“No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay.”

As Donald Trump’s speech at a campaign rally in South Carolina steered towards NATO, critics sensed that an outrageous statement was on the cards. And they were not wrong. What Trump said went beyond anything declared before and was sure to please Vladimir Putin.


Donald Trump appeared to invite Russia to invade any NATO member state failing to meet the advisory two percent of GDP target for defense spending. NATO estimates have shown that only 11 out of 31 members reached this target level in 2023. As one of NATO’s primary purposes is to deter aggression, Trump’s suggestion took everyone aback as it encouraged one of the biggest adversaries of the US to attack a NATO ally.


While Trump’s comments appeared to be popular among the MAGA crowd attending the rally, they were immediately condemned on both sides of the Atlantic. A White House spokesperson called the comments “appalling and unhinged.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also gave a strongly worded response, stating: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”


The US presidential elections are still eight months away, and the result is far from clear. Nevertheless, the US Congress has passed legislation to ensure that no president can take the US out of NATO without its approval. Yet, the US leaving NATO might still be a possibility for two reasons. Firstly, talking about America’s oldest and strongest military alliance, Trump referred to it with “I don’t give a shit about NATO.” Trump is currently leading most of the polls, and the divide between him and Biden is slowly widening as time passes. In a second term, Trump would be surrounded by people who either share his dislike of the transatlantic security alliance or lack the competence and interest to deal with it. All of the people who moderated Trump’s stance on NATO — John Bolton, Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo — will not be in the White House in 2024. All of them have broken with the former president, in some cases dramatically, and there isn’t another pool of Republican analysts who understand Russia and Europe, because most of them either signed statements opposing him in 2016 or criticized him after 2020. Fifty of the nation’s most senior Republican national security officials, many of them former top aides or cabinet members for President George W. Bush, have signed a letter declaring that Donald J. Trump “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president and “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.” Trump, the officials warned, “would be the most reckless president in American history.” However, Biden may overcome Trump in the election, in no small part due to the legal troubles that Trump is currently facing. His hush-money trial will begin on March 25, while a federal case on allegations over the 2020 election hinges on Supreme Court action. In addition, two states have removed Donald Trump from the 2024 ballot due to his alleged role in the riots at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and more states may follow.


Secondly, NATO’s Article 5, the so-called “musketeer clause,” is not a rock-solid guarantee of security for Europe. Article 5 guarantees that all NATO members will come to the aid of any NATO member under attack, but the scope and size of the aid is not specified.  If he wins the presidency, Trump could simply choose not to respond to an attack on one of the members and Congress would be left largely helpless. But Trump’s rhetoric also undermines Article 5 because the clause is supposed to have a deterrent effect on potential aggressors. Trump is undermining this deterrence and potentially encouraging Russia to act as it sees fit. The easiest option for Europe now would simply be to ignore or merely condemn Trump’s rhetoric and contribute the bare minimum to keep the US paying for Europe’s defense. The assertive, and more responsible, option would be to emphasize the need to build European defense capabilities and ensure that Europe can deter Russia on its own, at least in the medium term.


The fears about the US-Russia-Europe relationship shifting comes at a tumultuous time. The world was shaken by the death of Alexey Navalny, a well-known critic of Putin and the face of the opposition movement within Russia. Europeans hypothesized that the response of the West to Navalny’s death – or possibly murder – would be telling, as Russia keeps pushing the boundaries of what it can get away with. The case for such worries stems from the peculiar circumstances surrounding the Russian opposition’s leader’s death. If Russia wanted to “liquidate” Navalny, they could have done so long ago and the world would not have known about it for years. The fact that the death of Navalny – a well-known and highly regarded politician in the West – was announced “officially” shows overt disrespect to all the morals and values that the collective West preaches. Attacking Georgia, occupying Crimea, escalating a genocide in Ukraine, not obeying U.N. Security Council’s restrictions on giving missiles to Iran, and now Navalny: Russia once again gave the middle finger to the international community.


As Russia obnoxiously continues to stir the pot, the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine just passed a few days ago, and aid packages to Ukraine are drying up. In the US, a $61 billion military aid package to Ukraine from the US Congress is being stalled by the Republicans and the Pentagon reported last week that it is out of money for Ukraine. The European Union is divided, as, for the first time, aid packages prioritize military and offensive equipment as opposed to humanitarian aid. In the meantime, Ukrainian troops are running short on weapons, including air defense systems and artillery to defend against Russia’s ongoing attack.


All the current events were crowned by the Munich Security Conference, where the US emphasized its commitment to Europe and the Europeans made some noise about improving their contribution – while praying for a second Biden term. Both sides publicly affirmed their commitment to Article 5 and support for Ukraine. The key events now to watch are the July NATO summit in Washington DC and the 2024 US presidential election. This November 5 will likely change the world as we know it.


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