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Putin Wants to Break NATO. Republicans Want to Help Him.

He's losing the war against Ukraine but making advances in his campaign to dissolve NATO.
April 12, 2022
Putin Wants to Break NATO. Republicans Want to Help Him.
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Vladimir Putin’s central objective in Europe isn’t to capture Kyiv, the Donbas, or any other part of Ukraine. It’s to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which protects most of the continent against him. And in that longstanding campaign, Putin scored two significant victories this week.

One was in France, where Marine Le Pen, a Putin sympathizer, finished a close second to Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s French presidential election. Le Pen is running almost even with Macron in polls for the April 24 runoff. She has said that if she wins, she’ll withdraw France from NATO’s command structure.

The other victory was in the United States, where 63 House Republicans, nearly a third of the GOP conference, voted against a resolution of support for NATO.

The House vote, taken on April 5, is a warning sign. Putin may be losing ground in Ukraine, but he’s gaining ground in the U.S. Congress. Three years ago, 22 House Republicans voted against pro-NATO legislation. That number has nearly tripled.

The “Putin wing” of the House GOP—useful idiots such as Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who openly spout Russian propaganda—is only a tiny fraction of the Kremlin’s target audience in Congress. They’re joined by a larger crowd of Ukraine bashers, hardcore isolationists, and right-wingers who say we shouldn’t worry about anyone else’s borders until we “secure” our own. Together, that coalition adds up to more than 20 lawmakers.

That’s a problem. But when you combine them with the NATO skeptics who voted against last week’s resolution—another 40 or so House Republicans who don’t trust alliances and who view Europeans as America’s rivals or adversaries—the problem gets a lot bigger.

The GOP’s turn against NATO is particularly worrisome because Congress has been warned, explicitly and repeatedly, about Putin’s goal of dissolving the alliance. In March 2017, after a U.S. intelligence report confirmed that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—which was then, like the rest of Congress, under Republican control—held a hearing on this subject. The hearing was titled, “Undermining Democratic Institutions and Splintering NATO: Russian Disinformation Aims.” Analysts and former officials explained to the committee how Russia had, in the words of one witness, persistently funded propaganda in the West to “fracture allied security, stoke public distrust against democratic institutions, and discredit the alliance structures that defend Europe.”

Over the next two years, other reports documented the same problem. The European Council on Foreign Relations noted Russia’s efforts to undermine support for NATO in Finland, the Czech Republic, and other countries. Foreign policy journals and articles in the American press noted rising alarm in Europe at President Donald Trump’s threats to withdraw U.S. troops from the continent or to abandon the American commitment to defend NATO allies.

On January 14, 2019, the New York Times reported that “several times” in 2018, Trump had “privately said he wanted to withdraw” from the alliance. The article said Trump had “told his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance, which he presented as a drain on the United States.”

A few days after the Times report, House Democrats filed and brought to the floor the NATO Support Act, which reaffirmed that the U.S. was “solemnly committed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s principle of collective defense as enumerated in Article 5.” The bill couldn’t completely bind Trump, but it expressed the sense of Congress that “the President shall not withdraw the United States from NATO” and that American policy was “to reject any efforts to withdraw the United States from NATO.” It also prohibited the use of federal funds “to take any action to withdraw the United States” from the alliance.

Every Democrat voted for the bill; 22 Republicans voted against it.

One of the 22 Republicans, Rep. Scott Perry, explained why he and other self-styled hawks had voted no. In a statement to constituents, he complained that “the bill prevented the U.S. from ever leaving NATO . . . unless Congress first voted to repeal this would-be new law.” Perry wanted Trump to be free to pull America out of NATO, on his own.

Perry also argued that Trump should be free “to negotiate better terms for the United States in NATO,” as though the alliance were a trade deal. And he warned that “an ally of ours today may not be an ally tomorrow.”

That’s how Perry and many of his colleagues viewed the world. They saw alliances as entanglements and burdens. They worried that even friendly countries couldn’t be trusted. They believed that America should hedge its commitments because our allies might screw us.

And that was all Putin needed. He didn’t need American lawmakers to love him the way Trump did. He just needed them to constrain or withhold support from NATO.

Perry’s defection was a particularly good sign for Putin. The congressman wasn’t just an Iraq war veteran. He had also chaired part of the 2017 hearing on Russia’s strategy to undermine NATO. So he must have known he was doing what Putin wanted.

But he did it anyway, because he thought he was protecting America from Europe.

In the three years since that vote, Congress has seen even more evidence of Russia’s operations to sabotage NATO.

In April 2019, the Justice Department released the Mueller report. It detailed how Russia had lobbied Trump campaign officials against NATO; how the Trump campaign, according to one of its own former co-chairs, had shifted away from “the NATO framework”; and how the Trump team had blocked Republican platform language that would have endorsed “providing lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine.

In October 2019, the Senate Intelligence Committee released an analysis of Russian propaganda techniques. The report showed how the Kremlin had sought to “drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO.” One of Russia’s tricks, the report noted, was “discouraging United States support” for accepting eastern European countries into NATO by portraying those countries as “free riders.”

In August 2020, the Senate committee issued a report that showed how Kremlin sympathizers had lobbied the Trump campaign against NATO. The report found that in April 2016, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had advised Trump to affirm in a speech that “our commitment to our NATO allies in Eastern Europe is absolute” and that “we need to stand up to Russian aggression together.” The Trump campaign had rejected this language.

In September 2020, New York Times journalist Michael Schmidt reported that during Trump’s presidency, his then-chief of staff, John Kelly, had struggled to stop Trump from pulling out of NATO. In July 2021, Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker revealed that Trump had told advisers he would abandon the alliance in his second term. And last month, Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, told the Post that “Putin was waiting” for Trump to do just that.

After all these warnings, and after Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine, one might have expected the congressional caucus of NATO critics to shrink.

Instead, it multiplied.

Why did so many Republicans vote against the latest pro-NATO resolution?

Some openly reject the alliance. “NATO is a relic of the Cold War,” said Rep. Thomas Massie. “Why should Americans pay for Europe’s defense?”

Others said the U.S. should be wary of overcommitment. “We shouldn’t say that our support for NATO is unconditional,” said Rep. Warren Davidson.

But others, including Perry, complained that the resolution threatened American sovereignty.In a video statement, Perry told his constituents that the resolution “politicizes NATO” by saying “if you’re not supporting socialism, then we’re going to use NATO against you.”

This is a bizarre misrepresentation. The resolution affirmed that NATO was “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” Those words are literally in the alliance’s founding treaty. The resolution also called for “unwavering support to the people of Ukraine.” And it endorsed a project, jointly proposed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, to build “NATO’s capacity to strengthen democratic institutions within NATO member, partner, and aspirant countries.”

To make sure nobody misconstrued that language as an attack on sovereignty, the resolution stipulated that any NATO monitoring of “challenges to democracy” within member states would be undertaken only “when requested.”

Perry ignored that stipulation and caricatured the resolution. So did several of his colleagues. Representative Chip Roy described the resolution as “empowering international organizations to target the internal activities of sovereign nations.” Davidson described it as “using NATO to try to undermine America’s sovereignty.”

Some members who opposed the measure also expressed hostility toward Europe. Davidson said “global commitments” to accords on climate, banking, and other issues were forcing the U.S. to adopt the “inferior system” of “the Europeans.”

Roy fretted that NATO, empowered by the House resolution, would subject Americans to “the leftist orthodoxy that now unfortunately permeates most of Western Europe.”

These lawmakers think they’re patriots. They think that by voting to limit NATO and America’s commitment to it, they’re protecting us. And that’s what makes their subversion of the alliance, from Putin’s point of view, so delicious.

It’s so much easier to serve evil when you think you’re doing good.

Correction (April 12, 2022): As originally published, this article misstated the date of a House vote in the last Congress on a bill expressing support for NATO. The vote was three years ago—in 2019—not five.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.