Eastern European Views of the Upcoming US Presidential Elections

by June 2024
President Trump meets with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, December 2019. Photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Despite Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Eastern Europeans feel secure today. They have confidence in NATO as an organization led by the United States and thus appreciated in Moscow as strong. At the same time, some politicians and diplomats in Eastern Europe wonder what might happen to their countries if Donald Trump wins the presidential elections in November. 

Some believe that Trump has no clear foreign policy profile. Others see Trump as a potential problem for the Kremlin due to his unpredictability. They speculate that he could be beneficial for Eastern Europe. For example, Trump is said to have recently stated that if he had been president in 2022 – he would have bombed the city of Moscow in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Many Eastern Europeans are unhappy with the Biden administration and its indecisiveness vis-à-vis Russia. On the other hand, Biden and the Democratic Party are predictable for them. Trump and his supporters, in contrast, represent a risk. For instance, one of Ukraine’s leading experts on US politics, Volodymyr Dubovyk of Odesa University, wrote in March 2024 that: “Trump’s anti-Ukrainian stance today is not just situational, driven by the needs of the election campaign. It is a well-established, consistent position that can be traced back to at least 2016.”

Some Eastern Europeans, moreover, fear that Russian respect for the Western defense alliance could diminish if Trump wins the next US presidential elections. In February 2024, after Trump said that Russians could, regarding NATO countries that spend less than 2 percent of their GDP on defense, “do whatever the hell they want,” Poland’s defense minister Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz replied: “NATO’s motto of ‘one for all, all for one’ is a specific commitment. Challenging the credibility of allied countries means weakening the entire North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.” Should Washington’s commitment to NATO diminish, the Eastern European nations could become Russia’s fair game again – just as they had been before entering NATO. The range of scenarios has been vividly demonstrated by the recent fates of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Over the past 30 years, Eastern Europe has not assumed that there was a perfect world order. Unlike in Western Europe, there is no magical belief in the political power of peacefulness. East Europeans remember Tsarist and Soviet oppression as well as Western betrayal of Western values. In 1939, Moscow and Berlin divided Poland and much of the rest of Eastern Europe among themselves. In 1945, Washington, Moscow and London divided Europe leaving its east-central part under the rule of Stalin. In 1994, Washington, Moscow and London assured Ukraine of its borders and sovereignty in return for Kyiv’s agreement to hand over the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal to Russia. 

The functional logic of NATO as a defense alliance is based on trust, clarity and predictability. This might no longer be the case with Trump in a second term. For instance, during his first term, Trump told his aides several times that he wanted the US to withdraw from NATO. Worse, a narrow defeat of Trump in the presidential election may trigger unrest or even instability in the US. Washington might then become incapable of conducting a resolute foreign policy. This would have grave repercussions for the functioning of NATO.

East Europeans have learned to expect the worst. To be sure, Trump’s foreign policy behavior as president would continue to be determined by more than the quirky ideas of his political camp. The Trumpists, even if they regain the White House, cannot simply ignore American institutions and traditions without some pushback by Congress and possibly the American people.

Nevertheless, in a worst-case scenario, Ukraine would no longer receive American aid. The United States’ commitment to stand by NATO may come into question. If either Trump wins or his defeat triggers domestic turbulence, Europe will have to change quickly and fundamentally. A European and Canadian rump NATO without full participation of the US would have to reposition itself. 

Should NATO disappear altogether, the EU would have to transform itself from a mere economic and political community into a security and defense alliance. By granting EU candidate status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in 2022-23, the EU and its 27 member states have become indirect participants in three European territorial conflicts with Russia. More and more European states have, since early 2024, concluded security agreements with Ukraine. The EU has just signed a Security and Defense Partnership with Moldova. 

The EU’s now deep involvement in the post-Soviet space means that geopolitical risks would grow if the US were to withdraw from Europe. It would be a moment of truth for the continent and a test for the much-vaunted European idea of integration and security. Over the past 70 years, there has always been a question in the air whether this concept only exists because of and as long as Washington extends its caring hand to Europe. 

If the American protective umbrella is removed, it could turn out that the vision of a self-sustaining united and solidaric Europe is mere fiction. European states would have to practice a form and degree of defense, security and foreign policy cooperation among themselves with which they have no experience. After 70 years, the issue of whether or not Moscow can assert its hegemonic claims in Europe would no longer primarily be a question for Washington. It would depend on the extent to which Europe’s people see themselves as a true community of nations – with all consequences that this entails.

Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland is an analyst with the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, a Swedish government-funded independent organization. He also teaches international politics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
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