You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

In the Former Eastern Bloc, They’re Terrified of a Trump Presidency

For Americans, authoritarian rule is theoretical. But in Eastern Europe, reminders of it are everywhere, as is dread of a partial return to those days.

Trump in shadow
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

As I sat across a table from a minister in the Bulgarian government in his office in Sofia, he shook his head and then held it in his hands. “I can’t believe it. It is impossible,” he said. “It would be a disaster. How can Americans not see that?”

He was speaking about the prospect of Donald Trump being reelected president of the United States. His despair at the prospect echoed that of others from government, business, and the media with whom I spoke during a recent trip to Eastern and Central Europe. But his palpable fear of a Trump return to office was not abstract or in any way based on political preferences. As he and others explained to me, it was based on the fact that they all felt that a Trump win would have a direct and profoundly negative impact on the lives of people in all of Europe.

The view the Bulgarian minister and others expressed to me was that a Trump win would result in a redrawing of the map of Europe in ways that would enable and embolden Vladimir Putin while simultaneously weakening the NATO alliance. Indeed, a Trump win would amount to nothing less than an undoing of many of the gains that came to the West through winning the Cold War and of many of the most important achievements forged in the wake of World War II.

This view is based not only on Trump’s public statements and actions while in office and since but also on a European perception of the Russian threat that is much more sweeping and menacing than most Americans and many of our leaders in Washington seem to grasp.

Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author who has written extensively on the former Soviet Union and emerging authoritarian threats, told me, “Many Europeans are afraid that a second Trump administration would work together with the Russians and their far-right allies in Europe—both those in power in Hungary and Serbia, as well as those who lead opposition parties in France and Germany—to transform European politics, destroy the European Union, and eventually dismantle NATO as well. That would make it easier for Russia and China to divide and dominate the continent for both economic and political advantage.

“Of course this is not in America’s interest,” she went on, “but Trump does not act in America’s interest.”

As for awareness of the sweeping nature of this threat, she said, “Many Europeans do understand this threat. A German member of parliament recently said to me that he fears Europe will soon be facing three hostile, autocratic, and illiberal states: Russia, China—and the U.S.”

When I mentioned my impressions of my conversations to former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, he said, “What you’ve heard is fairly widely shared and feared across not only Central and Eastern Europe but the rest of Europe as well. The general assumption, especially after Trump’s ‘If you don’t pay, I’ll tell Russia to do whatever the hell they want,’ conjures up the images of Bucha, mass killings, torture, rape, etc., we have come to associate with Russia. It can’t be undone.”

This has, in Ilves’s eyes, produced increasing support for developing plans for Europe to attempt to go it alone in the wake of a Trump victory. Countries that were once skeptical of such approaches, like France, are in the process of developing them. “[Emmanuel] Macron’s Autonomie strategique is purely the result of an understanding—right or wrong—that Trump will abandon Europe and NATO in favor of his strongman buddy Putin,” Ilves wrote in an email. “Someone who believes Putin more than his own intelligence services (as we saw in his Helsinki meeting) is not someone people in Europe trust.” Ominously, he concluded, “In any case everyone seems to expect that after a Trump victory, transatlantic relations will be worse than they have been since WW2.”

General Mark Hertling, who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe and spent 12 years working with leaders and other military commanders within the region, said, “A former senior ranking military leader from Romania recently said something that I found insightful. Many of us thought that the election of Trump by the people of the U.S. in 2016 was just an anomaly, he said. We saw the effects of his presidency by the way he disparaged the members of NATO, implied he wouldn’t support (and [would] even pull out of) the alliance, and through the appointment of specific terrible ambassadors to European postings. We were glad, he continued, that you returned to normalcy with the Biden election, but the potential of another Trump presidency would cause a complete loss of faith in the U.S. He said, ‘It would be much like how we all feel about Hungary, or Turkey.’”

The concerns of the military leader with whom Hertling spoke echoed those I encountered on my trip. They were predicated on a sense that Russia’s menace extended far beyond its brutal aggression in Ukraine. They saw Russia as being broadly active across an extensive front, one that traced in many ways Churchill’s description of the “Iron Curtain” the Soviets had brought down in Europe, extending from “Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.”

That includes efforts not just to seize land like Russia has done in Ukraine or in Georgia or threatens to do in places like Moldova or the Baltics, but also to engineer political tilts toward Moscow and to promote laws and leaders favorable to Moscow’s interests—in Georgia and Moldova but also in places like Bulgaria, where a pro-Russian tilt among populists is readily apparent. These efforts echo the progress Putin has already made in Hungary, Serbia, and Slovakia by supporting pro-Russian governments.

Further, there is a widespread concern, most recently manifested in the wake of several incidents in Poland, of Russia employing “hybrid measures” like sabotage to damage and weaken neighboring governments that oppose it. Threatening language from Putin and his supporters directed at new members of NATO like Sweden and Finland, at the Baltics, and indeed at all of NATO are the reason that most of those states closest to Russia are so committed to stopping Russia in Ukraine and making the country pay a heavy price for its aggression as a way of mitigating the threat they collectively face from Moscow.

How Trump may handle these issues in a new administration with a new team is of grave concern to those in the region and U.S. experts. For example, Hertling told me, “One of the other things I heard (from Europeans) after Trump was elected was that while he and his staff in the [White House] were often out of touch with the culture and issues in Europe, several European leaders told me they depended on the ‘old hands’ in State, and the competency of the military assigned to Europe, to keep things on the rails. I would be afraid that the 2025 plan would take those old hands out of their positions, replacing them with those who don’t understand the history of the former Soviet satellites, their fight for freedom over the last three decades, or the intricacies of places like Transnistria, South Ossetia/Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. If Russian actions are not countered in Ukraine, those who used to be under the Russian boot—the Baltics, Poland, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria—would then be in the crosshairs. We are already seeing increased Russian actions in Georgia, Moldova, Poland, and Kaliningrad.” (Kaliningrad Oblast is Russian territory that sits between Lithuania and Poland, extending to the Baltic, a vestige of post–World War II territorial division that provides a strategic forward position for the Russians in Eastern Europe.)

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who worked on East European issues during his time on the National Security Council staff, described his perception of how the dominoes would fall across the continent should Trump once again occupy the Oval Office. “A Trump victory in 2024 would undoubtedly lead to the end of American support for Ukraine,” Vindman said. “Without American political and material support, Ukraine would be forced to fight the war with considerably less resources and would likely remain on the defensive footing indefinitely. Trump would also likely push [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy to immediately enter negotiations with Putin (despite the Russian government’s repeated bad-faith approach to negotiations over the past two years). While Trump and his team would likely present this as a diplomatic victory, we should remember that Trump’s interests in Ukraine are mostly grounded in seeking Vladimir Putin’s personal approval and his personal vendetta against Zelenskiy and me.”

He continued: “Any negotiation signed by the Ukrainian government in this state of duress would be a victory for Russian interests in Eastern Europe and would be followed by renewed hybrid warfare efforts against Georgia and Moldova. The end result of this would be effectively canceling Georgian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian EU membership and keeping all three states within Moscow’s sphere of influence.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute offered the following critique of the current Washington understanding of the evolving situation along Europe’s Eastern flank and specifically of the constraints the Biden administration has placed on support for Ukraine, such as limitations on where U.S.-supplied weapons can or cannot be used that weaken Ukraine’s position and may increase the risks associated with a potential second Trump presidency: “In a time when we are fixated on Putin’s redlines, we have missed the most important: He has set Russia on a path of constant and enduring conflict with the West, requiring aggression and provocations that justify a wartime economy and complete concentration of political power in him as president. His aggression takes a variety of forms: combat in Ukraine, cyberattacks on NATO allies, disinformation campaigns, and election interference. He has subjugated the long-term prospects of Russia to his campaign of aggression, meaning Russia will suffer political and economic isolation for the foreseeable future. Finally, he relies on Russia’s relationship with China, despite Russia being the clearly junior partner. These moves will not be easily reversed, even when Putin leaves the scene.”

I have had many conversations with Americans who have expressed fear about the domestic consequences of a Trump win in November. But few have expressed the kind of real fear I saw in the eyes of those with whom I spoke on my trip. That may be because the prospect of the United States becoming an authoritarian state is hard to grasp for us. It has never happened here.

But in Eastern Europe, reminders of what life was like under Moscow’s domination are everywhere. So too are signs that a return to those very bad old days could be just around the corner. Our delays in providing aid to Ukraine and the limitations we have placed on the use of that aid are one sign that many in Washington do not fully realize the implications or extent of Putin’s moves against the West. But for those in the region, there would be no sign more frightening of that disconnect from reality than electing to the U.S. presidency an avowed Putin fanboy like Trump.