Is Barack Obama the last NATO president? The answer may lie in a tiny corner of Russia, wedged deep within NATO territory.
Kaliningrad, the city that serves as the administrative center of the Kaliningrad Oblast, was once the German city of Konigsberg. (An oblast is an administrative division in many Slavic countries, including former members of the Soviet Union.) Kaliningrad Oblast became Soviet territory when Stalin pushed borders west at the end of World War II. The region adjoins Lithuania, which had been occupied and annexed by the Soviet army in 1940. After a battle with Hitler’s forces for control of the region, the Soviets reconquered Lithuania and it became one of three Soviet Baltic republics, along with Latvia and Estonia.
But when the Soviet Union broke up and the Baltics became independent states – and more recently, members of NATO – Kaliningrad remained part of Russia, now isolated from the rest of the country, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.
Estonia and Latvia have large ethnic Russian minorities, as is the case with Ukraine, and Lithuania has Kaliningrad practically at its back door. All three of the Baltic states are as suspicious of Russian interests as they are potentially vulnerable to Russian economic or military aggression. Many of the pretexts that Vladimir Putin has used to justify intervention in Crimea, which he then annexed, and his threats against the other parts of Ukraine could easily apply to Lithuania and its neighbors. Lithuania faces the added twist that Russia could claim that future intervention there is an attempt to “rescue” an isolated Russian outpost.
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“We are following the situation with [Russia’s] increased military readiness and drills at our borders,” Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters, according to Reuters. (1) She also said that Lithuania and Poland could raise the issue with NATO, and has called Russia “dangerous” and “unpredictable.” Estonia and Latvia have both refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Crimean secession referendum.
The question then becomes whether NATO members in general, and Obama in particular, can really be expected to honor their mutual defense commitment, in which an attack on one is treated as an attack on all. Clearly, this commitment is something the leaders of the Baltic states are counting on: Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, was explicit that entry into NATO was an “insurance policy” against Russia. (1)
But it is not at all certain that NATO would honor that policy if called upon.
Would Germany, for example, send military forces back to the Baltic in defense of states that the Nazis overran when they invaded the USSR in 1941? I think it is unlikely, despite pledges of support from Germany’s foreign minister. To make it even less likely, Putin and his associates have been quick to denounce pro-West Ukrainians as fascists. It sounds bizarre to American ears, but to a country that lost over 20 million of its people in World War II, any hint of German military muscle-flexing strikes a strong emotional chord. Putin’s stance against Ukraine’s pro-West factions has propelled his popularity within Russia to multiyear highs.
If Germany won’t intervene to protect its eastern neighbors, is Obama a credible deterrent? In light of the president’s vacillations on Syria and almost ludicrously weak sanctions in the face of the Crimean annexation, would Putin seriously expect him to send troops to defend Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital? Or, for that matter, to defend Warsaw?
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After all, few Americans could find Vilnius, or even Lithuania, on a map. Obama is not the kind of leader to explain why they should bother.
As Stephen Blank, a senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council, said of Putin, “[He] counted on the weakness, irresolution and confusion of NATO and Obama and, sad to say, he was right.” (2) The Baltic states have cause to worry that Putin will decide that the lack of a strong response regarding Crimea and Ukraine is encouragement enough for further incursions in the region should he be inclined to make them.
Marko Mihkelson, who chairs the Estonian parliament’s foreign policy committee, tweeted, “If West does not wake up to Russian aggressive foreign policy today, tomorrow will be too late.” He is certainly not the only citizen of the Baltic states who fears such an outcome.
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The same week Putin annexed Crimea, Obama invited G-7 leaders for an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine. But given that, at the time of the meeting, member countries could not even seem to agree on whether Russia was suspended from the G-8 or simply not invited, the sign is not as hopeful as it might be. Vice President Joe Biden visited Poland and Lithuania the same week, but the lack of significant American action is likely to speak louder than its vice president’s words.
Putin makes no secret of his resentment of NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders. Already his government has convinced the interim government in Kiev to disavow any intention of joining NATO. For Putin, a major success and political goal would be to remove NATO from the Russian frontier by separating the Baltic republics from their post-Soviet allies. He – and the Baltic states, along with the rest of the world – must wonder whether Obama and NATO are prepared to stop him.
If not, for all practical purposes, NATO is extinct, and Obama will be the president who presided over its demise.
1) Reuters, “Ukraine crisis stokes Baltic nerves over Russia”
2) NBC News, “Under Pressure: Obama Weighs Options on Next Move with Russia”