Leading or Menacing?
As Donald Trump questions the need for NATO and praises Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Czech Republic and other post-communist countries fear a Trump-Putin alliance could destabilize European unity and security.
Even though Political analysts and government leaders say it’s still too soon to predict the effects of a Trump-Putin alliance, they worry that Trump’s seemingly cozy relationship with Putin will come at the expense of the European Union and put NATO allies at risk.
"More dangerous than Putin and Trump’s alliance is what Trump says about the European Union,” said Jan Machacek, a leading Czech analyst and former dissident during the communist regime. “NATO is absolutely important,” but Machacek is more concerned over Trump wanting “more countries to leave” the European Union like Britain did with Brexit.
Trump’s statements on NATO, a military pact of 28 countries created after World War II mostly as an alliance against Russia, vary from him calling it “obsolete” to him vowing support. Former Eastern Bloc countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, only joined NATO in the late 1990s and later the European Union after a long, hard fight to unite with the West and leave communism behind.
Meanwhile, the pro-nationalist sentiments that fueled Trump’s campaign echo the same motives that were behind Brexit. Post-communist countries value their European Union membership status as a source of economic stability and greater integration. Now they fear losing U.S. support of the Union could weaken it even more. Machacek added that, “If there is no EU, Europe will be divided. National leaders in Europe should have made the EU a stronger organization a long time ago.”
This picture of a divided Europe is exactly what Russia and perhaps the U.S. want to maximize profits as oil-producing countries. Many countries in the EU, including the Czech Republic, depend on Russia as an energy source.
“I think a diversification of energy resources is vital to the country,” said Alexandr Vondra, the former Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, about the Czech Republic. “It is a huge risk that Russia might implement some kind of blackmail in the future.”
Concerns surrounding European stability have been on the rise since President Donald Trump’s inauguration but reached new heights after Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in February. Reports say Flynn lied about a conversation he had with Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kisylak.
The conversation took place before Trump’s inauguration and was about American sanctions against Russia.
As the spider web of connections between Trump and Putin grows, the future of foreign affairs becomes less certain. But the most troubling part is that the U.S. has never had a president quite like Trump who uses Twitter as his weapon of choice and flip-flops on European policy frequently, including an unclear stance on Russian sanctions.
“He’s extremely unpredictable, which is not a good quality in a politician,” said Tomas Klvana, former spokesman for conservative President Vaclav Klaus, who also questioned Trump’s basic understanding of historical alliances.
Within 24 hours of Trump’s first presidential phone call with Putin, fighting increased in Ukraine with Russia supporting anti-separatist forces. Trump brushed off the incident in a recent Fox News interview and reaffirmed his respect for Putin even though the two leaders have yet to meet in person.
His willingness to work with Putin also echoes similar themes from the election when a U.S. intelligence report confirmed Putin’s ordering of an “influence campaign.” The “influence campaign” included cyber hacking and the circulation of fake news designed to help Trump win the election over his competitor, Hillary Clinton.
The Czech Republic experienced a similar cyber attack of data hacking and established a specialized anti-fake news unit to combat spying and propaganda allegedly spread by Russian websites. With Czech general elections being held in October, the unit will try and protect the country’s democratic system, installed after the fall of communism in 1989.
How President Trump’s policies and alliances will play out remains unclear, but Flynn’s recent resignation seals the world’s attention on an already unprecedented U.S. presidency. Jiri Pehe, a Czech analyst and former political advisor to the humanitarian and first post-communist president, Vaclav Havel, said that Trump’s lack of solid European Union support, his threat to NATO and his possible friendship with Putin are “three ideas that could be very dangerous to Europe.” He added, “I would definitely say if you judge the way Donald Trump has acted, he’s a threat to the way Europe has functioned for the past 70 years.”
* A version of this story was initially intended for an international reporting class at New York University, Prague.