Americans have enough economic challenges at home and geopolitical challenges in the Middle East. They don’t want new troubles with Russia.
They will, therefore, likely give President Donald Trump some initial latitude in his attempts to build a healthier working relationship with Moscow, and hope Saturday’s phone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is the start of something positive.
But make no mistake: Americans are extremely wary of the Russian leader. An exclusive new poll finds that most Americans see Putin as a nuclear-armed “czar” who poses a threat to the security of the US and her closest allies, including Israel, and urgently want him contained by a reinvigorated Western alliance.
To better understand American attitudes toward Russia, I recently commissioned McLaughlin & Associates, a top polling firm in the US, to ask two specific questions of 1,000 registered American voters.
The first was, “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: in light of Russia’s invasion and seizure of Crimea in southern Ukraine, Russia’s invasion of the country of Georgia, Russia fighting alongside Iran to defend dictator Bashar Assad in Syria, Russia’s continuing sales of arms and nuclear technology to Iran, and reports of Russian hacking of American computer networks, I have come to believe that Vladimir Putin and the government of Russia pose a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States, our NATO allies in Europe, and our Mideast allies, such as Israel.”
Fully seven in 10 Americans (71%) said they believe Putin and his regime pose a danger to the Western alliance, while a mere 14% disagreed. The rest said they didn’t know.
The second question focused more on how Americans feel about the threat and how it should be handled? We asked which of the following statements was closest to their personal views about Russian President Vladimir Putin: A) Putin worries me. Like Russian czars of the past, he wants to regain the glory of Mother Russia by expanding the territory and influence of Russia in Europe and the Middle East, including by military force. Unlike the czars of the past, he possesses a nuclear arsenal. If Putin is not contained by a new and very firm American and NATO policy of “peace through strength,” I am worried he will continue to bully, blackmail and invade more countries and pose a far greater danger to America and our allies.
B) Putin doesn’t worry me. All the talk of him being a “serious threat” to the US, NATO, or our allies in the Middle East like Israel is overblown. Yes, he has sent Russia’s military into Ukraine, Georgia and Syria, but I am not worried he is going to bully or invade other countries, and I do not believe Putin poses a real danger to US economic or security interests.
C) I am not sure what to make of Putin at this point.
Sixty percent of respondents chose A, only 17% B while 23% chose C.
Such concerns are certainly justified.
In November, Putin moved 55,000 troops to the border of Ukraine, raising fresh concerns Russia might be tempted to seize the rest of the former Soviet republic.
Putin is also making threatening moves toward the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Each of these former Soviet republics is now a full NATO member. Under Article Five of the NATO accord, a Russian attack against one would be considered an attack against all of NATO, requiring a response that could suddenly put the US and Western Europe in a hot war with Russia.
NATO is intercepting a growing number of Russian fighter jets over the Baltics. Russian fighter jets have menaced US warships in the Baltic Sea. And a recent analysis by the RAND Corporation found that the Baltic states are currently so poorly defended that Putin could seize them in just 60 hours if he ordered a surprise attack.
“They’re scared to death of Russia,” General Raymond T. Thomas, the head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, recently told The New York Times, after visiting the Baltics. “They are very open about that [and] desperate for our leadership.”
The big question now is this: what manner of leadership will the Trump administration provide after eight disastrous years of the Obama administration, including its famously failed Russian “reset”? During the campaign, Trump sent mixed signals. He championed the Reagan Doctrine of “peace through strength,” calling for a rebuilding of the American military (especially the navy) and vowing to strengthen strained alliances. However, he expressed little concern about the Putin threat, and blasted NATO as “obsolete” and “expensive.”
During the transition, Trump resisted allegations that Russia tried to compromise the elections, and criticized the intelligence community.
That said, Trump’s first moves as president suggest a possible recalibration.
His national security team is first rate. While Rex Tillerson, his choice for secretary of state, concerns many as perhaps being too close to Putin, most of his picks are tough, clear-eyed and highly experienced professionals.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to invite British Prime Minister Theresa May to be the first foreign leader to visit the White House was shrewd and their joint press conference sent positive signals.
“On defense and security cooperation, we’re united in our recognition of NATO as the bulwark of our collective defense, and today we reaffirmed our unshakable commitment to this alliance,” May said, while Trump nodded approvingly.
Significantly, May also publicly agreed to help “persuade” her fellow NATO leaders in Europe “to deliver on their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense, so that the burden is more fairly shared.”
President Trump’s top foreign policy priorities are clear: dealing with radical Islam, illegal immigration and unfair trade with China. But Americans are also concerned about Russia. They want their new president to contain Czar Putin and reassert strong American leadership – and they are absolutely right.
The author is a dual US-Israeli citizen, a New York Times best-selling author and a former aide to several US and Israeli leaders. His forthcoming political thriller, Without Warning, will be released on March 14.