Last Friday and Saturday, I visited Estonia on a business trip and had the chance to gauge first-hand some European reactions to last week’s U.S. election. The most striking feature was not simply their surprise at the election result but, rather, the universal, profound fear of abandonment in this small corner of Europe.
Estonia occupies a uniquely vulnerable piece of geography in northeastern Europe. For years, Estonia, as well as Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, had warned the rest of the West that Russia and President Vladimir Putin were not to be trusted. Baltic and Polish perceptions are, of course, rooted in a history of Russian intimidation, subjugation, and occupation. The most recent period of Russian domination of Estonia began in the 1930s and lasted until the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of Soviet military forces in the early 1990s. But subjugation at Moscow’s hands has been a recurring, even defining, feature of Estonian history for centuries. Today, Moscow continues its efforts to coerce Estonia and its Baltic neighbors through airspace violations, claims that Tallinn is mistreating ethnic Russians, and other means.
Russia’s 2008 invasion and de facto occupation of parts of Georgia should have sufficed as a warning to the West. However, it was not until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 that officials in London, Paris, Berlin, and Washington recognized the threat posed by Moscow.
Since then, NATO has responded in a variety of ways. The most significant development was the 2016 Warsaw summit decision to deploy — on a rotational basis — battalion-sized forces to each of the Baltic States and Poland starting in 2017. This so-called enhanced forward presence initiative marks the first time NATO has decided to base forces in the territory of once was once that of the Warsaw Pact nations. It remains to be seen whether this will suffice to deter Russia, which continues to stage massive division- and corps-size no-notice exercises just across the borders from the Baltic States, often giving the appearance of an imminent invasion. Given Baltic State perceptions of a perilous situation in their part of Europe, it’s easy to understand how they might be concerned over any weakening of the U.S. commitment to their security.
In fact, in conversations I had with university graduate students, parliamentarians, academics, think tank experts, and government ministers, it was strikingly clear that all were profoundly worried about comments made during the U.S. presidential campaign regarding the American commitment to NATO. This past March and again in July, then-candidate Donald Trump raised questions over whether NATO membership was still in U.S. interests and whether the United States would defend its treaty-based allies in Europe. Additionally, Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin on several occasions during the campaign. These types of remarks — as well as comments by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a key Trump advisor and a potential nominee for Secretary of State — have shaken this part of Europe to the core and fundamentally placed their security in doubt.
Interestingly, while every Estonian I interacted with — as well the Poles, Czechs, Germans, and other Europeans at a conference in Tallinn we were all attending — was keenly aware of the March and July remarks, virtually no one had any idea that in September, during the first presidential debate, Trump said he was “all for NATO.” Similarly, no one had any knowledge of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) remarks on Wednesday on his party’s firm commitment to NATO and American allies. Perhaps understandably, these remarks and Trump’s apparent change in perspective were of little comfort. For this reason, the nervousness expressed by every Estonian I spoke with constituted a stark reminder that words and rhetoric matter, not simply on NATO’s eastern edge but arguably in every foreign policy context.
The way ahead for Estonia and the other Baltic States is now somewhat clouded, at least from their perspective. Enhanced forward presence is slated for implementation during the first half of 2017, but many I spoke with in Tallinn are unsure how long it might last, given the U.S. campaign and election results.
Compounding what is quickly becoming a season of anxiety in northeastern Europe is the fact that this is a particularly delicate time in European politics, for several reasons. First, there is a widespread perception that Brexit negotiations will take up significant energy and effort at a time when Europe needs to be focused externally on challenges to the east and south. Moreover, Brexit may weaken the EU militarily and perhaps ultimately weaken the UK itself. Second, Europe’s other major powers — Germany and France — each face elections in 2017. In Paris, Francois Hollande looks especially unlikely to be reelected, while some of his opponents on the far right and center right appear willing to placate Russia. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a similar challenge from her right, as well as continued pressure from German industry to pursue at the least economic rapprochement with Moscow.
Despite Baltic State perceptions that the ground beneath them is shifting and less firm that they would like right now, there remains a broad, bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress that NATO membership and all of its responsibilities remain in America’s vital interest. Washington may bemoan what it views as inequitable transatlantic burden-sharing, but for economic, political, cultural, and moral reasons, leaders on the left and the right, as well as most American citizens, recognize the value of U.S. membership in the alliance. Nonetheless, Estonians are right to seek reassurances on this point — for the benefit of all European NATO allies as well as officials watching from the Kremlin — and the incoming administration would be wise to do so quickly.
Image: Sgt. John Carkeet IV