This week, U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated his intent to move forward with reducing the U.S. military presence in Germany, without any consultations with Berlin. And even as members of the U.S. Congress and America’s allies abroad expressed concerns about the drawdown, the Trump administration’s decision brought joy to the Kremlin and Russian media.
Back in June, 22 Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee urged Trump not to go ahead with the move, stating in a letter: “We believe that such steps would significantly damage U.S. national security as well as strengthen the position of Russia to our detriment ... In Europe, the threats posed by Russia have not lessened, and we believe that signs of a weakened U.S. commitment to NATO will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism.”
German officials have called the move politically motivated. While Trump claimed that the drawdown was based on Germany not meeting the NATO target of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, Belgium and Italy—the two countries that will be receiving some of the U.S. troops from Germany—spend an even a smaller percentage on defense. The move will cost billions of dollars to the American taxpayers and undermine NATO alliances.
Meanwhile, when the intent to reduce the U.S. contingent in Germany was first announced, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the Kremlin “would welcome any steps by Washington to scale down its military presence in Europe,” brazenly telling the United States to take home not only its troops, but also its tactical nuclear weapons.
The Kremlin-controlled Russian state media also sensed a precious propaganda opportunity. Sergey Brilyov, anchor of the news show Saturday Vesti on Russian state media channel Rossiya-1, pondered whether the controversial move by the Trump administration could be considered the proof that Russia no longer poses a military threat to Europe.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov used the same rationale today, when he claimed that Russia doesn’t present any threat to European countries and “the fewer U.S. soldiers are on the European continent, the calmer it is in Europe.” Russian Envoy in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov speculated that the withdrawal of part of the U.S. contingent from Germany won’t impact the country’s security and Berlin is likely to even “benefit” from this move.
Unsurprisingly, Germany doesn’t see it that way. Norbert Roettgen, the head of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, warned on Twitter, “In withdrawing 12,000 soldiers from Germany, the USA achieve[s] the exact opposite from what [Defense Secretary] Mark Esper outlined. Instead of strengthening NATO it is going to weaken the alliance. The US’ military clout will not increase, but decrease in relation to Russia and the Near and Middle East.”
The troop withdrawal is just the latest piece of good news for Russia in its relations with the Trump administration.
When news broke of Russian bounties placed on the heads of American soldiers, followed by revelations that Russia and China have been hacking Western coronavirus research, it seemed that the die was cast and the sanctions against the Kremlin were all but inevitable. A chorus of experts on Russian state TV unanimously warned the audiences: There will be new sanctions.
But so far, the sanctions for the hacking of the coronavirus vaccine have been imposed solely on China. Other Russian pundits and experts accurately predicted that—unlike the Democrats—Trump and the GOP would single out not Russia but China as America’s top adversary. Therefore, instead of a stern rebuke, Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoyed a friendly phone conversation with Trump. During their phone call, Trump didn’t raise the issue of Russian bounties on American armed forces in Afghanistan, nor did he admonish Putin for Russia’s hacking of the coronavirus vaccine research. Likewise, Trump didn’t question the Russian president about his country’s ongoing interference in U.S. elections and domestic affairs.
Instead of confronting Putin, Trump lashed out at Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) about domestic antifascist group antifa, tweeting in part, “Jerry, blame it on Russia, Russia, Russia!” The unfunny punchline reaffirmed that Russian wrongdoing would continue to be swept under the carpet by the Trump administration—a signal that was enthusiastically received in Moscow. “Trump is still ours,” concluded Russian International Affairs Council expert Alexey Naumov. “Whew,” theatrically exhaled the host of a state media news talk show 60 Minutes, Olga Skabeeva.
“Trump is ours” is a familiar refrain in Russian state media. Its aim is twofold: mocking the inquiry into the Kremlin’s involvement in the U.S. elections, while simultaneously emphasizing the inexplicable hold Putin seems to possess over his American counterpart. It’s hardly humorous, in light of Trump’s actions that consistently benefit Russia’s agenda on the world stage. During the 2018 Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, the Russian president openly admitted that he wanted Trump to win the 2020 election. Russian experts, pundits, and the Kremlin’s bullhorns repeatedly reiterate that Trump is still the preferred figure in the upcoming presidential contest—as a “chaos candidate,” dividing Americans domestically and causing international rifts within transatlantic alliances.
The weakening of the enemy is most certainly a coveted opportunity for Russia—and there is no doubt that the United States is seen as such by the Kremlin. Discussing the United States on Russia’s state TV program 60 Minutes last week, Alexei Kondratiev, member of the Federation Council on the Russian Federation’s Defense and Security Committee, emphasized, “They are our enemies, 100 percent.” During the same show, expert Alexey Naumov claimed that the world is witnessing the U.S. “in its death throes,” as America’s greatness and its global standing is in steep decline. “America is dying,” announced host Olga Skabeeva.
Margarita Simonyan, the head of the state-funded TV channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today, was similarly blunt in her assessment. She told Komsomolskaya Pravda—a daily Russian tabloid newspaper—that America’s complete disintegration would be highly beneficial for Russia. Simonyan speculated that internal chaos would force the United States to focus on its own survival, allowing Russia and other countries to pursue their global aims unimpeded: “In order for them to leave us alone, it is necessary that they be terribly busy with their own internal problems.” This perception falls in line with recent revelations that Russian intelligence services are using English-language websites to spread disinformation—undoubtedly, just a tiny snowflake on the tip of Russia’s anti-Western disinformation iceberg. In the run up to the U.S. presidential elections, these efforts can be expected to intensify.
As for the weakening of NATO, Trump is essentially fulfilling Putin’s wishes by ordering the drawdown of U.S. armed forces from Germany. The Kremlin is sure to exploit the fault lines in transatlantic relations between Western allies and widen the cracks at every opportunity, aided by the divisive actions of the Kremlin’s unlikely comrade at the White House.