It’s more than two years away but in the context of severely heightened security concerns across Emerging Europe, the 2024 US presidential election is already seen as a significant risk for the region.
Under the current US President Joe Biden – elected by Americans who wanted a return to “normal” policies after the turbulent and chaotic Trump administration – the US has backed a strengthening of Nato’s Eastern Flank and taken a firm stance on sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
However, it is unclear whether this would continue should Donald Trump, or a candidate close to him, be elected to the presidency in 2024.
A July report from the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) identified the upcoming US presidential election as among the negative risks for Central, Southeast and Eastern Europe, as it “can impact negatively the shape of European security”.
Listing the risks to the region’s outlook on a webinar in July, wiiw economist Olga Pindyuk commented: “last but definitely not least is the outcome of the [US presidential] elections. We already saw with the 2016 election how much it can influence the European Union security and economic situation.”
Richard Grieveson, deputy director of wiiw, told the same webinar that the risk perception of the region has already “changed a bit” since the invasion.
“As long as the US security commitment to the region remains as it is, which is absolute at the moment, there’s no reason why investment in the region should fundamentally collapse, but things can change. In the US, we know the next presidential election is not too far away. It’s something that’s certainly on our radar and we’re a bit concerned about what that means for the region,” Grieveson added.
The US candidates
Polls are currently showing the most likely winners of the 2024 election are Biden, Trump or Florida governor Ron DeSantis, seen as Trump’s most credible rival within the Republican Party.
Focus will shift to the upcoming presidential race after the mid-term elections this autumn. Biden has already said he is ready to stand provided he is in good health, though some high-profile Democrats have declined to endorse him for a second term. This is partly connected to his age – he would be 86 by the end of his second term if he is re-elected – as well as concerns about his popularity ratings in the country.
Trump, who would also be into his eighties if he serves a second term as president, has not explicitly confirmed he plans to run in the election but is widely expected to do so in the near future.
Two major investigations into the ex-president do not appear to have dented his popularity among Republicans. An investigation into the January 6, 2021 Capitol Hill riots in which Trump supporters forced the way into Congress in an attempt to prevent the certification of Biden's election victory is ongoing. Earlier this month the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, and removed 11 sets of classified files including some marked “TS/SCI” (Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information). This was the first time a former US president's home had been searched as part of a criminal investigation.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and his allies have been quick to defend him. After the FBI raid, 58% of Republican voters said they would back Trump in 2024, an increase from 54% in July, according to a poll published on August 10 by Politico and Morning Consult. A record 71% of Republican voters said that Trump should run for president in 2024.
Confirming Trump’s hold over the Republican Party, Liz Cheney, a senior member of the party and a vocal Trump of critic, lost her primary in Wyoming to a Trump-backed candidate on August 17. However, she still plans to mobilise opposition to a new Trump presidential campaign.
Two (short) years away
When Russia first invaded Ukraine in February, the war was expected to be over in weeks. Nearly six months later, it is still raging, the strength of the Ukrainian resistance apparently having taken the Russian leadership by surprise. It’s now impossible to predict how long the war will last or, indeed, what Moscow’s war aims actually are. The most likely outcome now is seen as a frozen conflict with some form of Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said on June 29 that the allies are preparing for a long war. This came as Nato leaders agreed a ''fundamental shift in our deterrence and defence'' in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It included a big increase in troop deployments on its Eastern Flank facing Russia, more help for Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression, and a new Strategic Concept that explicitly names Russia as the alliance’s “most significant and direct threat”.
As part of this strategy, Biden announced a major ramping up of the US military presence in Europe “to defend every inch of allied territory”. Biden said on June 29 that the US 5th Army Corps will establish a permanent headquarters in Poland, while the US will also send 5,000 more troops to Romania. Nato has also agreed to station more troops within the Eastern Flank states.
The unity within Nato over defending the Eastern Flank contrasts with the increasing divergence among the Western countries over sanctions, and the leakiness of the sanctions regime.
This includes within the EU, which has introduced several packages of sanctions since the invasion. Most recently, some south European states spoke out against the European Commission’s proposal to cut gas use by 15% starting in August to counter the threat of a cut-off in Russian gas supply. Hungary, one of the closer EU members to Moscow, announced on August 13 that Russia had begun ramping up natural gas deliveries to the country following a July visit to Moscow by its foreign minister.
A Trump 2 presidency?
During his four years in office, Trump veered between an isolationist ‘America First’ stance to posturing against Russia and other rival powers to expressing his admiration for Putin and other authoritarian strongmen. While he took Nato members to task for not meeting the 2%-of-GDP defence spending threshold, his own commitment to the Alliance was questionable; he has since admitted that when president he threatened that the US would not defend fellow members against a Russian attack as required under Article 5 of the Nato treaty.
Overall, the Trump presidency weakened the Western camp by setting the US at odds with Western European powers such as France and Germany, and he was openly dismissive of the European Union. Once elected, some of Biden’s first actions were to mend the rift that had opened between the US and Europe.
This lack of unity played into the Kremlin’s hands, and more recently, Trump’s comments on the situation in Ukraine have not been encouraging – at least not for Kyiv or the West.
Immediately before Russia’s invasion, when Moscow took the preparatory step of recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent, Trump hailed Putin as a “genius” and "pretty savvy”. He added "By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable.” Several months later, he told the same show that Ukraine could have met Russia’s demands – namely to give up Crimea and promise not to join Nato – in order to avoid the invasion.
Ukraine already needs more support – financial and military – than the West is prepared to give, and that is with the US and most of Europe united in their support for Kyiv. A new US president who is not committed to stability in Europe would undermine even that. Aside from Ukraine, other countries to Russia’s immediate west – Moldova and the Baltic States – fear they could be next.
Then there is the economic impact on the war that is affecting virtually all of Emerging Europe, where growth has slowed compared to the post-COVID rebound in 2021. That situation is expected to worsen as inflation, an indirect effect of the war via food and energy prices takes its toll. As economists have pointed out, the loss of a consistent US position guaranteeing support for the region would lead to a severe loss of confidence too.