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
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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.

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