BRUSSELS — President Trump’s apparent willingness on Monday to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over his own intelligence community’s assessments on election interference has prompted some European policymakers to question whether the era of transatlantic unity on Russia has come to an end.
Europeans have struggled to counter Russian efforts to influence their political systems and press their defenses, and long did so in partnership with their allies in Washington. But after a Monday news conference in Helsinki in which Trump made no mention of Russia’s adventures in Ukraine and shied from any criticism of the Kremlin, some in Europe said they feared they could no longer count on U.S. support against Russia.
The news conference marked the conclusion of a week of tense diplomacy as Trump crisscrossed European capitals, slapping longtime U.S. allies while embracing Putin. Europe’s worst fears before the Putin-Trump meeting — that Trump would recognize Crimea as Russian or cancel U.S. involvement in military exercises on the continent — did not come to pass. But as Air Force One returned to Washington, European leaders said that U.S. standing in the world had been broadly damaged.
“The danger from the point of view of European security is that there is a risk that he is sending a message of noninterest in those issues,” said Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister. “At the extreme end, it could be seen as a tacit acceptance of what Russia is doing.”
The Trump-Putin meeting was a dramatic contrast to the last time U.S. and Russian presidents sat together in Helsinki, in 1997, when Bill Clinton met with Boris Yeltsin as Washington worked to push forward with NATO expansion over Russian objections. Back then, Clinton acted not only as the U.S. leader but as the leader of the free world. This time around, Trump declared the European Union a “foe” on trade but called Putin “a good competitor.”
“Trump is sitting now with Putin as the president, the national president of the United States and America first, not as the leader of the West and of the free world. By choice,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO who is a security consultant in Brussels.
“Since the Iron Curtain, the U.S. has stood up to defend Europe from an aggressive Russia,” said Stefanini, who was posted to Washington at the time of the 1997 summit. “If Trump comes to the conclusion that he can deal with Russia, irrespective of what Russia does in Europe, that’s a 180-degree reversal of the relationship.”
A lot has changed since the 1997 summit. Javier Solana, who was NATO secretary general at the time, was recently denied an electronic visa waiver for travel to the United States because he visited Iran five years ago. Hungary — which diplomats say was the first Eastern Bloc nation to bang on the doors of NATO and demand membership — is now led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who in a Sunday meeting with Putin condemned sanctions against Russia and declared that “we support the normalization of relations between Russia and the West.”
Some diplomats said that although Trump and Putin did not appear to have made any grand bargains on Ukraine or NATO that would directly hurt European security interests, relations between Europe and the United States had worsened in the past week.
“The U.S. looked weak, and that could embolden Putin,” said one “depressed and concerned” senior NATO diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of the summit.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also appeared to chafe at Trump’s lackluster defense of his country, writing defiantly on Twitter that “we are ready to defend our land even if we remain all alone, without international support.”
Even before the meeting ended, some European leaders were saying that they needed to rethink relations with the United States.
“We have to reevaluate the partnership with the USA. We can only do that in a confident and sovereign Europe,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement. Trump had repeatedly ripped into Germany in the past week over what he called its lagging defense spending and the unfairness of its building of Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea that Eastern European nations have complained will make their energy supplies less secure.
Some Eastern European politicians said Trump’s willingness to give Putin the benefit of the doubt made them feel less secure.
“And now, as a U.S. ally, we are supposed to believe that if President Putin launches a hybrid war, or even a nuclear strike against Poland, President @realDonaldTrump will threaten to nuke him back,” Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister, wrote on Twitter.
But some leaders and analysts said they were relieved that a true reordering of European security did not result from the Trump-
“All the negative expectations that the two presidents could agree on something that would hurt the allies of the United States, it did not happen,” said Norbert Röttgen, leader of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the German Parliament. “The absence of the negative is something positive for us.”
The absence of any substantive announcements by Trump or Putin may be a sign of a broader stagnation in the bilateral relationship, with Trump boxed in by tough-on-Russia hard-liners in Washington, one analyst said.
“There’s a disillusionment on the Russian side,” said Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO who is the head of Carnegie Europe, a think tank.
“The idea of a grand bargain presumes that Putin has things that he wants from the West and that he trusts Trump to deliver,” Valasek said. “There’s so little trust.”