A company of unidentified armed men slips across the Narva River from Russia into Estonia. They quickly fan out across the Estonian city of Narva, where 82 percent of the residents are ethnic Russians.
Russian forces quickly overwhelm local border security forces and seize key government buildings.
The armed men, garbed in unmarked military uniforms, raise a Russian flag over the Town Hall and fortify the centuries-old Hermann Castle on the banks of the river. Soon, armored vehicles rumble across Narva's Friendship Bridge, delivering reinforcements and heavy weaponry. In a matter of hours, they take full control of Estonia's third-largest city.
By daybreak, Narva is firmly in Vladimir Putin's hands.
How would President Donald Trump and his team of national security advisers react to such a brazen attack on a NATO ally? Would Trump abide by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and rush to defend Estonia? Or would Trump opt for prolonged, meaningless negotiations and "deal-making" with Putin, tacitly accepting Russia's annexation-by-fiat of even more European territory?
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has certainly considered just such a scenario, warning "The minute a collective alliance fails to live up to its agreement to collective defense, then from that moment on, everybody is on the run. Once something like that happens, it's over."
We must hope President Trump and his advisers recognize this.
Given these stakes, what will President Trump do about Putin? Trump has said he "would have a very, very good relationship with Putin," but as the imagined, all-too-plausible Russian seizure of Narva indicates, Trump inherits a fractured world wracked with conflict and the daunting challenge of reasserting American leadership abroad.
In every corner of the world, Trump's chief antagonist will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has led a bloody march from Ukraine to Syria and beyond in his campaign to resurrect Russia as a global superpower. Trump might have insisted during the campaign "I'm not going to tell Putin what to do. Why would I tell him what to do?" and "there's nothing I can think of that I'd rather do than have Russia friendly," but the reality of Putin's brazen aggression flies in the face of Trump's indifference and optimism.
Indeed, Putin's craven adventurism lies at the nexus of world disorder: He is Europe's warmonger; Assad's ally; ISIS's enabler; Iran's patron; North Korea's crutch; China's partner; the sower of cyber chaos; a nuclear bully; and the benefactor of far-left and far-right extremists around the world. Putin invades, annexes, propagandizes, distorts, distracts, and destroys at his convenience, meeting only token resistance from thoroughly weakened and discouraged Western leaders.
President Trump must change this, and meet Putin's despicable aggression with a muscular American response. President Trump's ability, or inability, to stand up to Putin will be the defining foreign policy challenge of his administration.
Putin has plunged Europe into a perilous state of conflict and turmoil not witnessed since the darkest days of the Cold War. Since seizing Crimea and starting the war in eastern Ukraine, Russia has conducted cross-border raids into the Baltic States, ordered its fighters to buzz U.S. Navy warships, and sent nuclear-capable bombers to threaten countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Norway.
Indeed, Putin has become so aggressive he risks triggering Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty and pushing Russia into a full-blown nuclear confrontation with NATO.
During the Cold War, the world was lucky to avoid a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union. We might need to be that fortunate again. President Trump must establish clear limits to Putin's behavior, and reinvigorate NATO so it is fully prepared to defend itself against potential Russian aggression.
In the Middle East, Putin has armed, supplied, and supported the murderous Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who routinely deploys cluster bombs and chemical weapons against his own civilian population. Putin's own air forces have struck aid convoys and besieged cities including Aleppo, while Putin's navy launches cruise missiles into Syria from the safety of the Mediterranean Sea.
Putin claims to be a global leader in the war on ISIS, but over 90 percent of his airstrikes are aimed at Syrian rebels and civilians, not terrorists. Indeed, Putin knows ISIS terror is driving millions of refugees into Europe, destabilizing the EU and strengthening Putin's hand. Put another way, Putin is enabling ISIS in order to weaken Europe.
President Trump cannot allow Putin to continue playing both sides of the Syrian conflict while hundreds of thousands of innocent people perish.
The situation in Europe and the Middle East is certainly grim, and Trump faces an uphill battle to correct course. Trump is right America's global system of alliances, including the NATO alliance forged to resist Soviet expansion, has deteriorated to a breaking point. Russia has openly invaded Ukraine and is challenging American power around the world.
Migrants from the Middle East fleeing Putin's bombs are streaming across the Mediterranean and up through Turkey, driving a crisis of identity and culture that threatens to end the European Union as we know it.
Economically, the post-recession "new normal" of slow growth and declining labor force participation has left millions of working Americans and Europeans struggling to make ends meet. Politically, far-right nationalists and far-left socialists are gaining across Europe, while in America an increasingly dissatisfied electorate has just delivered a once-in-a-generation rebuke to its ruling political class.
The global community is in worse shape than at any point since the end of the Cold War, and we have almost certainly not seen the worst of it yet. This is the world President Trump inherits.
Of course, Russia faces many challenges of its own, which Trump and his advisers surely understand and must be unafraid to exploit. At a fundamental level, America and Europe are far stronger societies with considerably greater resources, stability, and potential than Russia.
But far from being a comfort, this disparity should make us even more concerned we have been unable to confront Putin's propaganda, warmongering, and aggression. It raises troubling questions about the consequences of Western peace, and prosperity, and whether we have become so complacent in our success we no longer understand the need to defend it – let alone possess the nerve or courage to do so.
Indeed, Putin's insecurities at home and Russia's deep structural vulnerabilities make him more likely to act rashly and aggressively in an effort to press his advantage while it lasts. The threat of miscalculation is very real, and President Trump must indicate in no uncertain terms any Russian attack against a NATO member will result in American retaliation.
Putin is a master gambler, and has played his mediocre hand very well. President Trump must raise the stakes, and ensure Russia never goes all in. One way for Trump to do this is resume passionate American advocacy for human rights, free economies, and liberal democracy around the world, positioning America once again as an advocate and defender of all free peoples and all who wish to be free, especially those in Putin's crosshairs.
Vladimir Putin certainly does not believe in human rights, at least not according to any recognizable Western conception of them. Putin does not preside over a free economy, and he has proven himself a committed enemy of liberal democracy. He understands, perhaps better than we do, America's military power, economic strength, and political will are dependent on our core values.
If we allow our commitment to these values to waver, and if we allow Russian aggression to undermine confidence in our ability to overcome challenges while remaining true to core principles, then Russia will gain at our expense. If we fail to defend human rights, Russia will continue to disregard them.
If we do not promote free economies, then Putin and his obedient oligarchs will continue to direct the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. If we do not stand up for liberal democracy, then Putin will continue to govern Russia with an iron fist until the day a handpicked successor inherits his authoritarian regime.
Trump must reach deep into the American statecraft toolkit in order to beat back Putin and reassert American leadership. Economic sanctions against Russia have had some effect, but Putin has been adept at evading them and finding other less scrupulous trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. Our European partners can still do considerably more to strengthen the sanctions regime against Russia, but have been consumed by their own internal economic struggles.
It seems unlikely we would ever go so far as to restrict Russian access to the international banking system, a near-nuclear option Putin could consider an act of war.
That leaves one American strength Trump can bring unambiguously to bear against Putin's aggression, and which stands explicitly at his command: military power.
NATO countries account for slightly more than half of global military spending, or about $893 billion in 2015. America and its allies maintain these forces with the hope we will never have to use them. President Trump must make it clear to Putin, under his leadership, all options are on the table.
Putin has been unafraid to kill civilians and invade his neighbors, and represents the antithesis of Western values. Any successful application of coercive diplomacy and economic pressure, must be undergirded by a credible threat of Western military action – particularly united NATO military action – should Putin threaten a NATO country like Estonia or Poland or continue to perpetrate war crimes on the scale we have seen in Syria.
The West spends billions on its armed forces, and we should make it clear we maintain them precisely to protect free countries and innocent people from aggression.
It is no exaggeration to say Putin's ambitions pose a threat to the lives of tens of millions of innocent people in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Over ten thousand dead Ukrainians, hundreds of thousands of dead Syrians, and more than 4 million refugees are a testament to that. Add to that the diplomatic, military, and economic assistance Putin provides to China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Hezbollah, and the scope of his pernicious influence becomes clear.
President Trump faces a determined, battle-tested adversary in Putin. To succeed in halting and reversing Putin's gains in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, Trump's first step must be to redouble our commitment to the animating values that keep America and its allies united behind a common set of interests and strategic goals. President Trump must stand up to defend these values from Putin and his motley crew of ayatollahs in Tehran, Communist apparatchiks in Beijing, and a rogues' gallery of petty dictators and tyrants from Syria to Cuba to North Korea.
Preserving and strengthening our existing alliances, especially NATO, should be Trump's paramount foreign policy goal.
Assertive use of American military strength is the best foundation to confront and address global crises, as well as set clear limits on Putin's heretofore unchecked behavior.
Despite Putin's recent successes, Donald Trump understands America and its allies remain the most powerful political, economic, cultural, and military force for good in the world – and we must hope President Trump acts accordingly.
Douglas E. Schoen is one of our nation’s most influential Democratic campaign consultants and has worked for the heads of state of more than 15 countries. Evan Roth Smith is a political strategist and communications consultant. They are coauthors of the recently released "Putin's Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence."
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