U.K. Said to Fear Trump to Embolden Putin, Weaken NATO Pact

  • Trump-Putin tie-up sparks concern over Ukraine, U.K. spy links
  • Russian influence more worrying than Brexit, officials say

US President-elect Donald Trump answers journalists questions during a press conference on Jan. 11, in New York.

Photographer: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

The U.K. government is deeply concerned that Donald Trump’s closeness to Russia will give sway to Vladimir Putin in eastern Europe and weaken U.S. ties with its traditional Western allies.

The U.S. President-elect caused alarm in London after saying he wants a warmer relationship with the Russian President than the Obama administration had, according to two senior officials, who did not want to be named discussing a sensitive matter.

The individuals raised fears that Trump could water down American commitments in three crucial foreign policy areas: backing for Ukraine against Russian aggression; support for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East; and financing NATO. As Russia poses the greatest espionage threat to the U.K., any new deal between Putin and Trump could call into question the safety of sharing British intelligence with the U.S., the officials said.

One U.K. official said the threat of a close relationship between the two was causing more concern within May’s administration than planning for Brexit, and had been discussed at high levels in May’s national security team. In an e-mailed statement, a U.K. government spokeswoman said “we’re not going to speculate on how the new U.S. administration might develop its foreign policy. Strong dialogue between Russia and the U.S. is in the U.K. interest.”

“We haven’t had a situation in which a president or an aspiring president has taken such a sympathetic position to Russia, in direct contrast to America’s major western European allies, since the start of the Cold War,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

Building bridges

May’s government is trying to build bridges with Trump’s team after a difficult start to their relationship following criticism of him on Twitter by her aides.

With the U.K. preparing to leave the European Union, building a stronger bond with the U.S. is critical. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met key Trump advisers in New York this week and declared on his return to London that the incoming administration was keen for a new trade deal.

Even before the release of unsubstantiated allegations on Trump’s ties with Russia, British officials were concerned about the president-elect’s stance toward Moscow. Trump will be sworn in Jan. 20.

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks: That is called an asset, not a liability,” the president-elect said Wednesday in his first news conference since July.

Threatening Ukraine

Both officials said the major concern was that Trump could give Putin the opportunity to extend his influence in eastern Europe by withdraw support for the government of Ukraine and pulling U.S. troops out of the region. Another worry is that Trump could splinter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by demanding smaller countries bolster their spending or face the possibility of not being defended in the event of an attack.

Other fears included the possibility that Saudi Arabia could look to forge an alliance with Russia if Trump follows through with his threat to ban U.S. imports of Saudi oil. One official said that if the new administration grows too close to Putin, it would raise alarms that British secrets could be passed to Moscow and jeopardize intelligence-sharing with the U.S.

“We have seen over the last period the way in which Trump has been very reluctant indeed to criticize Russia, while he has been much more prepared to criticize China,” said Chalmers.

At least two key national security nominees do not share Trump’s pro-Putin views. In Senate confirmation hearings, his choices for Defense Secretary, James Mattis and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, contradicted their boss on Russia.

“At this stage, it is difficult to call what Trump’s new relationship with Russia will look like so the U.K, like everyone else, will have to wait and see what happens,” said Crispin Blunt, the Conservative party lawmaker who chairs the U.K. parliament foreign affairs committee.

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