TALLINN - U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Tallinn on Sept. 3, partaking in his first visit to the Baltic region for discussions with Baltic leaders over rising tensions due to the conflict in Ukraine. This is the first visit by a U.S. president since Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush visited the region in May 2005 as part of the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
This time it was not in memory of a past conflict that brought the president to Eastern Europe, rather new tensions and the fear of further destabilization in the region.
The president added this one day stop to his already scheduled trip to the UK for the NATO summit, taking place in Cardiff from Sept. 4-5. The summit, the largest gathering of international leaders ever assembled in the UK, is expected to primarily focus on the situation in the east of Ukraine as government forces continue to battle pro-Russian separatists in the heavily contested Donetsk and Luhansk regions, some 700 km east of the capital, Kiev.
Such discussions are of utmost importance to Baltic leaders amid growing fears over the fractured stability in the region and the increasingly less ambiguous role that Russia itself appears to be taking throughout this crisis. Fresh reports claim that Russian army regulars and military equipment are actively operating inside the Ukrainian border to the east and south east.
Obama was to meet yesterday with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Latvian President Andris Berzins to discuss such issues. (TBT went to print as Obama arrived in Tallinn).
“In light of recent developments in Ukraine, the United States has taken steps to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe, and this trip is a chance to reaffirm our ironclad commitment to Article 5 as the foundation of NATO,” Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an official statement.
Hayden’s reference to Article 5 regards the founding concept of the NATO Alliance, that of collective security, or the commitment by all member states to take action against an aggressor if any one member is attacked. Only once in the history of the sixty-three-year-old organization has this article been invoked, with the invasion of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
A continued commitment to this founding ideal will be something that Obama is keen to impress on his allies and any potential aggressors against NATO.
News of the U.S. president’s visit was met with mixed emotions by local residents in Tallinn, with some seeing it in a plainly positive light. Siim Room stated that “it was exciting” to see Estonia attracting such a high-profile visitor.
Others saw it more complicated than that. Tiit Suvi said “…more needs to be done…”
An opinion not uncommon in Estonia one of accusing NATO leaders of tokenism and empty words, but taking little action. It will certainly be expected that Obama’s visit will cool some of the tensions emerging in the Baltic nations surrounding the involvement of Russia in the Ukraine crisis, and will also clarify his support for more permanent, physical support in the region.
Arguments for such greater troop presence have been mooted since April, and such plans have been heavily backed by senior members of the Baltic governments. A question mark remains over NATO’s capability to act if a similar encroachment, such as in Ukraine, were to happen to one of its Baltic members. Such questions have not, thus far, been answered despite vehement rhetoric from government officials here.
Indeed, certain parties deem the possibility so critical that it embodies an existential threat to the entire organization. “NATO cannot afford the… east Ukraine scenario in any town or any border of any member state… That would be the end of NATO,” said Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas.
NATO air forces have tripled in the region since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Roivas seems adamant that this presence continue, indefinitely. “Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania are the border states, and it is only logical that air policing and air defense… are present…” Roivas has often been joined in this stance by senior colleague and President Ilves, who has consistently reiterated such concerns via his personal Twitter account. His discussions with Obama were expected to mirror such concerns.
The weeks and months preceding the NATO summit have been filled with discussion over the concept of a more physical NATO presence in the region. The organization’s leading official, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, last week discussed his adamancy for the summit to be a rubber-stamp for his plans to deploy NATO forces to the region, an intention summed up by his stating: “…you will, in the future, see a more visible NATO presence in the east… Our eastern allies will be satisfied.”
This facet of the situation, however, is no less delicate than any other and its mere discussion fosters antagonism, with Moscow demanding that Rasmussen explain such plans immediately. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated: “We not only expect answers, but answers... based fully on respect for the rules we agreed on.”
But with Russian leaders consistently refusing to comment on the mounting evidence of their military involvement in Ukraine, it appears that both sides are losing patience with the impact that dialogue appears to be having. In light of this, it is expected that Obama will strongly reiterate Western concerns over potential territorial encroachment by Russia, and underline the U.S.’ commitment to the defense of its European allies.
Drastic times call for drastic measures as the current situation continues to rattle the foundations of the entire Eastern European region. A stark symbol of just how much this crisis has degraded the relationship between both sides is that NATO allies are drawing up plans to install a fixed military presence in Eastern Europe. Such an action would directly contravene the agreements made in the signing of the NATO-Russia Act, 1997. This is a measure of how far the West is willing to go and how serious the hostility appears to be. Of course, further degradation of the relationship is something that neither side will see as an acceptable outcome, which makes the timing of Obama’s visit to Tallinn and the NATO summit even more critical.
Regardless of outcome, the repercussions of a continued struggle in Ukraine extend far and wide, and certainly far exceed its own territorial boundaries. It is unequivocal that the implications of Russia being directly involved equate this conflict to much more than a domestic civil war, rather a regional, if not global crisis.
The world will be watching Obama and his NATO colleagues with increasing fervor in the coming days. The discussions at these meetings could well shape the foreign policies of the Baltic States and their allies for years to come. Baltic leaders will be hoping for nothing but firm, tangible support from their Western counterparts, sooner rather than later.