Donald Trump's NATO Attacks Are 'Dangerous' and Could Tempt Putin to Test the Alliance, Former Secretary General Warns

The former secretary general of NATO has warned that President Donald Trump's public criticism of the alliance risks dangerously undermining the bloc, and encouraging adversaries like Russian President Putin to test its unity.

But Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who led the transatlantic alliance from 2009 to 2014, also said that NATO is more militarily robust than when Trump came into office, despite the president's public skepticism regarding the Cold War coalition.

On the sidelines of the annual Yalta European Strategy meeting—organized by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation—in Kiev, Ukraine, Rasmussen told Newsweek that Trump's derision of NATO has been "damaging" and "politically weakening" for NATO, which this year celebrated its 70th birthday.

Trump's criticism is "not only a pity but it's dangerous, in my opinion," Rasmussen warned.

Article 5 of the NATO charter is the cornerstone of the alliance. The article means that "an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies" in Europe or North America. This presents a united and potent front against any would-be aggressor.

"When an American president raises doubts publicly about the credibility of Article 5 and his commitment to Article 5, it might tempt Putin and others to test our resolve," Rasmussen warned. The president has committed to honoring the article, but only after publicly questioning its value in the case of a relatively small country like Montenegro.

Article 5 has only been triggered once in NATO history—by the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks. NATO allies duly threw their weight behind the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

While diplomats, analysts and journalists have fretted over Trump's pugnacious soundbites and tweets, U.S. activity within NATO has actually been increasing in recent years.

"Militarily, actually, NATO is stronger today than it was when Trump took office," Rasmussen explained. This is partially thanks to "very active" American involvement in strengthening defense of NATO's eastern flank, prompted by Putin's annexation of Crimea and support of separatist militias in eastern Ukraine from 2014.

The Pentagon has been a driving force in establishing four rapid response battalions based in Eastern Europe, which would be tasked with blunting the advancing Russian spear in the event of war. The Air Force has also been investing in the region, to ensure U.S. aircraft are ready to engage in the defense of its allies.

Trump's big gripe has been "burden sharing"—the suggestion that the U.S. is carrying too much of the cost of NATO's collective defense. The U.S. is by far the biggest contributor to the alliance's military budget, though experts have pointed out that the president's claims of being "ripped off" are—at best—exaggerated.

As soon as he came into office, the president began pummeling his NATO allies with demands to spend more, even reportedly threatening to withdraw from the alliance if they did not.

The result, in Trump's telling at least, was a marked rise in contributions. But as observers and fellow leaders—for example French President Emmanuel Macron—pointed out, the 29 nations already agreed in 2014 to up military spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024.

Regardless, Rasmussen said Trump can take some credit for the spending boost. "While his predecessors have said the same—both Obama and George W. Bush, I have cooperated with both of them—I think we should give Trump the credit that he has really raised his voice," he explained.

"His rhetoric has been so harsh that no one in Europe is in doubt that Europeans should carry a big part of the burden."

Only six NATO nations have so far succeeded in reaching the 2 percent threshold. Nonetheless, Rasmussen noted that the alliance has another five years to get there. "We are on the right track and by the end of this year, I would estimate that eight out of the 29 allies live up to the 2 percent target," he said.

Donald Trump, NATO, Belgium, Brussels, Summit
President Donald Trump arrives to speak to the media at a press conference on the second day of the 2018 NATO Summit on July 12, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Sean Gallup/Getty Images/Getty

"Putin loves to play games"

The ongoing war with Russia loomed large over the YES meeting proceedings, which was held in the Crimean resort city of Yalta until its annexation by Moscow in 2014. More than 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict, with another 30,000 wounded and almost 1.5 million driven from their homes.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in a landslide in April, and his party have since swept to a majority in the national parliament—the first time in Ukrainian history that a single party has achieved such a feat.

Zelensky has said he is keen to end the fighting, though has maintained his desire to bring the restive eastern Donbass region of the country and Crimea back under Kiev's control. Despite a ceasefire, firing and deaths continue along the front line.

Earlier this month, a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine raised hopes that a new period of dialogue might give way to progress towards peace, though Moscow has repeatedly failed to fulfil its commitments under the Minsk Protocol peace plan.

Rasmussen suggested that the new administration has every chance of making progress. However, he warned that Zelensky and his team must "avoid naivety when it comes to Russia."

"Putin loves to play games," he added, "and if a new administration is too eager to reach short-term gains at the expense of the long-term strategy, they might be caught in a trap."

"They have got the prisoner exchange, that's a good step," Rasmussen reflected. "But I don't think they should consider it a major long-term Russian willingness to actually stop the destabilization of eastern Ukraine," he suggested, adding that the question of Crimea is an even bigger one.

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Then NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is pictured speaking to reporters at the NATO Summit on September 4, 2014 in Newport, U.K. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images/Getty

"I think they should be open-eyed in their approach to Putin and to Russia," he warned. "I think the only way to ensure stability in eastern Ukraine and to create peace is to deploy a UN-mandated peacekeeping force with a robust mandate to also control the real international border between Ukraine and Russia, to control the influx of Russian personnel and military equipment."

Putin sent his troops across the border after pro-European protesters forced pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych from office and from the country. The Russian invasion was Moscow's response to the imminent loss of Ukraine as a buffer against Europe and NATO. A valuable strategic piece on the geopolitical chessboard could not be simply allowed to drift away from Russia.

The country is now stuck somewhat in limbo. Zelensky's pro-European, pro-U.S., pro-NATO government is looking longingly westwards, but Crimea and the occupied Donbass remain wedged in the Russian orbit.

The Russian strategy produced mixed results. Those in unoccupied Ukraine have been pushed towards Europe, achieving "exactly the opposite" of what Moscow wanted, Rasmussen said. But Putin knows full well that NATO and the European Union have no wish to import unsolved border disputes into their organizations.

"This is exactly the reason why he wants to keep the conflict simmering, a frozen conflict," Rasmussen explained. "In that respect, we should not see Ukraine as an isolated event. You also have Georgia with the occupation of South Ossetia, you have Moldova with Transnistria, and I would add to that also Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia."

"All those simmering conflicts are elements in the same long-term Putin strategy to keep his neighbors weak, dependent on the Kremlin and prevent them from seeking a deeper relationship or even membership of NATO and the European Union," Rasmussen reflected.

Both Ukraine and Georgia are still working towards achieving the criteria required for future NATO membership. Predictably, Russia has responded by accusing NATO of provocation and threatening further conflict.

Rasmussen dismissed Moscow's protests. "It's not NATO that is pushing for this enlargement, it's Ukraine and it's Georgia," he said. "It's for them to decide whether they will apply. And that's according to what I consider a very basic principle, namely, that each and every country has an inherent right to decide its alliance affiliation itself."

"I think the Kremlin should ask itself, 'Why is it that all our neighbors are seeking—an improved relationship with NATO? I think it's more important to ask that question in the Kremlin, [rather] than being hostile to their choice," he added.

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An Ukrainian serviceman watches for the enemy on the front line with the Russia-backed separatists near Avdiivka, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on July 20, 2019. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images/Getty

"NATO will flourish"

Rasmussen acknowledged that the bloc must do more to face up to the Russian threat and global terrorism, especially to support smaller countries unable to build up and maintain the required forces.

The alliance must also look to new regions to ensure collective security, Rasmussen believes, specifically Asia and the Arctic.

"China is, of course, an overall challenge," he told Newsweek. "First and foremost, NATO is a transatlantic alliance, but I think we should remind ourselves that if a NATO ally—for instance the U.S.—is attacked by North Korea or China, then the question is will the U.S. request assistance from its allies?"

"If so, then I think you could imagine NATO engaged also in Asia," he said.

Climate change is melting Arctic ice faster than most observers predicted. Aside from the disastrous ecological consequences, this process also poses a strategic threat—and opportunity—for NATO.

"We see how not only Russia, but also China are focusing much more on the Arctic," Rasmussen said. "And Article 5 covers all territory, also the NATO territory in the Arctic—Canada, the U.S., Norway, Denmark, Iceland. So I think NATO should develop a reinforced Arctic strategy.

Russia is currently way out ahead of its European and North American rivals in the Arctic. The Kremlin is investing heavily to expand and improve its forces in the far north. Moscow is creating units, renovating Cold War era bases and building new vessels to bolster its presence in the region, which will soon offer lucrative new shipping routes and valuable natural resources.

For all the challenges, Rasmussen remains optimistic about the health of the transatlantic alliance. "It is the world's strongest security organization," he said. "NATO will not only survive—it will flourish."

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A Russian solider is pictured during a patrol of the the Russian northern military base on Kotelny island, beyond the Arctic circle on April 3, 2019. MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images/Getty