international analysis and commentary

The US, Russia and NATO: awaiting the next “reset”


US policy towards Russia is not all about NATO. At the same time, it is not not about NATO. The Alliance’s Warsaw Summit, which took place on July 8-9, emphasized the need to deter Russian aggression and to strengthen reassurance among allies. It also set the tone in NATO-US-Russia relations for the next US president. And based on their latest statements, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the presumptive Democrat and Republican nominees, would take very different approaches to the relationship: Clinton would pivot towards a stronger NATO; Trump would pivot towards Vladimir Putin.

The Warsaw Summit has been described as a “lame-duck” gathering with minimal major changes, largely because allies are awaiting the outcome of the US presidential election, as well as Brexit developments. Retired US Admiral James Stavridis has described it as “important, but not seminal.” So what did happen in Warsaw? To strengthen deterrence, the Alliance announced the deployment of four battalions on a rotational basis in the Baltic States and Poland. The United States will send 1,000 troops for the Polish operations, while the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany will also contribute. Allies pointed to this as an example of burden-sharing, in that “the United States filled the breach for nearly three years. Finally, the Alliance is filling the breach.” Additionally, the Alliance announced in the Summit’s communique initial operational capability of its ballistic missile defense system with facilities in Romania, Turkey, and Spain.

But the Alliance remains somewhat divided on relations with Russia, especially as France and Germany are open to reinstating Moscow’s partner status. Additionally, Brexit left a definite mark, with a clear push for closer NATO-EU cooperation, and a joint declaration from the leaders of NATO and the European Commission and Council on strengthening interoperability and resilience within their organizations.

The next US president will inherit a NATO that continues to struggle with burden-sharing and responding to Russia’s “hybrid warfare”, but that also appears confused as to where its center of gravity resides: Washington, Western Europe or Eastern Europe. Additionally, the next president will have to address a challenging relationship with Russia, which was quick to denounce the Warsaw Summit as aggressive towards Russia, focusing on developments in missile defense.

Barack Obama has consistently handled the NATO-US-Russia relationship through a balance of pressure and engagement. While the United States has played a key role in strengthening deterrence and assurance within NATO, for example by committing $1 billion to the European Reassurance Initiative, Obama has also cooperated with Putin on the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and the Iran nuclear deal.

Even in his final months in office, Obama is attempting to walk a fine line of reassuring NATO while creating opportunities for future cooperation with Russia. Indeed, the latter is indirectly essential to the former: NATO unity requires not only reassuring allies in the eastern regions, but also allowing for French and German sentiments to avoid burning bridges with Moscow. For example, just two weeks before the Warsaw Summit, NATO had another major shift by naming Rose Gottemoeller, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Verification, as the next Deputy Secretary General. Gottemoeller was the lead US negotiator for the New START Treaty (signed in 2010) and has a notoriously good working relationship with the Russians. Additionally, there are reports Obama will attempt to use his remaining months in office to make further progress with Russia in arms control. But the next president may turn away from this balancing act and more closely align either with Eastern European allies seeking a harsher stance towards Russia, or Western European allies and even Russia itself.

It is difficult to envision two more different approaches to Putin than those of Hillary Clinton and Trump. In a somewhat comical response during one of the Democrat debates, Clinton described her relationship with Putin as “interesting” and one of respect, but she goes on to refer to him as a “bully” and “someone you constantly have to stand up to.” In 2014, she compared Putin’s actions in Ukraine to Hitler’s in Czechoslovakia. Clinton’s approach to NATO-US-Russia dynamics is to strengthen European resolve in standing up to Putin by both building political unity and promoting more burden-sharing within the Alliance. For the most part, this would align with Obama’s delicate balance but could see a slight leaning towards Eastern European allies that want to take a harsher stance towards Russia.

Conversely, many of Trump’s closest advisors have strong ties to the Putin regime. His primary foreign policy advisor, who has also been short-listed as a potential running mate, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn, has expressed favorable attitudes towards Russia, while another close foreign policy advisor was an advisor to Russia’s state-owned oil company. Trump has described his relationship with Putin as “sort of semi-nice” because Putin “said very nice things about me.” At the same time, Trump insists any relationship with Russia would be one of mutual respect and, at least for the United States, come from a position of strength. Regarding NATO, Trump has called it “obsolete and expensive”, and proposed for NATO to focus solely on combating terrorism.

The message of Warsaw is “wait and see.” But what most allies are waiting for is a clear US vision of the way ahead for the Alliance, and what that will mean for relations with Russia. Obama’s balance may not be perfect, but it is certainly a clearer vision than pivoting towards Putin.