We would put it too mildly if we said that they in the Baltics are keep a watchful eye on the ongoing election campaign in the United States. In fact, they are all eyes now. And this is natural for vassals, whose lives are directly dependent on the characters and the habits of their lords. For the Balts, Donald Trump as new U.S. president is the worst nightmare possible.
The words that caused panic
A few days ago, Trump said something that caused panic in the Baltics. In an interview to The New York Times, he said that he would decide to go to the aid of the Baltics only once he reviewed whether they had fulfilled their obligations to the United States. “This is exactly what most of the Balts expected from Trump – some with fear, others with impatience. Last spring some sources even spread a rumor that Trump had allegedly advised the Balts to move to Africa if they didn’t like being neighbors to the Russians. Now that rumor is becoming a reality,” says political scientist Alexander Nosovich.
A minute’s shock was followed by a wave of emotions. “Only four EU & NATO member states hit 2% GDP target of defense spending: UK, Estonia, Poland, Greece,” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in Twitter. He added that Estonia was involved in all NATO’s operations in Afghanistan.
"The Baltic countries give no grounds to doubt the fulfillment of their obligations to the alliance. Likewise, we have no reason to doubt that our allies will meet their obligations to the Alliance," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said in an interview to Ziniu Radijas. He noted that Lithuania has been increasing its defense spending at a rapid rate. In the minister's opinion, Trump's remarks are yet another reminder "that we all have to take care of our security ourselves", but have no doubts "that our allies will do so as well". "The election campaign is a period based on which it is difficult to judge and draw conclusions, or even to comment on something. And when it is a country with a long tradition (like the US is), its policy is predictable and, therefore, I would definitely not expect any radical turns, any radical changes," Linkevicius said.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite hurried to flatter her overseas “boss” by saying that Lithuania trusts the United States no matter who leads that country. "I'd like to send a message back saying: we trust America no matter what president America has. America has always defended nations that were attacked and it will defend," the president said. "We know that America will be our most important partner,” the Lithuanian president said.
In the meantime, Baltic experts have very different expectations of Donald Trump as the U.S. president.
According to political scientist Sarunas Liekis, Trump says what he thinks and what he is going to do. “Trump’s words reflect the general mood in the United States: today the Americans are not interested in foreign policy and would like their new president to focus on their internal problems,” Liekis says. His colleague Kestutis Giriunas is of a different opinion: he claims that Trump’s words are just part of his electoral rhetoric and is confident that Trump’s words about the Baltics were a signal to Germany.
Grudge and attempts to come to terms
Chairman of the Lithuanian parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defense Arturas Paulauskas has appeared with a self-comforting attitude: “At the very beginning of his campaign Trump said that the nations that were not spending money on their defense but just hoped that the Americans would protect them might get no aid. I don’t think that this will become a reality as NATO’s mission is exactly to protect its members. On the other hand, we should keep this message in mind and we are already increasing our defense spending.”
Member of the Committee Arvydas Anusauskas is concerned about Trump’s words: “We must more accurate in formulating our position. The first time Trump made such a statement was last March. Everybody hoped that as the election would draw nigh, the Americans would stop saying such things. But it seems that their attitude now is that NATO is an anti-terror organization rather than a defense union. So, we have grounds for being worried,” Anusauskas says.
According to former Defense Minister of Lithuania Rasa Jukneviciene, Trump’s words were a cold but not very healthy shower. “We should not regard his words as a refusal to protect us. He did not say that. Whoever is elected U.S. President, we have a lot to do,” Jukneviciene says. Chairman of the Lithuanian parliamentary Committee on European Affairs Gediminas Kirkilas regrets that Trump is not oriented towards Lithuanian, Polish and other ethnic voters though most of the Lithuanian immigrants support the Republicans.
They in Latvia have also been hurt. “Every second day Trump makes a statement that surprises America and the whole world. This statement concerns us. I think he is not even aware where the Baltics are. He is talking about obligations to NATO and the United States. Latvia has always been their ally – in Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere. Trump is not aware of this as he is a newcomer in politics,” Chairman of the Latvian parliamentary Committee on Defense, Internal Affairs and Corruption Prevention Ainars Latkovskis said in an interview to Baltkom.
Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis says that this is just electoral rhetoric, while the leader of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia Martin Helme believes that Trump’s words reflect the attitude of the other NATO allies. “Should there be a war, NATO will not rush to protect us. Trump said what everybody in NATO knows but prefers to be silent about. This pact is just a nice political declaration, which is not supposed to work – especially if we are not doing anything for it to work. Trump expressed the general attitude in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. And this must be an alarming signal for the people in Estonia who rely on article 5 (of NATO’s collective defense pact – EADaily). But, as we may see now, once some great power changes its leader, this article costs no more than the paper it is printed on. This must become a strong stimulus for our government to review its policy and rhetoric. The only way-out for us is to create our own defense systems,” Helme said.
He thinks that Republican Trump is a better option for Estonia than Democrat Hillary Clinton. “Clinton will never be as sincere as Trump is but she thinks likewise. The Americans will not rush to help us if their see no national or geopolitical need for this,” Helme said.
European parliamentarian from Estonia Urmas Paet advises the Estonian authorities to start establishing contacts with Trump’s team. “His statement about allies’ contributions to the Alliance was good for us. Estonia is one of the few NATO allies that spends 2% of its GDP on defense,” Paet told Vikerraadio.
Earlier Hillary Clinton’s supporter, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that even if Trump wins the election, the tone and the content of his electoral program have already caused damage to the United States’ security. She quoted the Balts as expressing concern that Trump might encourage Russia’s aggression and leave them without American protection.
Trump’s attitude is contrary to the mentality of the Baltic ruling elites. According to analyst at RuBaltic.Ru Andrey Starikov, the Baltic leaders are like brainless kids from the medieval German legend about the Ratcatcher of Hamelin – they are used to blindly following the Americans’ will. “In the Pax Americana concept, they can survive only if the world is unipolar and only if the Russians are where the Americans want them to be. Their strategy is as follows: the more America there is in Europe, the less Russia there will be there. In practice, this means a ‘sanitary cordon of democratic states’ along Russia’s borders,” Starikov says.
“This is why small Lithuania is so aggressive. The anti-Russian initiatives advanced by Poland and Sweden in the framework of the Eastern Partnership program, the “democratic” arms supplies to Ukraine, the support of the Belorussian opposition – all this is part of the infamous World Salvation idea. Estonia and Latvia have similar strategies. In line with the ‘Great Limitrophe’ concept – a belt of the inter-civilizational nations surrounding the ‘island of Russia’ – and in compliance with America’s will, all of the Baltic states are playing the role of a buffer zone. As far as Trump is concerned, he is an isolationist. His slogan is ‘America First!’” Starikov says.
For the time being, the Balts’ bad expectations are coming true: Trump has already said twice that if elected, he will recognize Crimea as a Russian territory because the Crimean people want to be with Russia rather than with Ukraine. For the Baltics, this is a matter of principle as they are used to associating themselves with post-Maidan Ukraine. No surprise that Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand is concerned about “Russia’s step to merge illegally annexed Crimea into its Southern Federal District - against intl law and @CoE principles.” The Americans’ negative attitude towards Crimea was a guarantee for the Baltics that they will keep their existing status quo unchanged. Trump has dispelled this illusion and has left the Balts face to face with Russia, a neighbor they have spoiled all relations with.
But some Balts think otherwise. Chief Editor of Tallinn-based Stolitsa news portal Alexander Chaplygin is Trump’s fan. “Our corrupt mass media have made an ‘enfant terrible’ of him. But his words reflect the attitude of many ordinary Americans, whose brains have not yet been washed by the Democrats. Trump’s key advantage is that he has nothing to do with the rotten and vicious U.S. political elite, who are responsible for dozens of wars and millions of deaths. They are scaring me but I am not scared. It seems that Trump is going to put an end to America’s role of a global gendarme and to focus on domestic problems. This implies an end to the senseless conflict with Russia. If the Baltics stop their provocations, we have nothing to be afraid of,” Chaplygin says.