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What Trump’s flirtation with Putin signals to Europe

Donald Trump issued an invitation to Russia to hack US State Department emails. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear his preference for Trump. But what does this relationship signal to the rest of the world?

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    A woman wears a shirt reading 'Trump Putin '16' at a Trump campaign event at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, N.H. in February 2016. Donald Trump keeps giving Russian President Vladimir Putin more reasons to hope he wins the US election.
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Speculation about Donald Trump’s soft spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin and general pro-Russian attitude has been waxing for several months, helped along by moves such as Mr. Trump's hiring of campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who represented the Russian-backed former Ukrainian president for a decade. And there's his recent comments praising Mr. Putin as “a better leader” than Barack Obama.

The flirtation of sorts between the two leaders – Mr. Putin too has praised Trump – became the focus of media attention Wednesday when Trump called for Russia to locate emails allegedly missing from Hillary Clinton’s home email server.

The statement triggered some damage control from the Trump campaign and his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as well as disapproval on both sides of the party line.

While Trump's campaign has tried to minimize the comment's implications, experts in European geopolitics worry that his pro-Russian stance and open questioning of the US commitments to NATO, are causing unease in the former Soviet bloc and the world of international security. Others say that he is raising valid points, although perhaps not in the most constructive manner.

When it comes to the courtship with Putin, at least one expert says that Trump is in over his head.

“Mr. Putin is a sophisticated geopolitical strategist whereas Mr. Trump is a novice in the world of foreign affairs,” says Igor Lukes, professor of international relations and history at Boston University's Pardee School of Global Studies. While they may be flip comments, Professor Lukes says Trump’s statements are “hugely significant and serious” as they play into Kremlin political strategists’ geopolitical game. “And Mr. Trump doesn’t even know that he is being used in such a manner.”

Nancy Gallagher, interim director at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, has a slightly different take.

“I think he’s having fun right now,” she says of Putin in the wake of media speculation that he is meddling in the elections – an accusation that he has leveraged against the US in Eastern European elections. Despite this, she says there is debate among Russians about whether a “very unpredictable” American leader would actually be a boon for Russia.

However, the short-term optics do show reasons for why Putin would prefer Trump as a presidential candidate over another member of the Republican party – or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Unlike many of his Republican peers, Trump is not in favor of arming Ukraine against Russian aggression (in fact the Russian-backed government of annexed Crimea reportedly invited Trump for a visit after he said he was open to discussing their status).

“If you are the president of an embattled Ukraine under pressure from Russia you could not possibly see this as good news, because in the Ukraine the view is that its salvation lies in a robust NATO,” says Rajan Menon, author of "Ukraine in Conflict: The Unwinding of the Cold War Post-Cold War Order" and professor of political science at The City College of New York. While Ukraine is not part of NATO, there has been ongoing debate within member nations about arming the country against Russia.

And from the perspective of the Ukrainian people, Professor Lukes says, “It is tragic to see that your occupation is being legitimized – the conquest of sovereign territory is being legitimized – by such an important person as Mr. Trump.”

It’s not a problem that’s unique to Ukraine.

For former Soviet countries lining the borders between Russia and the rest of Europe, Trump's pre-presidential hedging on NATO commitments sends “a powerful signal that perhaps if there is a major geopolitical emergency” they cannot necessarily rely on NATO, says Lukes.

Putting doubt into citizens and leaders in nations such as Estonia, Lukes says, amplifies the message coming from the other side “that 'Russia is mighty, Russia is there and is not going to go away, and for you to rely on your American friends is simply an illusion.'”

Big picture, this means that Trump’s questions about NATO, or other international structures, could have serious global security ramifications.

“He’s made it clear that if Russia did something that our allies didn’t like but that he didn’t consider a direct national security threat to the United States that he might very well say 'you know that’s on your side of the world ,that’s your sphere of interest, I’m not going to get involved,'” says Dr. Gallagher. 

The problem with that, she says, is that it can invalidate the “huge investment” that the United States, Europe, and other nations have made in creating international security organizations – of which NATO is one example – that are “a function of international law, diplomacy, etc. not purely a function of raw power.”

But while Trump’s statements have been making waves within domestic politics as well as abroad, his ideas may not actually be as outlandish as some perceive.

Trump’s comments in regard to NATO are part of a larger debate about burden sharing and alliances within the security organization, whose post-Cold War purpose Professor Menon calls “less clear.”

“There have been discussions about these alliances, so Trump’s rather overstated policy positions feeds into that debate,” says Menon, who himself believes that the current economic system of burden sharing within NATO merits discussion and correction.

But he says that these corrections should be mapped out in an international dialogue – not off-the-cuff comments.

“Even those who favor discussion on the future of alliances wouldn’t go along with bull-horn messages calling into question the American commitment to allies,” he says.

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