President Donald Trump needed to accomplish two things this week during his visits to Poland and the G-20 Summit in Hamburg. First, he needed to reassure America’s allies that he was committed to collective defense and the core set of values and principles that bind us together. Second, he needed to demonstrate that he understands that the greatest threat to that alliance, those values, and our security is the Kremlin.
Trump delivered neither of these. In very concrete terms, through speech and action, the president signaled a willingness to align the United States with Vladimir Putin’s worldview, and took steps to advance this realignment. He endorsed, nearly in its totality, the narrative the Russian leader has worked so meticulously to construct.
The readout of Trump’s lengthy meeting with Putin included several key points. First, the United States will “move on” from election hacking issues with no accountability or consequences for Russia; in fact, the U.S. will form a “framework” with Russia to cooperate on cybersecurity issues, evaluating weaknesses and assessing potential responses jointly. Second, the two presidents agreed not to meddle in “each other’s” domestic affairs—equating American activities to promote democracy with Russian aggression aimed at undermining it, in an incalculable PR victory for the Kremlin. Third, the announced, limited ceasefire in Syria will be a new basis for cooperation between the U.S. and Russia; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to far as to say that the Russian approach in Syria — yielding mass civilian casualties, catastrophic displacement, untold destruction and erased borders — may be “more right” than that of the United States.
Each of these points represents a significant victory for Putin. Each of them will weaken U.S. tools for defending its interests and security from the country that defines itself as America’s “primary adversary.” Trump has ceded the battle space — physical, virtual, moral — to the Kremlin. And the president is going to tell us this is a “win.”
Trump’s unusual speech in Warsaw earlier in the week foreshadowed this catastrophic outcome, despite some analysts’ wishful thinking to the contrary. The initial reaction to the speech was far more positive than to his previous attempt at NATO. After all, the president seemed to challenge Russia, acknowledge the importance of the alliance’s commitment to mutual self-defense, and mount a defense of Western democracies and values.
But this assessment missed the forest for the trees — and the fact that its intended audience was Russia, not Europe. In reality, Trump attacked NATO and the EU, the twin pillars of the post-World War II transatlantic architecture, again demonstrating he has no interest in being the leader of the free world, but rather its critic in chief.
Trump did not express a clear commitment to Article 5: He said only that “the United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind it.” At a press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, he said he was not in a position to discuss guarantees for the U.S. troop presence in Poland. President Duda confirmed this, saying discussions would continue next year.
Trump did not defend Western democracies: In fact, he did not once mention democracy in his speech. As for values, he mentions them seven times: First, in the negative — immigrants who are against them — and second, in the context of traditionalism.
Trump’s challenge to Russia came with an olive branch, offering it a place in a “community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself.” This signal to Putin that there is a common “civilization” to which the U.S., European nations and Russia all belong — absent the usual rhetoric of democracy or shared Western values — is a critical gesture. Previous U.S. presidents have said that Russia has a place in the community of democracies if it chooses to, but Trump’s approach was more in line with Putin’s own thinking, steeped in traditionalism and history and a narrative of a clash of civilizations.
In 2013 and 2014, Putin’s decade-long redrafting of Russia’s historical narrative culminated in a new definition of Russian exceptionalism. On March 18, 2014, he delivered a powerful speech to mark Russia’s annexation of Crimea, disavowing Soviet history and reaching back to Russia’s Orthodoxy to define modern Russian identity. He embraced the idea of “orthodox morality,” which rejects Western concepts like inclusivity and focuses on “traditionalism” as the foundation of national identity.
The themes of these speeches — speaking not of values but “civilization,” not of alliances but “sovereignty,” not of minority rights but the defense of the rights of the majority based on concepts of “traditional values” — were all central tenants of Trump’s speech in Warsaw, which was littered in illiberal buzzwords meant to catch the ear of those like-minded while simultaneously placating potential critics. Trump championed rhetoric and ideas that Putin had carefully crafted — ideas that some of Trump’s own advisers embrace.
“We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs,” Trump said, echoing a consistent theme of Putin’s since 2013: that survival depends upon an identity based in “traditional” values. This fundamental identity is something both men define as inherently under attack from “outside forces”—perhaps terrorists, or immigrants, or George Soros, or maybe the Chinese. Trump asked “whether the West has the will to survive.” Putin defines the enemy as liberal Western values, like tolerance and inclusivity, which he views as the product of a West in decline — something the two leaders agree on.
Both leaders also refer to the need to “defend civilization” — but they mean a very specific concept of civilization defined not by values or governance, but by history and religion. This is the “blood and soil” nationalism of the 19th century—not the postwar liberal internationalism that American presidents of both parties have embraced for the past 70 years. Trump repeatedly spoke of souls and God — neither standard references in his speeches — going so far as to say: “We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.” Putin frequently refers to spiritual tradition as a core part of identity, and of the importance of the “ideals of family” as a bulwark against Western decadence. Trump’s diss of “bureaucracy” was an unmistakable code word for the European Union—the institution Putin seeks to dismantle—as was his reference to sovereignty as a core tenet of how he thinks the world should be ordered.
In stark terms, Trump’s speech was a pivot to illiberalism, and a tacit acknowledgement that, in his view, the U.S. has as much in common with Russia as any European ally. As President George W. Bush once said in an interview describing Putin, “It speaks volumes if you listen to what somebody says.” The same is now true of President Trump. We need to evaluate what he is saying with clarity, rather than projecting upon it ideas and concepts we hope will be there.
All of this paved the way to a friendly introduction between the two leaders. Trump’s desire for a warmer relationship with Putin is perhaps the one position on which he has never vacillated since assuming office. The Kremlin has sustained this sentiment by sending a string of messengers to see the new American president, including King Abdullah of Jordan, who visited the White House with a message from the Kremlin on Syria and Ukraine, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose Oval Office meeting with Trump had a jovial air. There were signs that backchannel discussions were underway, likely involving Henry Kissinger, who was in the Oval Office just before Lavrov and in Moscow just this past week. Momentum was building toward the first face-to-face meeting. And it delivered — for Putin.
The White House is working hard to sell deliverables from the meeting—like the Syria ceasefire—as a win, demonstrating that Trump’s obsession with better relations with Putin can benefit the United States. But the concessions granted place the U.S. behind the Russian narrative, following the lead of an aggressive, revanchist nation.
Russia will bear no cost or consequence for its attack on American society. Instead, we will mutually agree not to meddle with each other—validating a longstanding Kremlin lie that unrest in Russia is due to U.S. interference, rather than discontent with Russia’s stagnant economy and shrinking personal freedoms.
To be clear: Putin isn’t going to stop what he is doing — in the U.S. or elsewhere. Kremlin ideologues are quite clear that their asymmetric capabilities give them a key advantage against their adversaries, and will be heavily invested in, in a variety of ways. They state openly that their advantage is in these asymmetric means — information, influence and cyber operations; the use of “guerrilla” cells that can carry out activities in Europe and the United States; cyberattacks against critical infrastructure; cultural outreach; and more — and that they will use this means to achieve their goals of undermining NATO and American power.
Trump has also acceded to the Kremlin line on Syria. I wrote earlier about the deeply flawed logic of trying to work together with Russia on Syria. We don’t share common goals; we don’t share rules of engagement; and we don’t agree on what the threat actually is. Tillerson tried to position Putin’s acknowledgement of the eventual need of a Syrian future without President Bashar Assad as a step forward — but the Kremlin has been saying the same thing for months, if not years. What they have wanted — since as far back as before 9/11 , and certainly throughout the latter part of the Obama presidency — is to use cooperation against Islamist terrorists and insurgents as a means of capturing U.S. interests and assets behind Kremlin objectives. But Russia has done little to fight ISIS, and doesn’t have much to offer in the fight against terrorism in general — why would the U.S. demur to a Kremlin process that still includes Hezbollah, Iranian militias and other terrorist forces?
And this only assesses what we know was discussed. What about what wasn’t discussed? Did Trump raise expanded Russian intelligence activities inside the United States? How about attempts by Russian agents to target U.S. military members with disinformation and for recruitment? What about whether or not Russia has been involved in cyberattacks on critical U.S. infrastructure, including nuclear facilities? And these are just pressing issues of U.S. national security. How about escalating fighting in eastern Ukraine, or how Russian forces moved forward the occupation line in Georgia, again? Was King Abdullah right that getting a solution on Syria will mean making concessions on Ukraine? No one knows — because no one asked. “Move on.”
Former director of national intelligence James Clapper put the matter well this week: Russia is prepping the battlefield in the United States for what comes next. It is clear the president does not believe this — and it is increasingly clear that his definition of who and what we are as a nation is problematic and dark. If we choose to ignore these warnings — as a government and as a society — we all bear responsibility, and we will all pay the price.