- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2014

Having failed to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Obama heads to Europe this week to reassure NATO members that he won’t let Russian President Vladimir Putin crash any gates elsewhere in Eastern Europe, even as Mr. Putin continued to do exactly that over the weekend.

Mr. Obama will leave Washington on Tuesday for Estonia, the tiny Baltic country bordering Russia that left the Soviet Union and joined the 28-nation military bloc in 2004. On Wednesday, in the capital city of Tallinn, the president will offer encouragement to jittery Eastern Europeans in a speech focusing on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s commitment to common defense against a rising Russian threat.

“This is the biggest challenge within Europe that NATO has faced since the end of the Cold War,” said James Goldgeier, dean of American University’s School of International Service. “The justification that Putin has used in supporting Russians who live outside Russia has understandably stoked fears in countries like Estonia.”

Ethnic Russians make up about 25 percent of Estonia’s 1.3 million citizens, which could make an attractive pretext for Mr. Putin’s expansionist goals beyond eastern Ukraine. Similar minorities exist in several former Soviet republics, and Moscow used the presence of Russian-speaking residents in Ukraine to justify its incursion and seizure of Crimea.

Putin demands talks

Mr. Obama, whose push for economic sanctions against Russia hasn’t slowed Mr. Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine, said he’s traveling to Estonia to “reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the defense of our NATO allies.”


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“Part of the reason I’ll be going to Estonia is to let the Estonians know that we mean what we say with respect to our treaty obligations,” Mr. Obama said at the White House late last week.

White House aides say the president’s message is intended to carry beyond a country that’s smaller than West Virginia — to reassure audiences in Poland and other NATO members. Mr. Obama will also try to lend moral support to Ukraine, where Russian forces in tanks opened a third front last week in their lightly camouflaged invasion.

On Sunday, Mr. Putin said Ukraine should immediately start talks on the “organization” of the whole country, specifically including “statehood” for the pro-Russian eastern part of the country.

The government in Kiev should “hold substantive, meaningful talks, not about technical issues but about the question of the political organization of society and statehood in southeast Ukraine, with the goal of safeguarding the legitimate interests of those people who live there,” Mr. Putin said on the Russian TV network Channel 1.

Although Mr. Putin used the politically fraught term “statehood,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said the Kremlin leader was not pushing sovereignty for two eastern regions where Russian-speaking rebels have been battling the Ukrainian government, reportedly with the aid of Moscow’s forces and firepower.

The two regions, one around Donetsk and the other around Luhansk, have declared themselves “Novorossiya” (New Russia), and analysts see a possible repeat of the Kremlin’s seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, also populated by ethnic Russians.

NATO war promises

Charles Kupchan, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for European Affairs, said Mr. Obama also has a message for Mr. Putin: “Russia, don’t even think about messing around in Estonia or any of the other” NATO members.

Under the terms of the NATO treaty, an attack on any member — including the three former Soviet Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, plus several ex-Communist countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Romania — is an attack on all, including the U.S., Britain and Germany.

While Ukraine is not a NATO member, Mr. Obama said the U.S. does “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the Ukrainian people. But while many GOP lawmakers are urging Mr. Obama to send arms to Ukraine, the president has made clear he will not commit the U.S. military to the crisis in any way.

“We’re doing not just a lot of work diplomatically but also financially in order to make sure that they have the best chance at dealing with what is admittedly a very difficult situation,” he said.

Mr. Kupchan said that NATO will discuss providing “material support, economic as well as security” for Kiev and that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will attend the meetings.

However, the president of Lithuania said at the weekend that she already considers Russia “practically” at war with Europe.

“It is the fact that Russia is in a war state against Ukraine. That means it is in a state of war against a country which would like to be closely integrated with the EU. Practically, Russia is in a state of war against Europe,” President Dalia Grybauskaite said ahead of a Saturday meeting where European Union leaders threatened more sanctions on Russia.

Ms. Grybauskaite added that this “means we need to help Ukraine to defend its territory and its people and to help militarily, especially with the military materials to help Ukraine to defend itself, because today Ukraine is fighting a war on behalf of all Europe.”

The Lithuanian leader, whose country was the first republic to declare independence and to precipitate the breakup of the Soviet Union, made the dramatic statement after officials in Kiev accused Moscow of using tanks to “flatten” the border town of Novosvitlivka.

Rebel offensive

Ukrainian defense spokesman Oleksiy Dmitrashkovsky said a Ukrainian border-guard vessel had taken artillery fire from the pro-Russia rebels Sunday afternoon, though he had few other details.

The rebels and Russian-speaking residents entered several towns over the weekend that Ukrainian forces had abandoned. The rebels have gained in strength in recent days and beaten back Kiev’s offensives as charges of direct Kremlin involvement have become more specific.

On Sunday, Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said that the situation in eastern Ukraine is “a direct invasion” and that the West should seriously consider military assistance, although not troops on the ground.

“This is a direct invasion by Russia,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s not rebels, it’s Russian soldiers.”

In his interview Sunday, Mr. Putin backed the rebels’ stance that there can be no talks on decentralizing Kiev’s power and increasing regional autonomy until the central government halts its attacks in the east and southeast.

“If anybody believes that in a situation where the cities and villages of east Ukraine come under direct fire that the militiamen will have no reaction to that but will simply wait for the promised talks, then these people are prisoner to some illusions,” he said.

Baltic doubts

Heather A. Conley, director of the European program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is “critical” for Mr. Obama to visit Estonia, and it is noteworthy that the White House has pledged an “iron-clad” commitment to defending NATO members.

“There has always been a great fear in the Baltic states that, if push came to shove, they question whether NATO would really have their back,” Ms. Conley said.

Words of reassurance do matter, analysts say, in part because NATO will consider at its summit whether to deploy ground troops in member nations along the Russian border. And beefing up NATO defenses will cost more money, something many European NATO governments have been reluctant to provide in the past.

The U.S. is already contributing troops to a rotation through front-line states such as Estonia and military patrol flights to reassure NATO members about containing Russia.

In response to the Ukraine crisis, outgoing NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters last week that he envisions creating a “spearhead” of NATO’s rapid-response force to operate “at very, very high readiness.”

“In order to be able to provide such rapid reinforcements, you also need some reception facilities in host nations,” he said. “So it will involve the prepositioning of supplies, of equipment, preparation of infrastructure, bases, headquarters.”

Alliance defense cuts

But NATO members are divided on the need to beef up the military alliance’s capabilities, Mr. Goldgeier said.

“There are countries that really want to see a more robust statement of defense and a clear demonstration that NATO is prepared to do whatever it takes to defend the NATO members,” he said. “And others worry that it’s going to exacerbate the tensions with Russia. Germany is the country that’s most concerned about increased deployments in the east.”

Mr. Obama said he will emphasize at the summit that NATO must “make sure that every country is contributing in order to deliver on the promise” of the alliance’s assurance of mutual defense.

In 2006 NATO members agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their total economic output on defense. But by 2012, only the United States, Britain, Greece and Estonia met this standard.

During the Cold War, the U.S. paid about 50 percent of NATO’s obligations; now the U.S. share exceeds 70 percent. Mr. Obama and his predecessors have been trying to “rebalance” how NATO is funded among its members.

Mr. Obama wants to use the summit to encourage all NATO members to contribute to the alliance’s budget “in a fair and proportional way,” Mr. Kupchan said.

Another topic that Obama aides expect to come up at the summit is the threat posed by the Islamic State, now controlling broad swaths of both Syria and Iraq. The alliance will pursue plans for a more global partnership to include other countries in that effort to combat Islamist extremism.

Tom Howell Jr. and Kellan Howell contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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