As 2017 begins and the Trump-Pence administration is set to take office in Washington, what are the major threats that should be on your radar screen? What could potentially hit us without warning if we and our leaders are not paying close attention?
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of columns on this topic. But as I’ve been doing research over the past few months for a new novel about Russia, I have come to believe that the threat Moscow now poses to the U.S. and our allies is real and growing.
One thing I’m concerned about is Vladimir Putin. I believe that Vladimir Putin and the way he’s leading Russia is going to be a big, big issue over the next several years. And I must say I’m cautiously pessimistic at the moment with the way the President-elect is dealing with this.
Right now, we keep hearing very warm, kind words about Mr. Putin from Mr. Trump. This may be a negotiating tactic, right? You have a President-elect who is known for “The Art of the Deal.” So he may be trying to send a positive signal early on to Putin to say, “Hey, listen, we don’t have to have a bad relationship. I’m willing to start in a positive way. But we’re going to have some serious issues that we’re going to have to talk about.”
I would note that it’s a different strategy than Mr. Trump is taking with Iran. It’s a different strategy than he’s taking with China. It’s a much softer approach, and it suggests the other possibility — not that it’s a negotiating tactic, but that it’s really what Mr. Trump believes, that Putin is not a threat.
If that’s the case, I totally disagree.
Mr. Putin is a threat. He’s already invaded and seized part of the nation state of Georgia. He’s already invaded and seized Crimea. He’s already invaded and seized Eastern Ukraine. And now he has 55,000 Russian troops
massed on the border of Ukraine
and [not far from] the three Baltic States — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
Is Putin going to invade and try to seize those countries as well?
So, when you have a Russian leader who has shown as much aggression in recent years as Putin has, and you’re not doing more to build up U.S. and NATO forces — including mechanized ground forces, mechanized divisions — inside the Baltics to make sure that Putin doesn’t seem them as an easy grab; when you’re sending messages that seem very soft and conciliatory towards Russia; then you run the risk of being blindsided by an evil you don’t see.
I just hope and pray that the new President of the United States and his team will take countering that threat posed by Putin as seriously as they’re taking the China, North Korea and Radical Islam threats, as well.
CRITICAL ISSUES: Ukraine is a key ally of the U.S. and the Western alliance, but it is not a NATO ally. NATO is not obligated to come to her defense. But the Trump-Pence team needs to decide how it would handle a Russian move to seize all of Ukraine.
The Baltic States, meanwhile, are full NATO allies. A Russian invasion would trigger Article V of the NATO treaty. This would require a full-scale military response by the U.S. and the rest of the European countries who are members of NATO. This could quickly escalate to a nuclear confrontation. To do nothing — to abandon the Baltics to the Kremlin — would mean the end of NATO. No ally around the world would ever trust their alliances with the U.S. again. It could mean the collapse of U.S. global leadership. Clearly, the stakes are high.
RECOMMENDATIONS: The Trump-Pence team have a clear domestic agenda that involves turbo-charging the U.S. economy and creating millions of new jobs, ending illegal immigration and protecting America’s borders. On foreign policy, their top priorities are dealing with China and challenges in Asia, and confronting Radical Islam. The President elect understandably does not show any interest in a confrontation with Russia.
It is important, then, that President Trump immediately and significantly increases NATO air and ground forces — and missile defenses — in and around the Baltics and Poland, as well as in Germany and France upon taking office. He needs to make it absolutely clear to Putin that we will fully support our NATO allies and will not countenance any hostile action against them. Should the Baltics be left essentially unprotected, Putin — an emerging Czar with imperialist appetites — may find himself tempted to strike.
I would leave the decision for the precise force structure to incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and our NATO allied commanders. But in principle I agree with the direction RAND is suggesting. We want to focus on China/Asia and Radical Islam. We want to avoid a conflict with Putin in Europe. Thus, we must strengthen NATO immediately to maintain our options.
Then the President should start a very focused process of insisting that each NATO country fully invest 2% of their annual GDP on defense spending. That’s what they promised to do when they joined the alliance. It’s high time each country pay its fair share.