In Russia, Joe Biden’s NATO Promises Could Work Better Than Sanctions

Travel bans and asset freezes may not scare Vladimir Putin, but mounting a NATO incursion into his backyard could.

From left to right, Latvian President Andris Berzins, Vice President Joe Biden, and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite attend a press conference after a meeting in Vilnius on March 19.
National Journal
Marina Koren
March 20, 2014, 1 a.m.

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 Gry­bauskaitÄ— 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.

What We're Following See More »
AT LEAST NOT YET
Paul Ryan Can’t Get Behind Trump
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

Paul Ryan told CNN today he's "not ready" to back Donald Trump at this time. "I'm not there right now," he said. Ryan said Trump needs to unify "all wings of the Republican Party and the conservative movement" and then run a campaign that will allow Americans to "have something that they're proud to support and proud to be a part of. And we've got a ways to go from here to there."

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Preet Bharara Learned at the Foot of Chuck Schumer
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin gives Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the longread treatment. The scourge of corrupt New York pols, bad actors on Wall Street, and New York gang members, Bharara learned at the foot of Chuck Schumer, the famously limelight-hogging senator whom he served as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee staff. No surprise then, that after President Obama appointed him, Bharara "brought a media-friendly approach to what has historically been a closed and guarded institution. In professional background, Bharara resembles his predecessors; in style, he’s very different. His personality reflects his dual life in New York’s political and legal firmament. A longtime prosecutor, he sometimes acts like a budding pol; his rhetoric leans more toward the wisecrack than toward the jeremiad. He expresses himself in the orderly paragraphs of a former high-school debater, but with deft comic timing and a gift for shtick."

Source:
DRUG OFFENDERS
Obama Commutes the Sentences of 58 Prisoners
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama has announced another round of commutations of prison sentences. Most of the 58 individuals named are incarcerated for possessions with intent to distribute controlled substances. The prisoners will be released between later this year and 2018.

STAFF PICKS
Trump Roadmapped His Candidacy in 2000
8 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Daily Beast has unearthed a piece that Donald Trump wrote for Gear magazine in 2000, which anticipates his 2016 sales pitch quite well. "Perhaps it's time for a dealmaker who can get the leaders of Congress to the table, forge consensus, and strike compromise," he writes. Oddly, he opens by defending his reputation as a womanizer: "The hypocrites argue that a man who loves and appreciates beautiful women (and does so legally and openly) shouldn't become a national leader? Is there something wrong with appreciating beautiful women? Don't we want people in public office who show signs of life?"

Source:
‘NO MORAL OR ETHICAL GROUNDING’
Sen. Murphy: Trump Shouldn’t Get Classified Briefigs
8 hours ago
THE LATEST
×