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In a stunning upset, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the closest election since 2000, by 272 electoral votes to 266. Both candidates had promised that America would no longer be the “world’s policeman.” Clinton had floundered late in the campaign, and she was never able to shake off the email scandal.
In his acceptance speech, President Trump declared an “America first” policy and that Europe could look after Europe. He also reported that Japan and South Korea should protect their interests without always relying on unilateral US support and demanded a quid pro quo.
Throughout 2016, Russia had continued its low-level ‘hybrid war’ against Ukraine. With the world’s attention focused on the continuing refugee crisis, Syria and the fallout from Brexit, there was little coverage of the ongoing war in the Donbass, despite the daily casualties, and the world was content to believe the ceasefire was still holding.
Low oil prices (still hovering around $50) and continuing sanctions had restricted Russian expansionism in Ukraine. Russia had mainly contented itself with sorties towards Kherson and Mariupol, cyber-attacks and some terror attacks (that Ukraine blamed on the FSB). It also broadened its operations in Syria, particularly in Aleppo – despite initially claiming to remove aircraft from that arena – but rarely seemed to attack IS targets. Aleppo fell in December to Assad regime forces.
In December, most of the sanctions that were imposed following the downing of MH17 were lifted despite objections from the Baltic states, Central European countries and the UK. President Trump would follow suit a few weeks after taking office in February 2017.
The other major news in 2016 was, of course, Brexit with Britain voting by 52% to 48% to leave the EU. Theresa May became Prime Minister following the vote. A High Court decision ruling that parliament had to consult before Article 50 was triggered earned a furious backlash from Leave supporters and the judiciary was subjected to an unprecedented Ochlocratic attack. This would be the beginning of the end of judicial independence.
Throughout 2017, as oil prices recovered (to an average of $55 a barrel) on the back of robust global demand, Russia focused on rebuilding its military and placing troops and ballistic missiles on the borders with neighbouring NATO states. A clear violation of Georgian sovereignty and a ‘land grab’ did not earn a sharp rebuke from the US.
The Schengen agreement began to fall apart under the strain of refugees, and border controls were reintroduced. The number of racist attacks intensified in Europe. Riots broke out in London, Paris and Berlin, with pitched battles between far-right groups and immigrants. Brexit negotiations became increasingly fraught and damaged the UK’s relationship with the EU countries in NATO.
President Trump and President Putin had declared an entente cordiale in what would turn out to be an infamous St. Petersburg Summit – it would later be compared to the Munich Agreement. President Trump stated there was a ‘Russian world’ and it was not for the US to interfere and further said that both his close friend Putin and he were ‘very, very smart men’ and each would respect the other’s interests while cooperating against the scourge of Islamism. Many of the rebel groups in Syria (except for IS) were routed after the supply of arms dried up. At the time, the summit was declared to be a success akin to Nixon visiting China.
A few weeks later, in May 2017, Russian proxies launched a massive assault on Mariupol (following two earlier failed attempts), and the city fell in November 2017. President Poroshenko’s pleas for defensive weapons had fallen on deaf ears in the US and Europe and the US had dialled back most of its military assistance to the Ukrainians, with President Trump declaring that Ukraine was none of ‘America’s business and not in our area of influence’. The full quote was:
“I don’t expect to see Putin in Mexico, therefore why should I be in the Ukraine? We need to get along with Russia to beat Islamists big time”.
The ‘separatists’ began a march towards Odessa to ‘liberate’ the city. President Poroshenko resigned in 2017 due to civil disobedience following the fall of Mariupol and was replaced by a little-known populist/nationalist in a fraught election a few months later. Putin denied any involvement in the fall of Mariupol. The EU re-imposed some limited sanctions but these proved largely ineffectual. The newly reelected President Sarkozy blocked any tougher sanctions. He had narrowly defeated Marie Le Pen in a Presidential election.
A wave of patriotism surged through Russia following the victory of ‘ethnic Russian fighters’ against the ‘fascist regime’ of Poroshenko. Some Russian dissidents died in mysterious circumstances both in Russia and abroad between late 2016 and mid-2017.
The Netherlands, with Geert Wilders in power, announced that a referendum to leave the EU would be held mid-2018.
The start of 2018 was relatively quiet. A form of ‘frozen peace’ was achieved in Ukraine (with all but a few sanctions lifted) and the conflict in Syria was cooling down as the Russian/Iranian-backed regime and IS controlled 95% of territory between them. Assad had agreed to step down at the end of 2017 and was living in exile in St. Petersburg.
Trump did not proceed with his promise to ‘ban all Muslims from America’ but began to implement his ‘anti-Islamist’ policies with thousands of mosques shut down. Muslims complained that they were harassed by law enforcement. Despite these measures, the number of lone wolf terrorist attacks in the US intensified throughout 2017 and 2018. Trump announces a new version of the infamous Smoot-Hawley Act. He also imposed a 35% tax rate of US companies operating abroad – leading many US companies to either cancel FDI or to go bankrupt. The US national debt increased by 45% in 2018 alone and unemployment reached 9.5% by the end of the year. GDP growth was measured at -1.5% for the year. Trump also ordered an unprecedented wave of deportations of immigrants. Many immigrants deported claimed they and their families had lived in the US for decades.
Europe responded in kind, slapping tariffs on US goods. Individual EU countries begin to impose trade tariffs on each other – as the free movement of goods breaks down. The Netherlands voted to exit the EU in mid-2018, with Sweden and Finland vowing to hold referendums to follow suit.
Presidents Trump and Sarkozy were Putin’s guest of honour at the final of the FIFA World Cup. A picture of Trump, Berlusconi, Putin, Blatter, Farage and Sarkozy at the final together would become an enduring and iconic image. A terror attack in Moscow was blamed by Russia on Ukrainian Tatar terrorists – this led to terrible oppression against the Tatar people of Crimea.
Putin further alleged that the Ukrainian government was involved directly in the attack. Putin was reelected with a significant vote. The remaining independent news agencies were shut down in Russia, and all foreign NGOs outlawed. Putin announced that sovereignty cannot override the interests of ethnicity and that it is his solemn duty to ensure safe areas for Russian speakers where ever they may be. Hybrid war intensified in the Baltics – with the Baltic states complaining of crippling cyber warfare from late 2016 through to late 2018.
Moldova and Georgia were subjected to this form of war too. There are commentators that say they are resonances of 1930s Europe. Towards the end of the year, there were reports of ‘little green men’ in the Baltic states. Putin and Erdogan of Turkey sign an official military alliance as Turkey leaves NATO.
The year 2019 would be known by historians as the year Europe died. Increasingly embattled Prime Minister May, reeling from an economic slump far worse than the global credit crisis of 2008, called a snap election and, in another shock, a complacent Conservative party was defeated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, which formed a government with support from the SNP, PC, Green and SF alliance.
SF decided to take their seats in the House of Commons following their stunning electoral success in Ireland (a country having seen the third election in four years). Corbyn announced unilateral nuclear disarmament, and also indicated that NATO no longer served a purpose.
In early 2019, following a massive Russian military exercise and what Russia described as repeated ‘provocations’ by Ukraine, Russia overtly invaded mainland Ukraine with over 60,000 troops. Trump described it as an internal matter for Russia and Corbyn urged restraint from ‘war mongers’ in the West. Sarkozy and the new German Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel expressed their concern.
Russian troops suffered mass casualties but advanced towards Kyiv. One of the biggest tank battles since the battle of Kursk resulted in a pyrrhic victory for Russia with the older Ukrainian tanks managing to cause mass casualties among the invading force and Putin’s new tank corps, but the force of numbers prevailed.
There were widespread reports of war crimes. A Bild reporter alleged a low-yield nuclear weapon was used by Russia to defeat a resilient Ukrainian defence force a few hundred kilometres from Kyiv. Many of the Ukrainian forces resorted to partisan ‘hit and run’ tactics which slowed down the advance of RF troops.
In the end, Russia controlled just less than half of Ukraine as far as Kyiv but cannot take Kyiv or west of the Dnieper. At the urging of Sarkozy and Gabriel, Ukraine and Russia signed a peace treaty.
A part of Estonia bordering Russia (Narvu) declared independence, following a sham referendum. Towards the end of the summer, Russia moved forces from Belarus into Lithuania – a clear violation of Article 5 of the NATO charter.
President Trump claimed that the US is not bound by Article 5, as Lithuania should never have been allowed into NATO in the first instance. Russian troops also moved into Latvia and Estonia. At a hastily convened NATO summit, Sarkozy, Corbyn and Trump declared that the countries affected are not covered by Article 5. Many liberal and conservative commentators agreed with them and argued that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are not worth going to war with Russia over.
Trump me with Putin in Vienna. After the meeting, Trump declared that Putin has promised to cease any further encroachment into NATO territory. Trump claims that he has saved Poland – “peace in our time.”
Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania left NATO and the EU in early 2020 and joined the Eurasian Union and a new security pact with Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, following a ‘referendum’ in which 84% of people voted to join the Eurasian Union. Latvia and Estonia were annexed later that year.
The EU – which now existed in name only – began to splinter, and more Central European countries joined the Eurasian Union. NATO is effectively worthless.
Trump sought re-election with a record low approval, intimating he may pull out of NATO. Once again, he indicated that the significant threat to the US comes from Muslims and not from Russia. His non-aggression pact with Putin had ensured peace, he claimed, and he is angered that he has not won a Nobel peace prize.
Trump lost the election to Senator Cory Brooker – who had been elected for the first time in the 2016 Senate race. The first challenge the new president faces is a Russian invasion of Finland and Sweden. Both countries are unaligned, and NATO is redundant anyway without French, German or UK support. The president has to decide: are Sweden and Finland worth fighting for?