MOSCOW — The past two years have kept NATO busy. Adding to the challenge presented by Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, U.S. President Donald Trump has spent much energy criticizing the trans-Atlantic military alliance and calling on members to spend more on defense, all the while trivializing the situation with Moscow.
But despite Western hand-wringing sparked by Trump’s rhetoric, Russia is not entirely pleased with the state of affairs of the past two years. Accustomed to being the unpredictable element in bilateral relations with Washington, Moscow has yet to square Trump’s pro-Russian rhetoric with his administration’s adversarial footing.
This shift in dynamics has caused increased anxiety among policymakers and analysts in Moscow. The hope once felt in Russia for a detente under Trump is fading, and prolonged confrontation is assumed. State media channels, themselves in wartime footing since 2014, routinely warn Russian citizens of war with an intransigent, expansionist West.
Adding to those anxieties are NATO’s ongoing efforts to modernize and expand military capabilities in central and eastern Europe.
“We don’t like the picture we are seeing,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent political analyst in Moscow.
“NATO is getting serious about its combat capabilities and readiness levels. Trump may trash NATO and his European allies,” Frolov added, “but it is the capabilities that matter, and those have been growing under Trump.”
NATO has long been Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite foreign boogeyman and, as far as political footballs go, this one has been easy and fruitful to kick around at home.
Most of Putin’s legitimacy in recent years has been rooted in a well-designed domestic narrative of Fortress Russia under siege from foreign powers — with NATO being the focus of concern.
From the perspective of Russian military planners, tasked with devising a national defense for the world’s largest land power, NATO is more than a useful rhetorical scarecrow at home — though this helps secure funding for modernization and new hardware. NATO is one of Russia’s primary potential opponents, and therefore a focus of Russian military thinking.
And from that perspective, the situation looks concerning: NATO troops and hardware are being forward deployed to former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe; in June, the alliance unveiled a new initiative — dubbed the “Four 30s” — that will see a significant expansion of NATO’s rapid deployment capabilities; and Germany is considering rearming with an eye on Russia.
“Even the shouting match over the 2 percent spending, not to mention Trump’s lunatic call for 4.5 percent, is a significant concern for Moscow,” Frolov said. “Were Germany to start remilitarizing, approaching the capabilities level of the Cold War, we should be worried. And we would hate to see Poland emerge as the new Germany for U.S. forward basing and positioning.”
NATO has its own reasons for pursuing all of these initiatives: Russia. Many of the alliance’s members, particularly the newer ones on Russia’s borders in eastern Europe, were rattled by Moscow’s brazen annexation of Crimea and have spent the past four years calling for greater collective action to deter possible Russian moves on former Soviet states now in NATO.
Russia, in turn and for a variety of reasons — political expediency and military prudence — has seized on NATO’s efforts to bolster its own defense and spun that into rationale for sustained military expenditures amid economic recession. Actors on all sides — Trump, NATO and the Kremlin — hold irreconcilable positions that sometimes feed into misunderstanding, mistrust and military bolstering.
The Kremlin has made confrontation with the West a cornerstone of its domestic legitimacy. Western politicians and pundits have honed in on Moscow with an intensity that makes their Russian counterparts nervous. And Trump cannot realistically deal with Russia in any way the Kremlin would like to see.
Under such conditions, the buildup is almost certain to continue.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.