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They’re on the front lines of Russian aggression. But Eastern Europe’s leaders won’t openly criticize Trump over NATO and Putin.

WARSAW, Poland — As the US and Western Europe reeled from President Donald Trump’s rhetoric in Helsinki and Brussels, Eastern European leaders who have long feared an emboldened Russia refrained from criticizing his performance.

Over the course of six days in Brussels and Helsinki, Trump called on America’s NATO allies to increase their defense spending “immediately,” questioned the usefulness of the alliance itself, and sided with Putin over his own intelligence services on Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

For some countries in Western Europe that belong to NATO, which was created during the Cold War to counter Russian expansion, Trump’s erratic behavior was a step too far. But on the other side of the continent, Eastern Europeans who have historically felt the most threatened by Russia were singing an entirely different tune. From Estonia to Romania, current and former leaders said they saw nothing to fear from Trump’s tough talk on NATO.

“Trump said things plainly, as is normal between friends and allies,” said President Klaus Iohannis of Romania, which has tense relations with Moscow. Leaders in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere in the region echoed his sentiments, and approved of Trump’s calls for increased military funding.

More spending on NATO’s defenses has been a goal for many Eastern Europeans since Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia in 2008 and the beginning of Russia’s “shadow war” in Ukraine in 2014, so their support of Trump’s demands in Brussels is nothing new. But more surprising were leaders’ reactions to Trump’s summit with Putin in Helsinki, where Trump failed to challenge Putin on a litany of international offenses, such as his annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“It’s good for Poland that two big countries talk with each other and that they even present publicly their understanding and friendship,” Polish Ambassador to the US Piotr Wilczek told Boston’s WBUR. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, made similar comments at a meeting he had with Putin the day before Trump’s summit in Helsinki.

For countries that were under Moscow’s sway for decades after World War II and continue to face pressure from their huge eastern neighbor, putting a rubber stamp on Trump’s coziness to Putin might seem paradoxical, and even shocking.

What’s going on here?

Eastern Europe knows it needs to stay in Trump’s good graces — whatever the cost

Since the end of the Cold War in Europe in 1989, most countries in Eastern Europe have joined NATO, and in 2008 the alliance promised two others, Ukraine and Georgia, that they would also be able to join one day.

As a result of their membership, Eastern European countries began to rely more and more on American forces to guarantee their security, and soon after their ascension, the US proposed plans for a missile defense system to be implemented in Poland and Romania.

Although NATO has argued that the defense system will be a deterrent against Iran, Russia has always bristled at the possibility of western missiles along its eastern frontier and considers any eastward NATO expansions as acts of aggression.

Eastern European countries’ worst fears about Russia were finally realized when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, bringing its prospects of NATO ascension to a grinding halt. But the Russians weren’t finished yet — in 2014, following the Ukrainian revolution in which pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea, and began to foment a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and government forces.

Today, thousands of US soldiers are stationed in Eastern European NATO countries, and the American presence there may only increase. With Russian rockets now deployed to Kaliningrad, a tiny piece of land belonging to Russia that borders Poland and Lithuania, Eastern Europe is prepared to do anything to avoid Ukraine and Georgia’s fate.

Eastern Europe and especially Poland, Latvia, and Estonia see America as “the ultimate guarantor of their security,” John Herbst, the former US ambassador to Ukraine and current director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, told me.

“They are reluctant to criticize the United States even if they are not happy with what President Trump said,” Herbst said. “They want to stay on Washington’s good side.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters after the Helsinki summit that despite lots of media hype before the meeting, he saw none of the worst-case scenarios that would have emboldened Russia further actually materialize, like concessions on Crimea or the conflict in Ukraine.

Poland especially has reasons for keeping Trump happy. It recently signed the largest military deal in its history with the US in March, and has hoped for years to convince the US to open a permanent military base there — it has even offered to pay $2 billion for it.

But many political figures in Eastern Europe recognize that appeasing Trump can only go so far, and say they aren’t happy with this fragile status quo.

Eastern European leaders are increasingly worried the US won’t come to their defense if attacked

Herbst claimed that behind the scenes, leaders in the region certainly were not pleased with Trump’s summit with Putin.

After Trump’s comments to Tucker Carlson on Fox News in which he questioned why the US should step up to defend new NATO member Montenegro, former Polish foreign affairs minister Radosław Sikorski penned an op-ed in the Washington Post questioning whether Poland’s long-time friendship with the US would guarantee that Trump would come to Poland’s aid if the hour of need truly came.

He expanded on his critiques in an interview on Polish TV the next day:

“Judging by the fact that he does not see the need for the defense of Montenegro, then I think that our authorities have to very seriously ask themselves the question: How does Poland really differ from Montenegro in the perception of the president of the United States?”

Sikorski is not alone in his fears. In an official statement released on Thursday, the government of Montenegro stated that its friendship with the US was “strong and permanent,” but the document also made clear that Montenegro is ready to defend itself, by itself, when faced with very real security threats.

In 2016, it had to do just that when a pro-Russian coup attempt threatened to overthrow the pro-NATO government of the country. The coup was ultimately stopped, and Montenegro successfully joined the NATO alliance last year.

The same cannot be said for Ukraine, where Russian aggression continues to paralyze the country. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko seemed to take Trump’s behavior in Helsinki as a sign that although the US signed a deal to sell missiles to Ukraine late last year, his country might have to maintain diplomatic pressure on Putin without America’s backing.

“We are ready and will protect our land even if we stay ourselves, without international support,” he tweeted.

What this all means is that despite the lack of a strong reaction to the meetings in Brussels and Helsinki, Eastern Europe may waver in its support for Trump.

And if he loses these key allies, the US would lose the part of Europe that is most open to advancing America’s goals on the continent — Poland, Lithuania, and other nations have been some of the strongest cheerleaders for increased defense spending in the European Union; more importantly, they have embraced the influx of American soldiers that have arrived since their countries joined NATO.

Without a strong US and NATO presence here, parts of Eastern Europe would likely again slide into Russia’s orbit; countries in southeastern Europe like Bosnia, Serbia, and Hungary have increasingly started turning to Moscow in recent years, and eastern Ukraine serves as a daunting worst-case scenario for countries along Russia’s frontier.

Trump has personally questioned the need to counter Russia’s expanding regional reach. But his pro-Putin stance remains at odds with the State Department, the US military, and the US intelligence community, all of which continue to maintain that Russia is a US rival that needs to be checked.

For the vast majority of the US government, Eastern Europe is still a region with irreplaceable strategic importance to American interests, and is America’s main bulwark against westward Russian expansion.

If he hopes to keep his allies in this region, Trump will have to make sure his administration remains tough on Russia. Although his rhetoric has already unnerved governments in Eastern Europe, Ambassador Herbst told me Trump’s “crazy” ideas about Russia are unlikely to make it past his advisers, and the US won’t recognize Crimea as part of Russia or hand Putin eastern Ukraine anytime soon.

For the most part, when all is said and done, it seems America’s strong ties to Eastern Europe will survive — for now.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist who has covered US national security, the Robert Mueller investigation, and geopolitics in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He was formerly based in New York City, where he wrote for Business Insider, and is currently reporting on politics and society in Warsaw and Beirut.

Author: Michal Kranz
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