Sept. 3, 2014
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Amid increasing tensions in Ukraine due to Russia's role in backing the separatists, President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders are meeting this week at a summit in Wales to address concerns that the Putin regime may have designs on other former Soviet-era countries. In a speech today in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, Obama said the United States would defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which formerly were under Soviet rule. Faculty experts in the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies and IU Maurer School of Law offer their comments on the following themes:
Padraic Kenney, director of the Polish Studies Center and the Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University Bloomington, said the choice of Donald Tusk as president of the European Union signals that it may be time for the alliance to take a more "common-sense" approach to Ukraine.
"Under Polish leadership, the European Union is now going to take a more common-sense position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Yes, Donald Tusk won't become EU president until November, but the decision to nominate him signals a decisive turn now," Kenney said. "The Western Europeans, after all, do not think about Tusk without thinking of his minister of foreign affairs, Radek Sikorski, whose sometimes brash talk about Putin and Ukraine -- and about the United States -- has won him a lot of respect at home and abroad. This is truly Poland’s hour.
"In what way is this a common-sense position? The Polish approach to Ukraine has been based on what is obvious: that many Ukrainian citizens -- much more than is the case in Russia -- value Europe and their ties to the West, and therefore deserve respect and support. The Poles argue, as they have for some time in a variety of situations, that Europe should follow through on its professed ideals.
"The NATO summit, meanwhile, also places Poland front and center. Colleagues in the military tell me the Polish Army enjoys wide respect for its conduct in recent international coalitions. A semi-permanent NATO operation in Poland will be further evidence of this.
"The events this week amount to Europe and NATO finally facing up to the decisions they have made in expanding over the last 15 years. But let’s look back 75 years to the start of World War II, as so many have been doing. Two weeks from now is the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, made possible by a secret agreement between Stalin and Hitler. History never repeats itself, but it sure does send reminders. In Brussels, Cardiff, Warsaw and elsewhere, September 2014 looks to be decisive for Europe."
Lee Feinstein, dean of the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies, said the United States and its allies need to be careful not to play into Putin's hand.
"The failure of the United Stated and Europe to speak with one voice has emboldened Putin," said Feinstein, a former senior official in the Obama and Clinton administrations and former U.S. ambassador to Poland. "Europe remains divided on how to respond to Russian provocations, challenging trans-Atlantic unity and the credibility of NATO's security guarantee.
"The EU's decision to appoint a Pole to its highest position is intended to send a signal of EU resolve in dealing with Russian aggression in Ukraine. But while Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk may be hawkish on Russia, he also has a pragmatic streak, which is why he is a good choice to lead the EU now."
Toivo Raun, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies and an adjunct professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington, took note of the symbolic importance of Obama's Estonian visit and interest by the Baltic states to host NATO troops.
"President Obama’s one-day visit to Estonia is clearly meant to reassure the central and east European states in the alliance, who have now been members for about 10 years, that Article 5 of the original North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 is still fully in force, especially in the current tense atmosphere created by the crisis in Ukraine," said Raun, who teaches a course about the history of the Baltic states since 1918. "Estonia was likely chosen as the site of the visit because it has come very close to serving as a poster child for exemplary behavior by a NATO member, including being one of the few states that spends the recommended 2 percent of GDP on defense and its willingness to participate in dangerous NATO missions such as bomb disposal service in Afghanistan.
"The Estonian government is delighted that the visit is taking place, and public opinion also appears to be highly positive," added Raun, who has taught courses on the role of ethnicity in modern Russian history. "The inevitable traffic jams and additional security measures that will need to be implemented are seen as nothing more than minor inconveniences. The Estonian authorities have done all they can to put their best foot forward in organizing the visit and demonstrate to the outside world that Estonia is a worthy member of NATO and the Western alliance.
"Estonia was chosen as the site for the visit, but clearly the message of reassurance is especially intended for all three Baltic states. The presidents of Latvia and Lithuania will be in attendance and will also meet with President Obama. The recent history of the Baltic states and peoples has increasingly converged, and they engaged in important cooperation in what became known as the Singing Revolution, highlighting a strictly nonviolent approach, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Just over a week ago, on Aug. 23, the three countries marked the 25th anniversary of the Baltic Way in 1989 when some 1 to 2 million Balts joined hands in a massive human chain from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius to protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.
"Regarding most NATO issues, Estonia and the United States are on the same page and generally in strong agreement on policy matters. However, given the uncertainty of the current situation and Vladimir Putin’s unpredictable behavior, Estonia clearly would like to see the establishment of permanent NATO bases in the Baltic states, a step the United States is reluctant to take in large because of the continued existence of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s recent floating of the concept of a NATO rapid reaction force can be seen as an attempt to bridge the disagreement that exists on this issue."
Putin’s aggressive moves in Ukraine lay down a challenge to NATO as the organization’s members meet this week in Wales, according to David P. Fidler, an Indiana University legal and global security expert. Fidler says Putin’s objectives include ensuring Ukraine never joins NATO, undermining NATO's credibility and weakening U.S. influence as projected through NATO.
“Putin has picked this fight when NATO is under significant stress and scrutiny,” said Fidler, the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law at the IU Maurer School of Law. “NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan is happening with an Afghan government in turmoil and the Taliban resurgent, and Libya's descent into political chaos has tarnished the alliance's earlier military intervention in that country.”
By exploiting a crisis in NATO’s backyard, Fidler added, Putin aims to diminish NATO's appetite for "out of area" operations, reducing another of Russia's longstanding concerns about NATO and the power it -- and the United States -- could project to the detriment of Russian interests.
“The Ukrainian crisis is forcing a reckoning within NATO about matters the alliance managed to avoid for too long,” Fidler said, “including how different levels of economic relations of NATO countries with Russia affect alliance politics, the lack of sufficient defense spending in many NATO members, and how the alliance will handle the impact of cyber technologies on the military and intelligence aspects of its collective defense mission. The NATO summit in Wales is important, but it is just one early step in a long-term project to reinvigorate the alliance.”