(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In Estonia there are basically two kinds of people when it comes to understanding America’s approach to the country that most threatens its survival, Russia. There are the pessimists, who listen to what President Donald Trump says. And there are the optimists, who watch what the Trump administration does.
Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid is an optimist. In an interview this week, she sounded almost like a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, praising the coordination and substance she has seen in high-level meetings with Trump and his top advisers. There is a “common consensus,” she said, that “our liberal democratic world order can only be protected if we all stick together.”
Looking at what’s happening on the ground, she said, the U.S. is probably closer to “coming back to Eastern Europe rather than leaving.” This week’s announcement that the U.S. will deploy up to 2,000 additional troops in Poland, she said, will make it easier to organize rotations of U.S. and NATO forces into the Baltic states on Russia’s western border.
When asked for her reaction to Trump’s musings last year that Montenegro’s membership in NATO could spark World War III, or his sycophantic display in his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Kaljulaid was unconcerned. “Nothing has changed,” she said, citing U.S. sanctions against Russia and continued valid U.S. concerns about Russia’s dominance of the natural gas market in Europe.
Kaljulaid even took Trump’s side in his dispute with European powers over NATO spending. He is correct that NATO “needs more resources,” she said, but the alliance “is as strong as ever.” The substance of Trump’s complaint, she said, is not so different from that of the previous administration. “Barack Obama asked too, but he asked nicely,” she said, referring to the commitment of NATO allies to spend 2% of GDP on defense. (Estonia, like its fellow Baltic members Latvia and Lithuania, meets the threshold.) “If we were forthcoming enough in respecting the worries of others when they used nice words,” she said, “maybe these different words would not need to be used at all.”
Kaljulaid is not the first Eastern European leader to downplay the widespread fear that U.S. policy toward Russia is collapsing under Trump. In 2018, Ukraine’s intelligence chief told me his agency’s cooperation with its U.S. counterparts was at an all-time high. Finland’s president has also said NATO partners should be paying their fair share.
Of course, Kaljulaid has no incentive to share any private doubts she may have about Trump’s broader commitment to countering Russia. Estonia is much weaker than its eastern neighbor. Any sign of a softening of NATO’s mutual defense commitments would be an invitation for Russia to do to the Baltic states what it did to Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008. It’s in Russia’s interests, she said, to “create the impression that NATO’s allies might be separating.”
She also makes the point that the threat from Russia is not merely a conventional military invasion. “Salisbury is very far from NATO’s eastern border,” Kaljulaid said, referring to Russia’s attempted murder of a former Russian spy with a Soviet-era neurological toxin in the U.K. in 2018. And Russia has shown no hesitation about meddling in domestic elections in the U.S. and France. “This demonstrates that the overall security picture has changed,” she said. “It’s geography-neutral.”
In this respect, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are not the only states on the front lines of Russian aggression. All of NATO’s allies are threatened by Moscow’s spies, corrupt bankers and computer hackers. From Kaljulaid’s perspective, Trump’s actual policies reflect an understanding of these dangers — even if Trump himself often sounds like he seeks a separate peace with NATO’s gravest adversary.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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