One of the strong messages of President-elect Donald Trump has been that President Obama wasn’t getting enough respect from Moscow and that the Obama Russia policy has failed. There are many in Europe, for example citizens of Ukraine, who at least partly agree. Over 10,000 Ukrainians have died as a result of Russian aggression on Ukrainian soil since 2014. This unprecedented aggression is the sad result of a failed “reset” policy which was intended to be a friendly gesture but was seen by Moscow as a sign of American weakness. In Central and Eastern Europe, we have a thorough shared experience with long-term Russian occupation and subservience and therefore we know how expensive freedom is.
That is why we hope that the incoming US president will be a democracy-defending strongman who will get respect from dictators for the way he handles threats directed at his nation, its friends and allies. “Negotiating from a position of strength” is something Eastern Europeans want to see Americans do with Moscow, which has been bullying its neighbors for years.
One thing which citizens of this region really hate is when the superpowers decide to which sphere of influence we must belong, so that the democratic sovereign choices of our people are overruled by external powers. That is precisely what Vladimir Putin calls for and that is why the Russian military currently occupies parts of Ukraine and Georgia, ruining their dreams of becoming modern prosperous countries which are part of the Western political and economic system. This is also why Russia conducts hybrid attacks on the countries of the West.
Some experts argue that during the Trump administration, the United States will care more for American interests and less for American values. Despite quite a few question marks on policy issues, I believe several things are already clear.
First, the current level of threats facing the transatlantic community is not going to disappear soon, no matter how friendly the new administration is towards Moscow in its first days. There are challenges and threats such as uncontrolled mass migration, Islamic extremism and expansionist authoritarian regimes using cyber weapons and other tools of political and economic subversion that we have to simultaneously deal with.
Second, we are stronger when facing these threats together. It is obvious that European allies need to invest more in our defense capabilities (and many, including the Czech Republic are now doing so as their economies have started growing again), nevertheless NATO is the most effective way for our defense, security and intelligence professionals to work together. We as Europeans are grateful for the American political, economic and military presence in Europe. We try to deliver on our commitments, for example fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan alongside our US allies. We are one family when we stand up to adversaries, terrorists and bullies and we must remain one family that grows stronger and closer.
Third, given the urgency of the emerging threats, we are bound to work together. The incoming administration has announced it will develop an anti-hacking plan within the first 90 days and a bipartisan Congress initiative defines countering disinformation as one of the important future tasks for American security interests. European governments are rising to these challenges as well, working on our cyber capacities to deter adversaries from Russia, China, Iran, or anywhere else. On disinformation and other subversive methods of authoritarian regimes, European experts have significant experience, having been on the frontline battlefield in recent years. The Czech Republic has just launched a specialized Hybrid Threat Center, Finland is setting up a similar unit and Germany is considering it as well. There is nothing more natural than teaming up to fight these threats with our American friends. Mr. Trump is right that the Obama administration wasn’t very successful in this. That is why it is good that he has acknowledged the Russian role in hostile US pre-election hacks and promised an investigation. A threat consists of will and capacities. And we know Moscow has both. We need strength; we need to deter our enemies so they don’t dare to do harm to things we hold dear — such as our democracies and our transatlantic friendship.
We are democratic sovereign states. We must take on difficult discussions on how we want to run our countries and what our foreign policy should be. Sovereignty means that we must and we will decide on our own and no hostile foreign disinformation operations or cyber hacks are acceptable. Our adversaries will only respect us if we are strong and united. Democracy doesn’t need to be weak and as we know from our shared history, democracies are often slower to react but later on they win. We are in this fight together.