WARSAW —President Donald Trump’s visit to Poland produced mixed signals about his Russia policy a day before Trump’s first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At a Thursday morning press conference with Polish Prime Minister Andrzei Duda, Trump again declined to say clearly that he believes the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election. “It could have been [that] a lot of people interfered,” Trump said, contradicting the firm assessment of the U.S. intelligence community.
Speaking at a historic square in the afternoon, Trump took a tougher line, urging Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes—including Syria and Iran.” He also reaffirmed his commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which obliges the alliance’s members to defend one another from aggression—a provision drafted with Russia in mind.
But even Trump’s reference to the NATO treaty was couched in criticism of U.S. allies who he says are not spending enough on Europe’s defense. Trump offered a similar critique during his appearance with Duda, whose government he praised for meeting the alliance’s target for military spending.
The mixed messages surprised Russia experts in Washington, who warned that it weakens Trump’s position both with his European counterparts—including German chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Trump met on Thursday evening—and with Putin.
“Trump’s press conference with President Duda brought back memories of some of Trump’s big low points: the suggestion that some 400-pound guy in New Jersey might have been responsible for hacking the DNC and the needless bashing of our NATO and European Union partners,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Clinton White House national security aide for Russia. “Why on earth does he keep pouring scorn on the idea that Moscow brazenly interfered in our democratic process or the professionalism of the intelligence community?”
Trump is scheduled to sit down with Putin for the first time Friday afternoon in Hamburg, Germany, on the sidelines of the annual G-20 summit. The two leaders have spoken twice on the phone but have never met.
Trump spoke to a large and welcoming crowd in Warsaw’s Krasinski square, at a monument commemorating a 1944 Polish uprising against Nazi occupiers.
But for many Poles, the square is also a reminder of Russian aggression: Moscow encouraged the uprising as its army moved west, then declined to aid the Polish resistance fighters, preferring to see their ranks whittled down to make Soviet domination of the country easier.
Suspicion of Russia still runs high in Poland, which values NATO deployments on its soil that have grown in recent years.
Intentionally or not, Trump’s address also synched with of Putin’s longtime talking points about U.S.-Russia relations when he called on Moscow to “join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself.”
Before leaving for Europe, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for new cooperation between the U.S. and Russia to defeat the Islamic State, possibly including the establishment of no-fly zones within Syria. Putin has been lukewarm about any U.S. role in restricting Syrian airspace.
Putin has argued since the late 1990s that the U.S. and Russia should closely cooperate against Islamic terrorism—although many U.S. officials and Russia experts consider that mainly an attempt to win concessions from Washington.
But Putin has relished Trump’s criticisms of the NATO alliance. If the alliance “fell apart, it would not be a bad thing,” Putin said early last month.
Trump drew widespread criticism for leaving out a reference to Article 5 during his May visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, but subsequently affirmed his backing for the mutual defense provision two weeks later. He reiterated his commitment in Warsaw.
“[W]e stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment,” Trump said.
The reference to Russian behavior and Article 5 reflected the views of top Trump advisers, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; the National Security Council’s top aide for Russia, Fiona Hill; Defense Secretary James Mattis; and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Still, Trump’s comments weren’t enough to allay concerns about what the president himself believes.
“Everyone has been hoping that the grown-ups around Trump — like Mattis, McMaster, and company — will be able to appeal to his better nature before the meeting with Putin,” said Weiss. “[Today] sure looks like the triumph of hope over experience.”
Although central and Eastern European leaders—including Poland’s nationalistic government—are in a state of high anxiety over Moscow’s military, cyber and political aggression, Trump focused on threats to Polish security from radical Islam and “the steady creep of government bureaucracy.”
While many U.S. and European officials have criticized Poland’s government for refusing to accept any refugees, Trump seemed to endorse the policy.
“While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind,” he said.
Missing entirely from Trump’s speech was any reference to what EU officials call backsliding on democracy and media freedom by Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party since it assumed power in 2015.
President Barack Obama chided Poland’s government during a visit here last year. Trump, in contrast, said he had visited Poland “to hold it up as an example for others who seek freedom.”
The Law and Justice Party clearly relished its association with Trump. Many attendees at the event carried posters with Trump’s face on one side and Duda’s on the other. Also visible, along with miniature American flags, were flags sporting the ruling party’s logo.
Trump was introduced by his Slovenian-born wife, Melania, who was warmly applauded.