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What does the election of Donald Trump for US president mean for Eastern Europe?

New Eastern Europe asked a few prominent region watchers what the election of Donald Trump for President of the United States means for Eastern Europe. Here is what they think:

November 10, 2016 - New Eastern Europe - Articles and Commentary

Maksym Khylko, PhD, Chairman of the Board at the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation, and Senior Research Fellow at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

The expectations of many Ukrainian politicians and experts from Hillary Clinton were as much exaggerated as their fears of Donald Trump’s victory. Trump’s triumph does not necessarily mean a sharp change in US foreign policy, which is not shaped solely by the president. Trump will have to take into account the position of the US Congress and his own party; and the Republicans have always demonstrated a strong willingness to support their Eastern European allies.

Ukraine’s ruling establishment does not have as good of relations with Trump as they had with Clinton, so they will have to win the attention and support of the new US president. The best way to succeed in this would be with the reforms, as relying on sympathy for a victim of aggression would not work with Trump.

It may sound paradoxical, but Trump’s victory may put Vladimir Putin in a rather awkward position. The latter has a chance to reduce tensions with the US while preserving his face. Yet this would require Russia to reduce its aggressive actions in Syria and Ukraine. Of course, Putin would then demand certain concessions, such as preserving Assad’s rule in Syria and a guarantee of Ukraine’s non-accession to NATO. The White House may find it difficult to agree with such terms, especially taking into account the Kremlin’s reluctance to carry out its own obligations under agreements. On the other hand, if Putin continues his aggressive actions in Syria and Ukraine, it would look like a spit in Trump’s face and the latter would be forced to change his rhetoric and take a tougher stance towards Russia, maybe much tougher than Clinton would dare.

Nevertheless, Europe must begin learning how to take care of its own problems and security. Regardless of the names of the winners of this and future elections, the demographic changes in the US objectively lead to a decrease in attention to Europe, as fewer and fewer American voters feel an affiliation and emotional tie with Europe, and correspondingly the responsibility to protect it. The European nations, and especially the Eastern European ones, have to invest more in their own security and combine their efforts in this sphere – to become strong enough to be able to defend themselves, should it be necessary.

Adam Eberhardt, Executive Director of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).

Donald Trump’s presidency will bring about a crisis of trust in transatlantic relations. This may be accompanied by the deepening of the trend of reducing co-operation with the United States in Western Europe. However, it is too early to say to what extent US policy towards Europe, including our region, will change. We will know more in the spring, when Trump forms his administration, although it is already clear that the priority of US policy will be internal and economic issues. It should also be expected that the personality traits of the new president, including the transactional style of politics will be a source of unpredictability.

These factors constitute a threat to Poland’s interest as the country’s aim has been an increased American presence in Europe, including a more active NATO presence and increased engagement in the Eastern flank. Although Trump’s victory has been positively received in Russia, more harmonious US-Russia relations are not predetermined in the long run. The mutual sympathy between Vladimir Putin and Trump grows out of their assumption that the other one will accept certain concessions. Mutual positive gestures at the beginning of Trump’s term in office seem likely – the US side might even lift some of the sanctions against Russia, revise some of the Warsaw NATO summit decisions or make changes to the anti-missile programme. Nevertheless, in time Russian-US tensions will probably resurface as a result of incompatible interests. They may even turn out to be stronger than before. 

Anton Barbashin, Managing Editor of the Intersection Project.

Hardly anyone today can answer the question as to what Donald Trump’s policy towards Russia will actually look like. Yet if we look at his remarks during the presidential campaign, a few points can be considered. First of all, Trump is an outspoken critic of America’s military commitments abroad. This of course does not mean that he will opt for the dissolution of NATO, but the challenges that transatlantic ties will experience over the course of the next four years will likely be unprecedented. Clearly European security is now much more a matter for European nations. This still does not mean we are going back to a Europe without the United States.

Secondly, it is unclear what sort of dialogue Trump will engage in with Vladimir Putin. Trump spoke favourably of Putin on numerous occasions; clearly the Kremlin is quite happy that it is not Hillary that they will have to deal with in the White House. Although Trump’s comments on Crimea were dubious at best – no one knows what sort of agreement Putin and Trump might arrive at over Ukraine. Naturally, Trump would be expecting some sort of proposal coming out of Moscow, whether it is Syria, Ukraine or general questions of combating Islamic extremism.  The key question here is who will be working in the Trump administration on Russia policy, but there is no doubt that Putin will exploit this “Trump opportunity” to gain as much as possible for himself.

The Third and final point regards Trump’s take on authoritarianism and liberal values as a whole.  If the US no longer stands for the liberal order, the likelihood of others to stand up for it will decrease tremendously; especially when illiberalism is on the rise everywhere in Europe. This poses numerous risks and more importantly will convince Putin that sanctions could be lifted and western countries could be persuaded to compromise over Ukraine. One could call it “Putin’s Trumportunity”.

Weronika Priesmeyer-Tkocz, director of studies at the European Academy of Berlin

There is a new bitter joke among Ukrainians since November 9th. Their country has something to be proud of –it outdid the United States! Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, now seems to be a better democrat, reformer and advocate of transparency than Donald Trump, the self-made and self-tanned man who soon will become the president of the most powerful country in the world. Unfortunately, this is the only positive message about this political earthquake in Washington. The election of Donald Trump is actually a game-changing event in international affairs. It brings also one of the clearest messages to all (Eastern) Europeans – you have to take care of yourself, because no one else will.

Vladimir Putin was the first big player to send his warmest greetings to the president-elect, expressing hope for fruitful co-operation in the future. But it is not the fear of the US recognizing the illegal annexation of Crimea or even the vague questioning of the existence of NATO that shocks most in this part of the world. Rather, it is the perspective of a US indifferent to the spread of democracy and rule of law around the world; and its willingness to engage less in European affairs.

Little is known about Trump’s foreign policy priorities. Little has actually been said so far, except from the above-mentioned provocative statements during the campaign. One usually does not win elections on foreign policy issues. Nonetheless based on the experience with populist leaders thus far, reaching for power combined with personal background and the overall attitude of Donald Trump, one can assume that the new POTUS will concentrate primarily his “make America great again” presidency on abolishing the achievements of the Democrats (Obamacare), fulfilling the internal promises given during the election campaign (tax relief, economic nationalism) and securing international influence of the US based on profit and pragmatism, not on values or principles (China). And in this calculation neither a global deal with Russia (helpful but too unpredictable) nor with the EU (who’s in charge?) will pay off for the new administration. This means any further engagement in Eastern Europe will be based on whether it goes along with US national interests.

It looks as though the European Union will finally have to face the challenge of taking full responsibility over its own continent. If it fails, Putin will gladly take over. 

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