THE resignation of President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, over undisclosed contact with the Kremlin has added to anxiety in Eastern Europe over the growing influence of Russia.
Last week, 1000 German-led troops arrived in Lithuania, the first of four new battalions promised to Eastern Europe by NATO last year.
In an interview with The New York Times, the head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, General Raymond A. Thomas, described the armies of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as “scared to death of Russia”.
While not applying this epithet to their congregations, Anglican chaplains in Eastern and Northern Europe are clear that fears about security exist, and that the election of Donald Trump has caused new anxieties for many.
“There are aspects of the news, views, and possible policies coming from the White House which are very troubling for the majority of people in the Baltics, and perhaps more widely,” the Chaplain of St Saviour’s, in Riga, the Rt Revd Jana Jeruma-Grinberga, said. “The presence of NATO troops in the Baltic States is reassuring for most of us, except for those who see little real threat emanating from Russia. . .
“The same applies to Trump’s apparent respect for President Putin. . . The prospect of renewed alliances between the US and Russia leaves most of us uneasy, and the latest incursion into the Ukraine has heightened that, as it seems likely to have been a pushing of boundaries to see what, if any, the reaction from Washington might be.”
Assessments by Latvian politicians are more stark. During a visit to London this year, the Latvian Foreign Minister, Baiba Braže, spoke of “the most severe test that the Transatlantic Alliance has faced in our lifetime”.
“Russia’s toxic cocktail of cyber-attacks, subversion, propaganda onslaughts, economic pressure, and military intimidation is a threat to every single member of the alliance,” she warned, before invoking as a cautionary tale the policy of appeasement in Britain in the 1930s. She was, however, “reassured” by some of the language of the new US administration. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, recently condemned the Russian occupation of Crimea, and reiterated a commitment to sanctions.
"Events in the Ukraine have of course made the peoples of Eastern Europe rather more nervous about their relations with Russia and their security," said the Dean of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Great Britain, the Very Revd Andris Abakuks, last week. "Of course, what gives them some protection is that we are part of NATO and part of the European Union. . . Otherwise, you could very easily imagine scenarios where the Russians provoked some kind of uprising in parts of Latvia."
The Chaplain of St Nicholas’s, Helsinki, the Revd Tuomas Mäkipää, said last week that, even before the election of President Trump, “fresh concerns” about security were present in the region. “Increased activity on our [Finnish] borders in land, air, and sea” had been noticed, and the government planned to change legislation so that the large reservist army could be more easily called up.
The 830-mile border betweeen Finland and Russia meant that the latter’s “possible plans of expansionism” were a worry, he said. There was “a genuine concern in Finland on how Trump’s possible attempt to reset the relations with Russia might affect the security situation in Europe”.
Lithuania has recently reintroduced conscription, for the first time since 2008. In Estonia, the Dean of Tallinn, the Very Revd Gustav Piir, believes that an incursion from Russia is not likely to come in the form of a “conventional war”, but “more on the lines of what is happening in the Ukraine, which includes the use of cyber-attacks and misinformation”.
The reaction to President Trump’s comments about NATO was “Wait and see,” he said last week. “We do have commercial interests and business interests who would welcome the lifting of trade sanctions, as it would help our export sector; yet the Ukraine is still very much on the minds of people. Our border treaty with Russia is also waiting ratification. So there are issues up in the air.”
President Trump’s victory has been celebrated by some in the region, including some among the Russian minorities in Baltic countries, and others affected by sanctions. A jubilant President of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, told The Daily Telegraph: “The era of liberal ‘non-democracy’ is over.”
The Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Wallsend, the Revd Alexander Faludy, who is half Hungarian, believes that Hungary “increasingly presents as a Russian satellite. Putin is using a complex mixture of carrot and stick with Orbán, hoping that Hungary will break ranks on EU sanctions. Government-controlled Hungarian media coverage of the war in Ukraine is strangely limited, given the land border and ethnic kin ties.”
Bishop Jeruma-Grinberga believes that, for many people in the region, “the conservative politics of the Republican Party are attractive, and therefore their default option is to back Donald Trump as a Republican President,” but that “confounding factors” are producing a “taint which is becoming increasingly unacceptable”. These include associations drawn between the identitarian movement in Europe, and far-right groups in the US, and even President Trump himself, through his chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
“The issue of walls and the closing down of borders also has a negative resonance for many here, stemming from recent memories of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain,” she said last week. “However, there is a significant section of the population throughout Eastern Europe that is passionately opposed to migration from Muslim-majority countries, and who therefore tend to agree with a policy of restricting immigration.”
The fear of immigrants in Latvia is partly linked to the fact that, when the country was part of the Soviet Union, there was a "huge amount" of migration, Dean Abukuks said. It led to Latvians "almost becoming a minority in their own country".
Dr István Zalatnay, a Reformed pastor in Hungary, who has worked at the International Secretariat of the NATO General Assembly in Brussels, believes that President Trump is regarded in the region as "unpleasant".
"If he is, let us say, strange for West Europeans he is even more strange to the East," he said this week.
Mr Orbán's support for the US President could harm his popularity, Dr Zalatnay suggested. President Trump's stance on immigration was well-known in Hungary, where "aggressive propaganda" had "strengthened the existing fears", but the low turnout for October's referendum on the EU migrant relocation quota suggested that the Government's emphasis on the topic was "out of breath".
The Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, is aware of fears that President Trump’s policies “might actually be feeding into a growing sense of nationalism and xenophobia” in Europe. He believes that the Church should be reminding people of the “very deep Christian principles” that inspired the EU. It should “make sure truth is told”, and support political leaders who have shown “incredible moral leadership”, including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
For the Priest-in-Charge of St Margaret’s, Budapest, Hungary, the Revd Dr Frank Hegedus, the Church’s mission includes reaching out to refugees. He hopes that visits from the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, scheduled to take place in 2018, will help to keep the region in the sight and prayers of the world.
“From a Christian point of view, in the light of history, the situation is much different,” Mr Mäkipää suggested. “During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was officially an atheist country, where churches were more or less underground.
“The history of the Anglican Chaplaincy in Helsinki reminds us how the Church was keeping connections to the Russian Orthodox Church — officially and unofficially — and was able to serve the Protestant Christian community behind the Iron Curtain.”