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Putin is gaining from Trump’s NATO attacks, former US Army leader says

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President Donald Trump Vladimir Putin relationship politicsKevin Lamarque/Reuters

  • Russia has plans to reassert itself as a world
    power.
  • President Donald Trump’s attacks on NATO advance that
    goal, according to retired US Army Gen. Ben Hodges.
  • But Russia has its own problems, and they may get in
    the way of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is gaining a political edge in
Europe, thanks in large part to President Donald Trump, a
recently retired US Army commander in Europe told Business
Insider.

To recap all the recent tumult: Trump began a NATO summit earlier
this month with more criticism of the
alliance, calling Germany a “captive of Russia” and saying other
countries were “delinquent” in their defense spending. He ended
it by demanding NATO members
increase their defense budgets to 2% of GDP by January, six years
ahead of the agreed-upon deadline.

He followed the NATO summit by meeting with Putin in Helsinki.
What was discussed in the meeting remains largely unclear, but in
a press conference afterward Trump discounted US intelligence
agencies’ determination that Russia interfered in the 2016
election. Hours later he appeared to cast doubt on his
commitment
to the collective-security agreement that
underpins NATO by suggesting Montenegro, NATO’s newest member,
could drag the alliance into war.

Trump’s apparent indifference, and at times hostility, toward
NATO undercuts US leadership of a defense alliance that
Washington helped form after World War II — and it strengthens
Putin’s hand, according to former Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who
headed the US Army in Europe before retiring at the end of 2017.

“Right now, the fact that the
American leadership of the alliance, at least at the presidential
level, is in question, that’s a huge vulnerability,” said
Hodges,
a West Point graduate and infantry officer who led
troops in Iraq and Afghanistan during his 38-year Army career. “I
mean, in all my Army life, I’ve never even imagined an American
president not being 100% committed.”


Ben Hodges
Then-US
Army Europe commander Gen. Ben Hodges at the inauguration
ceremony for bilateral military training between the US and
Poland, in Zagan, Poland, January 30, 2017.

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Putin, “because he wants to
reestablish a world order where Russia is once again a great
power, he has to undermine NATO, and he has to undermine the
European Union, and he does that by sowing distrust and creating
or exploiting divisions between the nations, causing us to lose
confidence in our institutions,” added Hodges, who is now the
Pershing chair in strategic studies at the Center for European
Policy Analysis in Washington, DC.

A president or senior official
suggesting that the US was not committed to the defense of a
fellow NATO member “is like a gift to President Putin,” Hodges
said, adding that the Russian leader likely “now feels emboldened
that he can put more pressure on Baltic countries or certainly on
Ukraine and other places like that.”

Trump’s wavering stance on Russian interference in the most
recent US presidential election may stem in part from concerns
that admitting it occurred could undermine his victory. But the
US is far from the only country in which Russia has sought to
influence national leadership.

Under Putin, Russia has extended assistance in the
form of cooperation, loans, propaganda, and political support to
parties on the far-right and those that are skeptical of the
European Union. In addition to Euroskepticism, such parties tend
to back tough law-and-order policies and oppose immigration, as
well as supporting Russian policies or the Russian government.


russia putin hungary viktor orban
Russian
President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor
Orban shake hands after a meeting outside Moscow, February 17,
2016.

Reuters/Maxim
Shipenkov


That assistance appears to have been extended across the continent,
including in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, and the
Czech Republic. Russia is also believed to have supported Catalan separatists
in Spain and pro-Brexit campaigners in the UK.

Hodges pointed specifically to misinformation campaigns as one
method of Russian interference.

“Anybody that’s paid any
attention to Russia knows that this is how they operate,” he
said. “Open societies are always going to be a little bit
vulnerable to that, and so … societies have to be very
resilient in order to resist the constant barrage of lies that
come out of Russia at all levels.”

US leadership was needed to help NATO weather attempts to
undermine it, Hodges said, “because the cohesion of the alliance
is our big advantage.”

Even with those political advantages, Russia still faces
challenges — many of which are related to the resources it can
muster.


NATO
US
troops, part of a NATO mission to enhance Poland’s defense,
before an official welcoming ceremony in Orzysz, Poland, April
13, 2017.

Associated
Press


While Moscow can count on more than 1,500 deployed nuclear
weapons, its conventional forces are of mixed quality. The US has a
clear advantage, though military effectiveness often depends on a
country’s objectives, and Russia has successfully used hybrid-
and irregular-warfare techniques.

Despite its size, Russia’s “capacity is limited,” Hodges said.
Russia has two elements to its
economy, its energy exports and weapons exports, so they’re
vulnerable in that regard.”

Russia has rebounded somewhat in the
years since the 2014 collapse in oil prices sent a shutter
through oil exporters. It has also added to its exports, topping
the US to become the world’s biggest wheat
exporter
, though poor infrastructure are likely to limit those exports
in the immediate future.

Overall growth may be hindered by the
country’s population, which is on a downward trend even as
Russians are living longer. Russia’s working-age population is
expected to contract by 4.8 million over the next six years, the
economy minister said in late 2017.

“They’re on the wrong side of a
demographic equation in terms of their own population,” Hodges
said.


russians watch hockey
Russian
fans watch the ice hockey quarter-final match between Russia and
Finland during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, February
19, 2014.

REUTERS/Shamil
Zhumatov


Alongside demographic and
economic issues, Russia faces geographic and security
challenges.

“They have a worse challenge with
Islamic extremism than the rest of us do that they’ve got to deal
with,” Hodges said. In the far east, some 6 million Russians live
next to nearly 100 million Chinese in the border area between
Siberia and northern China. Russians in the region have expressed frustration with the
growing Chinese presence and with Moscow’s concessions to Chinese
commercial interests.

“The Chinese are coming into
Siberia, and it’s almost unstoppable. So they’ve got quite a few
challenges that they have to deal with,” Hodges said. “In fact,
the safest part of Russia’s border is the part that touches from
Norway to Bulgaria, down to the Black Sea,” he added. “We only
have less than 100 American tanks in Europe. They would all fit
on one football field.”

The size of that force undercuts the Russian narrative of Western
encroachment, Hodges said. (The US and NATO have deployed more units to Eastern
Europe
as a deterrent in recent years.) But, he added, in
Eastern Europe, Russia faces another challenge to its influence —
one of aspirations.

“I think we have a better story
to tell, the West, democracy, opportunity. There’s a reason
people in Ukraine looked over and they saw Poland, how much
better life was, [and] probably wanted to be a part of that,” he
said. “I think this is a vulnerability for Russia.”

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