Vice President Joe Biden went on a whirlwind tour of the Baltic region this week, meeting with five world leaders in three days. The trip kicked off the day the United States announced sanctions against several Russian officials, but the vice president barely mentioned them in multiple remarks abroad.
What he did talk about, however, could get Russia's attention more than any other threat would.
"I want to make it unmistakingly clear to you and to all our allies in the region that our commitment to mutual self-defense under Article 5 of NATO remains ironclad," Biden told the presidents and prime ministers of Poland, Latvia, Lithuani, and Estonia, all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "It is not in question. It is ironclad."
The vice president is referring to the NATO principle of collective defense, which works like this: If a NATO ally is a victim of an armed attack, all members of the alliance have an obligation to come to its aid. By using Biden to declare that the U.S. will respond swiftly to any Russian aggression against NATO allies, the Obama administration has exhibited an emphasis on NATO strength it has not yet shown in the Ukraine crisis.
The strategy is well timed. There are few things Russia—and President Vladimir Putin—fear quite like an eastward expansion of NATO, especially into Ukraine, which is not a member. The country has been a weak link in Russia's buffer against Western influence since the end of the Cold War. If Ukraine enters the European fold by joining Western alliances, it would no longer exist in Russia's "sphere of influence." Securing Crimea and its Russian naval base in this bubble is a big victory for Putin, but a NATO threat remains real for Russia. The last thing Putin wants is for other former Soviet nations, such as Moldova and Georgia, to try to follow in Ukraine's westward footsteps and splinter the empire that Russian leaders have desperately tried to hold together since the breakup of the Soviet Union. For Putin, a stronger NATO presence in Eastern Europe means diminished power, and he's ready to resist it.
"NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our own backyard; in our historic territory," the Russian president said on Tuesday during his speech announcing the planned annexation of Crimea.
Problem is, NATO is about to get pretty comfortable in Russia's backyard. This week, the U.S. announced new NATO exercises in Poland, and is currently considering boosting military support to NATO allies in the region. "Our intent is that NATO emerge from this crisis stronger and more unified than ever," Biden said Tuesday in Poland.
And NATO allies in the Baltics, previously skeptical about America's commitment to collective defense, are getting on board. As members, Poland and the Baltic nations are less vulnerable to Russian pressure than Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are. But they have seen Russia rearrange their geopolitical landscape in a matter of days, and Putin's actions have left them rattled. Russian encroachment is "a direct threat to our regional security," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said Wednesday.
The four nations have not forgotten history, which is hardly ancient. Russia's intervention in Ukraine has sparked anxiety about a resurgence in a Soviet appetite for power that seemed to ebb just two decades ago. Russia expressed concern on Wednesday over Estonia's treatment of its ethnic Russian minority. Since Russia has maintained that its entry into Crimea was necessary to defend the rights of Russians there, the new interest alone is enough to make Estonia nervous.
For the Baltic nations, some of which are still modernizing their militaries, NATO involvement means nearly everything. "Only Euro-Atlantic solidarity will allow us to prepare sufficient and strong reactions to Russia's aggression," said Polish President Donald Tusk on Tuesday.
However, the Baltic region doesn't expect to receive meaningful assistance from NATO as it exists now. "The actions of the last several weeks ... are forcing us to reassess the past or the assumptions of the past 20, 25 years," Estonian President Toomas Ilves said Tuesday. "The old idea of NATO, which I remember from 20 years ago, out of the area or out of business, predicated on a Europe that no longer has any threats. That, unfortunately, has turned out, with the actions we've seen against Ukraine, no longer to apply."
Ilves, along with Latvian President Andris Berzins, called for a long-term plan to build a tougher NATO, united against Russian aggression, at the alliance's September summit in Wales. Biden told them that President Obama plans to use the summit to seek concrete commitments from other NATO members to bolster the military alliance's collective security. Deeper involvement in the Ukraine crisis could provide the organization with a new focus. "NATO has seemed to be groping for new purpose in the long twilight of the war in Afghanistan," Mark Landler writes in The New York Times.
But a more visible show of NATO's military might comes with risks. An increased NATO presence in the region—now or in the future—would be a nonstarter for Putin. "Expanding NATO further into post-Soviet space is a red line with Russia, and the U.S. is frankly not in a position to challenge it without running a huge risk," explains Greg Scoblete at RealClearWorld. "Put bluntly, Russia will be able to invade eastern Ukraine faster than the West could admit Ukraine into NATO to deter Russian aggression." Russia has already shown it's not shy about retaliation—its deputy prime minister said Wednesday that the country may revise its stance on Iran nuclear talks if the West continues to respond with pressure.
September's summit is still far off, especially given the speed with which the Ukraine crisis has developed. This week's assurances from the vice president were likely intended to quell the fears of Russia's neighbors. But they open the door to a larger U.S. push for NATO intervention. In the long run, the threat of a stronger NATO in Eastern Europe could prove to be a deeper thorn in Putin's side than travel bans and asset freezes.