Europe Should Look to What the United States Does—Not What Trump Says

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s former president, on what to make of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia.

Then-Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves delivers a speech during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Feb. 2, 2016.  (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)
Then-Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves delivers a speech during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Feb. 2, 2016. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s been a strange summer for the U.S.-Russia relationship, full of upheaval, confusion, and surprises. With disinformation campaigns and hacking attempts, Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. political system are ongoing. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy and praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin have left analysts and officials alike scrambling to answer basic questions about Washington’s stance on Russia.

A tense NATO summit in Brussels last month exposed deepening cracks in the trans-Atlantic alliance. And a few days later, in Helsinki, Trump’s reluctance to call out Moscow for election interference—while standing next to Putin—further raised questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Perhaps no other region has more to lose from an emboldened Russia and a United States disinvested in NATO than the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. After a long and fraught history with Moscow, all three joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and today they find themselves on the front line of the Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize the West. Foreign Policy spoke with former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves for perspective on how the Baltic countries are reacting to a fraught few months in diplomacy.

Foreign Policy: It’s clear that there’s a major divergence between the Trump administration’s stated policy toward Russia and Trump’s own words and actions. We saw this during U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July, where he promised “tough actions against Russia.” How are these policy contradictions viewed in countries like the Baltics that are on Russia’s flank?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: I’ve always believed that when it comes to foreign policy, it’s what you do, not necessarily what you say. Most of the time, people say more than they do. But in this case, we see that there is a fairly strong and long continuity in terms of the policy from the [Pentagon] regarding defense for the Baltic countries and Poland. A lot of the speculation is based on off the cuff remarks that haven’t actually translated into policy in any way. At least as of yet.

FP: Trump says that he wants to have a better relationship with Russia and with Putin personally. Both presidents recently expressed hopes to visit each other in the future. What do you make of this outreach between the two presidents?

THI: We saw the news that [Russian Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu threatened Finland and Sweden [over their cooperation with NATO]. There has been no change in terms of Russian rhetoric towards our part of the world. Even Putin’s flight to Helsinki cut through Estonian airspace without notification. So, it’s not as if we see the talk producing any change in anyone’s behavior.

FP: What do you make of Trump’s posture toward NATO? On the campaign trail, Trump said he would have to review whether the Baltics had met their defense-spending commitments before he’d consider defending them from a Russian invasion, and Trump recently called into question defending Montenegro. Do Estonia and its neighbors still feel secure with the alliance after the events of the last few weeks?

THI: In the case of Estonia, we have been spending 2 percent [of GDP on defense] or more since 2012 and have taken the commitment seriously. So, I’ve never been too concerned about that. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about Article 5 [of NATO’s founding treaty], though.

FP: In what sense?

THI: If a country is a victim of aggression, then that is a reason to call the alliance together and discuss Article 5. It’s not as if any country can just go off starting a war and then summon Article 5. The quote [from Trump] on Montenegro was that it’s a “very aggressive” country, which is odd, given that it has gone through what virtually all Western intelligence agencies agree was an attempted coup on the part of Russia. So, I have a feeling that the actual intricacies of NATO are not something that are very well understood. In that same interview, there was the comment about whether you would send your son [to war for Montenegro]. When I was president, I went to 11 funerals of men who had gone to Afghanistan under Article 5. We’re a small country, but proportionally, we were one of the countries most affected by that invocation of Article 5. So, it’s a little unsettling to hear language like that from a U.S. president.

FP: You were president of Estonia during the cyber and disinformation attacks in 2007, which many now see as a precursor for where we find ourselves today. Since then, Russia has invaded and taken parts of Georgia and Ukraine, interfered in a U.S. presidential election, and also played a role in the Brexit referendum. Is it safe to say that the West dropped the ball?

THI: I think it really dropped the ball, especially after [the 2008 Russian invasion of] Georgia. [Then-French President Nicolas] Sarkozy rejected his own peace agreement and then continued to cooperate with Russia. The Bush administration was on its way out. The Obama administration wanted a reset and thought Georgia was a one-off. One thing that is now widely discussed, but wasn’t back then, was that we saw hybrid tactics in Georgia that have since come up elsewhere. Russia was pairing kinetic attacks, done by military forces, and combining them with DDoS [distributed denial of service] attacks.

FP: After Georgia, did you expect that things would get to this low point in relations that we’re at now? Has there been a better response to Russia?

THI: Many NATO members were against a membership action plan for both Georgia and Ukraine. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, they decided instead on a mealy mouthed final statement, which I personally interpret as a green light for Russia’s actions down the road. The Georgian war was treated as a one-off that had no implications for anything. That was the prevalent attitude at the time. But there was a sharper reaction in 2014; there was more shock from Crimea and [the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash]. The people dealing with security and defense in Europe sat up very quickly after seeing what took place. I’m not so sure about the political class. Ukraine is a country that borders three members of the European Union, and [Federica] Mogherini, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, has only visited Ukraine twice in the four years since the war started. So, I’d say that the EU is asleep at the wheel in terms of dealing with Russia, despite the sanctions, which are mostly due to pressure from some member states.

FP: We’re seeing a slow political response toward Russian election interference from the Trump administration. The midterms are coming up, and it’s the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia is and will continue to interfere in the U.S. political process. Do you see enough political will to tackle the problem?

THI: [Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire] McCaskill has been targeted by Russian hackers. There are discussions in the U.S. Senate for additional funding to better secure upcoming elections, but it looks like it won’t pass. I have no crystal ball for what comes next, and I’m hesitant to make a prediction. Much of what’s happened in the past year [in the United States] has been quite surprising to me.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction, Aug. 5, 2018: Claire McCaskill is a senator from Missouri. A previous version of this article misstated this due to an editing error.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan