia came under attack. And his first budget would slash aid funding for Eastern European states.
And yet, diplomats from those countries are thrilled with what they’ve seen, heard, and gotten from the Trump administration so far — belying some initial concerns that he might throw American allies under the bus and cozy up to Moscow.
“Really, looking at it, we have to say we have had amazingly good, high-level meetings that we didn’t have at this early stage of the last administration,” Kairi Saar-Isop, a counsellor at the Embassy of Estonia in Washington, told Foreign Policy. The three Baltic foreign ministers have already met with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, she noted. “They never met Obama’s.” (Saar-Isop would not say who requested the meeting.)
“We have been able to talk substance,” Saar-Isop said. “From our point of view, it has been really, really good.”
And that’s not gone unnoticed in the region. Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric worried Estonians, noted Andres Kasekamp, a professor of Baltic Studies at the University of Tartu. But the appointment of McMaster, and U.S. troops on the ground and new F-35 jets patrolling the skies above Estonia “have been very reassuring,” he said.
The apparent shift from what Trump promised on the campaign to the reality of his early months in office is not limited to diplomacy. His first budget demolishes many programs for the poor and elderly that he promised to protect, for instance.
But explaining the Trump administration’s open-arms approach to previously nervous Europeans is a bit harder. It could be that all the sound and fury surrounding the FBI counterintelligence investigation into the Trump team’s possible collusion with Moscow to hack the election makes the administration particularly sensitive to upholding the traditional U.S. role of being a bulwark against Russia.
It could be a reflection of the lack of staffing in the new administration: High-level meetings are about the only kind of meetings you can get when most of the desks are empty. At present, the Trump administration still has yet to nominate 445 of the 559 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, including the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs.
Or the seeming contrast with the Obama years could be a reflection of President Barack Obama’s early efforts to reset relations with Russia, and kick-start the U.S. pivot to Asia, rather than doing much to bolster transatlantic ties.
Whatever the reason, attention to the Baltic states is arguably higher than it was during the Obama years, Andris Teikmanis, the Latvian ambassador to the United States, told Foreign Policy. He says he heard just what he wanted when it came to “commitment to American engagement on European soil, commitment to American presence in the Baltic region, commitment to NATO — all these questions were raised.”
“We are a neighboring country with Russia. We should be vigilant with Russia. But I should say the meetings we have had and experience we have had — we have got answers that are very much in the line we have expected.”
The Czech Republic has also had no trouble establishing ties with the administration (and likely will have an easier time if the Trump-esque Andrej Babis becomes the next prime minister, as he is expected to do.)
“We are a member of NATO, a member of the EU, we have a structured partnership with the United States,” said Zdenek Beranek, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Washington, in a phone call on his way back from a meeting at the White House. “We meet on different levels regularly.”
One reason for that, beyond NATO ties, is the special role that Prague plays for the United States. Eva Filipi, the Czech ambassador to Syria, and the only European ambassador to Syria physically based in Damascus, serves as a protecting power for Americans and Syrian-Americans there, akin to the role that Sweden plays in North Korea and Switzerland carries out in Iran.
Even further afield, countries in Russia’s shadow are getting plenty of attention from the Trump administration. Georgia, for example, is neither a NATO nor EU member. Nevertheless, Ambassador David Bakradze told FP in an email, “We have the found the White House and State Department to be highly accessible and engaged on both economic and security issues of importance to Georgia. On numerous occasions, the administration has shown strong support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and NATO aspirations and expressed an interest in enhancing trade relations.”
And, indeed, the prime minister of Georgia was able to meet with both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in early May — and signed a U.S.-Georgia General Security of Information Agreement with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the next day. And the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2017 bans funds appropriated by that act to assist those countries that recognize the autonomy of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Georgian regions occupied by Russia — Russia, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Venezuela are the four main ones. It was signed into law in early May.
But gains aren’t unique to Georgia, either. Tillerson and Trump have both reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the implementation of the Minsk accord regarding the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine; good news for Kiev. And Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin met with Trump on May 11 — the same day Trump regaled Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office.
U.S. soldiers arrived in Poland as part of a NATO initiative in April. And, for all his talk of wanting to work with Putin, Trump risked the Russian president’s ire by greenlighting Montenegro’s accession to NATO.
The good vibes aren’t entirely clear of clouds, though. Staffing remains a big issue. “I’m waiting, very much, like my colleagues are, [for] when the officials in the State Department will be appointed,” Teikmanis said.
More importantly, the investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign continues: Ousted FBI Director James Comey will testify before Congress next week, and Congress keeps subpoenaing more and more information from former Trump officials linked to Russia. On Tuesday, former CIA Director John Brennan told lawmakers there were “unanswered questions” about the connections between Russian operatives and people in Trump’s orbit.
“With the rumors still popping up, it is more difficult to have a satisfactory awareness of the situation,” one diplomat from the region said. “Nobody can really sure what happened, and there seem to be different lines of response from the administration and the president himself on the same questions.”
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