For anyone living nervously at the edge of NATO’s eastern borders, there is probably little that could be more reassuring these days than a visit from the U.S. president.
Barack Obama’s brief stop Wednesday in Talinn, the capital of Estonia located just over 200 kilometres from the Russian border, will bring him as close as he is likely to get in the near future to Russian soil.
And it’s probably as close Obama has come to a provocative move since the Ukraine crisis started.
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Officials see Estonia and its sister Baltic states — in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s backyard — as NATO’s new front line. Obama’s stop there is designed to reassure one side of the border, while riling the other.
The visit also kicks off a week that will be pivotal in defining Europe’s “new normal.”
The way western officials describe it, the continent’s security environment has been “turned upside down” in a way they could not have predicted. Just a few months ago, and despite their history, NATO nations and Russia had a formal arrangement that allowed them to work as equals on issues of “common interest.”
This week’s NATO gathering in Wales is now aimed at taking what was once a collaborative relationship with Russia, and recalibrating it into a more adversarial one.
Without the threat of military action — which has been repeatedly and explicitly excluded as an option for NATO — insiders acknowledge that sanctions alone will do little in the short term to change Russia’s policy in Ukraine.
So the coming “reset” to relations with Russia involves NATO and its leaders pushing at the alliance’s edges, at least trying to appear to be upping the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It isn’t clear whether it’s a strategy that will work. Or that it even should. But other options to which all NATO members might agree are limited.
Later this week, at their first summit since the Ukraine crisis started, NATO leaders will consider establishing a new forward operating base in Poland east of the Iron curtain. They will also likely agree on a rapid reaction force, announced Monday, which could involve thousands of troops at a time from the 28 NATO countries in rotation and which could deploy within 48 hours.
'The bottom line is you will in the future see a more visible NATO presence in the East.' - NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
Perhaps more vexing (if you look at it from the Russian view), the leaders are hosting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, while the NATO secretary general is publicly stating Ukraine has a right to apply for NATO membership.
“The bottom line is you will in the future see a more visible NATO presence in the East," says Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
For Russia, Ukrainian NATO membership is a red line.
So in doing all this, NATO leaders are pushing buttons they know might bring on severe blowback. Putin is not a fan of any form of NATO expansion — in geographic footprint or in membership — however modest.
The NATO summit’s inclusion this week of Poroshenko — with whom Putin met a mere week ago to discuss the crisis — will surely be seen by Putin as a direct provocation.
Already in this past week, Putin has been vocal in response. He worryingly reminded the world that Russia is still a nuclear power.
And it appears Russia is again pushing at the edges of its own boundaries of influence. Few Western leaders are using the word “invasion” to describe the entry of Russian troops and military hardware into the southeast region of Ukraine last week, but on Monday leaders did sharpen their language, explicitly naming Russia as a party to the conflict in Ukraine.
That’s not likely to sit well with Putin, who has rejected the notion that Russia as a nation has intervened.
Nor will the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, however academic. Even though, despite the public statements to the contrary, it is highly unlikely Ukraine would join NATO anytime soon. There is too much opposition to the idea inside the organization.
Still, the discussion alone will raise Russia’s ire. So does the idea of a new permanent rotation of thousands of NATO troops exercising at Russia’s borders.
“I am sure the reaction will be strong,” says Heather Conley, senior vice-president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. She points out NATO’s actions have come only as a response to Putin’s “provocative” actions in Ukraine, and his massing of thousands of soldiers at their joint border.
“It will probably, again, provoke the addition of force — Russian forces along this area. So we will see a buildup on both sides, absolutely.”
Insiders acknowledge Putin has time on his side.
On the one hand, Obama and NATO’s message for Russia is, “don’t even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you have been messing around in Ukraine,” says Charles Kupchan, senior director for European affairs in the Obama administration.
To the Baltic States, NATO is signaling that its security guarantee is “ironclad,” Kupchan says — exactly the kind of reassurance Estonia has been seeking.
Yet the alliance has also been at pains to point out it is only taking a defensive posture, and that it has no plans for military confrontation with Russia. Asked directly, Obama concurred. Any new steps taken by Russia in Ukraine will be punished by more sanctions.
Officials have also repeatedly said that NATO enlargement is not on the agenda.
Still, in this crisis, NATO is also presented with an opportunity to re-define itself.
“NATO should thank Vladimir Putin, because it was really searching for its purpose ... it was having a fairly significant identity crisis,” Conley says.
“It has now not only been repurposed, it has been reinvigorated.”
And from the other side of the border, Putin is watching it warily, but closely.