Paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade participate in a breaching exercise with Canadian and Polish troops on May 27, 2014.
Paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade participate in a breaching exercise with Canadian and Polish troops on May 27, 2014. // U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Lisa Vines, 382nd Public Affairs Detachment

After Ukraine, Obama Keeps an Eye on the Baltics

In the wake of the Ukraine election, all eyes are on Russia and President Vladimir Putin for signs of a full withdrawal of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border or an escalation of tensions in and around Kiev.

But there is another related hotspot to be watching:  the Baltics. While political analysts are busy imagining a new Ukraine with quasi-independent states or neutral, federated regions and political power-sharing arrangements, the Obama administration is rightly considering beefing up its military presence in Europe, perhaps going so far as granting a Baltic request for permanent NATO military bases. Having been somewhat blindsided by Ukraine, neither this administration nor European leaders want to take any chances.

Should Putin decide his mischief in Ukraine has scrambled enough eggs in that country, and moves to de-stabilize Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia—all with Russian-speaking populations—America and NATO will be ready. The United States sent 600 troops to Poland and the Baltics last month and reinforced our naval presence in the Black Sea. But the more serious and justifiable augmentation would go beyond the 173rd paratroopers. It would mean fighter jets, F15s, and U.S. trainers deployed to places like Siauliai air base in Lithuania.

In the past, these three tiny countries have tried to avoid hosting too large a Western military footprint for fear of antagonizing Moscow, but they are growing increasingly nervous in the wake of Crimea.  A decision by President Barack Obama and NATO leaders to further increase the number of troops and equipment in Poland and the Baltics would send a strong signal to Russia and provide strategic assurance to our allies. The timing could be perfect—just around the time Obama stops in Poland en route to a G-7 meeting in Brussels while Poland is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its first democratic election since World War II and we are approaching the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Skeptics will ask if such a move is necessary. Would Putin really go beyond Ukraine?

It is certainly plausible. The Baltic states were once part of the Soviet Union and could be a tempting target for a Russian president hell bent on reinventing an old empire or simply creating political acrimony. These little nations will fiercely defend their large democratic and Western ideals but they are not militarily equipped to face down a Russian army. 

Potential Russian meddling in the Baltic states presents the United States and NATO with a major test of political will. The Baltics joined NATO in 2004. Unlike Ukraine, the three Baltic nations are protected under Article 5 of the NATO charter which guarantees collective security.

The U.S. would be right to hedge its bets and increase military assets in Poland and in the Baltics in cooperation with NATO.  But it needs to set the table for the decision to do so. Good public diplomacy means laying the ground with our allies, Congress and American citizens to avoid triggering a negative reaction in the U.S. and Europe to more troops. A strong case can be made that protecting democracy can be done at a relatively low cost without triggering a massive war if we show power, purpose and a commitment to democratic principles. War-weariness in the West is one thing. Political paralysis is another. We have to show the world that America can act wisely and practically and that there is something between long costly military engagements and short-term deployment of assets smartly and together with others. Burden sharing might not be dead yet.

Let’s hope the U.S. and Europe keep one eye on Ukraine and the other on the Baltics. And that Putin gets deprived of expansion into both.    

[Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to say that Poland is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its first democratic election since World War II, not the Velvet Revolution.]

Tara Sonenshine is distinguished fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.