Fortnightly Review & Analysis: USA, Russia & EU (Vol 2 Issue X)

16 – 31 May, 2017

USA

Trump’s Foreign Visit

US President Donald Trump undertook his first official overseas visit from May 19 to 27 with pit-stops spanning from Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East to Brussels and Italy in Europe. In the Middle East the focus was on US efforts to combat terrorism and seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In Europe, Trump met with Pope Francis with whom he had a private audience, top European Union officials, leaders of NATO member countries and the leaders of the Group of 7 economic powers.

According to analysts, for Trump, these meetings are an opportunity to follow through on pledges: to push European allies to spend more on defense and to strike a more coordinated effort against North Korea, among other issues. On the European side, the meetings served as an opportunity to gauge Trump's loyalty — or lack of it — to the Trans-Atlantic partnership as the American president has repeatedly bashed institutions like the EU and NATO that have formed the basis of US-Europe cooperation for decades. Over the last year Trump has been highly erratic and unpredictable in his approach to NATO. He called it obsolete on the campaign trail and “no longer obsolete” shortly after taking office, only to threaten a week before the summit to withdraw from the alliance altogether, if allies did not step up their defence efforts.

At the summit, Europeans hoped to contain Trump, keep statements and meetings short and impress the US president by presenting their defence spending and counter-terrorism achievements – the two topics Trump cares about most. The importance of preventing Trump from making any more destructive comments cannot be overstated. If European or Russian leaders doubt American commitment to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence guarantee, then the credibility of the alliance, which is dependent on US commitment to defend the other members, will be damaged.

Trump, however, has said the US might not defend its allies in the event of a Russian attack, unless they had “fulfilled their obligations” to the US. Defence Secretary James Mattis however contradicted this statement and others Trump made on the campaign trail: during a visit to NATO troops deployed in Lithuania he called the American commitment to NATO’s Article 5 “ironclad”. Nonetheless, Europeans rely too heavily on North American support in Eastern Europe. Of the four battle groups, only two are led by Europeans – Germany leads troops in Lithuania, and Britain those in Estonia. The United States and Canada command the other two. As Europe is faced with the risk of weaker American support, European allies will have to invest in capabilities that enable them to maintain their commitment to Article 5.

Russia and US Election

On May 25 the Washington Post reported that the FBI is investigating Jared Kushner’s meetings with Russian officials. This has taken the Russia probe to a new level of proximity to President Trump, reaching above former campaign aides to encompass the President’s close adviser and son-in-law. Analysts say that the news also highlights how Kushner, and the White House, have struggled to clarify the nature of his Russian contacts, thereby leading to doubts about the integrity of close advisors of “Team Trump”.

Testifying before the House intelligence committee, former CIA Chief John Brennan said the number of contacts and interactions between Trump aides and Russian officials justified further investigation by the FBI. An inquiry was "certainly well founded and needed to look into these issues", he said. Brennan also said he warned Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, to stop meddling in the election on 4 August last year. He added, "I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and US persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals." According to Politico, Brennan's testimony is "the most direct acknowledgment yet by a current or former US official that Russia sought to recruit Americans to help in its effort to affect the 2016 contest".

Things started heating up in February, not long after the national-security adviser, Mike Flynn, resigned for lying about his conversations with Russia’s Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. There were reports about a meeting between Kislyak and Kushner that led to many raised eyebrows in Washington DC since there had not been any reported contact between Kushner and any Russian official. On enquiring specifically about Kushner’s meetings with Russian officials, the White House has apparently been evasive and in a seemingly ‘cover-up’ mode. However, now the White House’s multiple mistakes in describing Kushner’s Russian contacts have become a matter of interest to investigators. According to the New York Times , in filling out his security-clearance forms, Kushner omitted two meetings with Russian officials—the encounter with Kislyak and a meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, a state-owned bank that has been subject to US sanctions. An attorney for Kushner has said that he had offered to amend the forms once the errors were discovered!!

Until recently, Kushner’s ties to the Russia investigation had been a low-grade problem for the White House. Kushner had reportedly defended Flynn, long after other advisers determined that he had done damage to the White House. Other stories depicted Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, as concerned about Kushner’s contact with Russians. There is still much to be learned about why Kushner has become a “significant focus” of the investigation. It is still not clear whether the FBI is looking at his role in possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, or in efforts to cover that up. or any link to improper financial dealings with Russian-backed businesses - all of those prospects have been mentioned in reporting on the growing Russia probe.

Kushner, who rarely speaks in public, has volunteered to speak to congressional committees that are looking into Russian interference. His lawyer has said that Kushner will speak to law-enforcement investigators as well, if he is asked to do so. Hearing from the President’s son-in-law directly may well clear things up—or muddy them further.

Russia and Europe

Russia reacted sharply to certain steps taken by member states at the recent NATO summit in Brussels. Russian permanent representative with NATO has described the alliance’s moves to increase its military presence in Europe as a contribution to the ‘balance of threats’ that harms international security, as well as attempts to mend relations between Russia and the West. “A quality change for the worse has happened, for the first time in many years the security in Europe will not be determined by restraining measures and efforts to ensure security without accenting the military means, but by imposing and maintaining a certain ‘balance of threats’,” Aleksandr Grushko was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.

The Russian diplomat added that the situation became even more dangerous because the increase in NATO’s military presence in Europe came along with anti-Russian propaganda and general anti-Russian policies. Grushko said that Russia saw no signs of NATO’s readiness to stop its eastward expansion and therefore Moscow has every reason to suspect that this drive is about to continue. Russian officials have repeatedly voiced concern over NATO activities near Russian borders and other unfriendly steps. The situation aggravated after in April 2014 when NATO suspended all practical co-operation with the Russian Federation. “We did not expect anything new, because all decisions concerning Russia have been made earlier. They were made in Wales and in Warsaw,” Grushko said referring to the two previous NATO summits.

Grushko further added, “I can confess that we are more interested in real action on the ground rather than words pronounced at summits….This is all already known – they will now complete the formation of four battalions and reinforce the navy groups in the Baltic and Black Seas. Every day we receive reports about new facilities being built in Eastern European nations – construction is either started or already completed. They reinforce the southern flank – US and British forces have been deployed to Romania, multinational brigades are being created there. This is the picture that will determine the military security structure in the region.”