Jorge Benitez is the director of NATOSource and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been deploying more and more forces in a strategic piece of Russian territory that lies in a vulnerable area of NATO geography. How President-elect Donald Trump responds to this challenge will be one of the first tests of his new administration.
The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad hosts significant military capabilities and lies between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Over the years, the Russians have deployed so much firepower in this small territory deep inside NATO’s eastern borders that NATO’s former top military commander, retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, testified to Congress in February that Kaliningrad “is a very militarized piece of property … a fortress of A2AD [anti-access/area denial].”
Since then, the situation has gotten even worse. In addition to the advanced S-400 missiles with a 250-mile range already stationed in this area, in October the Russians deployed Iskander-M nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. These missiles have a range of more than 300 miles, which means they are capable of reaching six NATO capitals: Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Copenhagen, and Berlin. Also in October, the Russians announced that they deployed Bastion land-based coastal defense missile launchers in Kaliningrad. These supersonic missiles have a range of about 190 miles and cover the heart of the Baltic Sea, threatening maritime access to NATO’s Baltic members.
As if this arsenal of Russian missiles wasn’t cause enough for concern, Putin’s most recent act was to move two missile corvettes (the Serpukhov and the Zeleny Dol) from their base in the Black Sea to Kaliningrad. These Russian warships are equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles, which Putin used to demonstrate his ability to strike inside Syria from as far away as the Caspian Sea. In fact, the Kalibr missiles have a range of more than 900 miles and from Kaliningrad can reach most NATO capitals.
It is no wonder that the former commander of U.S. and allied air forces in Europe, retired Gen. Frank Gorenc, warned that NATO needs to come to "the realization that we don't have complete air dominance," and that in a crisis, significant parts of NATO territory would be “contested airspace.”
Trump Must Choose
How will Trump respond to Putin’s latest military moves near NATO’s borders? It depends on who he listens to on this issue. Retired Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Trump’s choice for secretary of defense, has already pointed out that “Putin … is out to break NATO apart." Mattis will probably recommend a robust and thoughtful U.S.-NATO response to deter Putin from escalating his arms race in Eastern Europe. The retired Marine general is also likely to increase the pressure on European allies to move outside of their comfort zones and contribute more capabilities for regional defense and multinational activities. This will appeal to Trump’s stated desire during the presidential campaign for European allies to bear a fairer share of the costs of European defense.
Such efforts might prove insufficient, however. Trump has been very reluctant to admit the danger and damage of Russian actions against the United States. The most public example of this is Trump’s dismissal of the role of Russia in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Even though the U.S. intelligence community has briefed him on the evidence pointing to Russia’s role in these cyberattacks, Trump refuses to blame Putin, let alone hold him accountable. In a recent tweet, Trump publicly dismissed the evidence collected by U.S. intelligence, tweeting “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?”
If Donald Trump is unwilling to stand up to a direct attack by Putin on the heart of American democracy, the legitimacy of our elections, it is unlikely he will stand up to Putin’s military provocations in far-off Europe.