U.S. Signals Putin Not to Move Against New NATO Members

Unsure of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, the Obama administration is attempting to warn the Kremlin not to test the U.S. commitment to defend its allies in eastern and central Europe.

Jet fighters from the U.K., Denmark, France and Poland will begin flying air patrols over the Baltic states today “as part of collective defense measures,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said in a statement yesterday. Canadian jets are deploying to Romania “as part of NATO efforts to reassure allies” in Central and Eastern Europe, the alliance said.

Those measures and others, including deployments of U.S. troops for military exercises, are part of an effort to discourage any thoughts Putin may have about extending Russia’s reach beyond Ukraine.

The U.S. will defend its NATO allies “no ifs, ands or buts,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday at an Atlantic Council conference in Washington.

Secretary of State John Kerry said at the conference April 29 that unlike Ukraine, which isn’t a NATO member and where alliance nations have ruled out war, a move against a treaty ally would have grave consequences.

“We have to make it absolutely clear to the Kremlin that NATO territory is inviolable,” Kerry said. “We will defend every single piece of it.”

The comments by Biden and Kerry are intended to reassure nations such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all former Soviet republics, and to draw a clear red line for Russia.

Credibility Issues

There are reasons why Putin may doubt America’s resolve. President Barack Obama backed away from a red line when he threatened military action if Syria used chemical weapons, then didn’t follow through. Diplomats say that’s hurt U.S. credibility internationally. Further, the crisis in Europe comes as polls show Americans want the U.S to play a reduced role overseas.

Historically, Americans have supported the defense commitment to NATO, the key alliance assembled after World War II to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Under Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, the U.S. and all other members would consider an armed attack on any one of them an attack on all.

Expanded NATO

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has extended its membership to nations once dominated by the Soviet Union, including the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Slovenia. Georgia, a former Soviet republic that fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008 over breakaway regions, is seeking fast-track NATO membership as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

Latvia’s Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said her nation is ’’deeply grateful’’ for the security provided by the U.S. and NATO, adding that she considers it “highly unlikely” that Russia would attack the Baltic nations protected by the Atlantic alliance.

“When I met with Vice President Biden, he reassured me that, if need be, the provisions of Article 5 of NATO will be applied,” she said today at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. She met with Biden at the White House on April 29.

She said Latvia will increase its defense spending and is making plans to buy new radar systems to improve its border defenses.

‘Shattering NATO’

The U.S. and its allies have presented NATO’s expansion as a measure to enhance European stability, while Russian leaders have considered it a threat.

Putin may have his eye on testing the U.S. and the major European powers, particularly if he gets away with actions against Ukraine, said Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to President George W. Bush.

“I think this is also about shattering NATO and potentially shattering the EU, because if he were to do something in the Baltics and we did not respond, that’s the end of Article 5, that’s the end of NATO,” Hadley said, addressing the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based group that promotes trans-Atlantic relations, shortly before Biden spoke.

“Potentially this is not just about reestablishing some kind of Russian empire,” Hadley said. “It’s also quite frankly an effort to see how far he can go to disrupt NATO and perhaps even disrupt” the European Union.

‘Solemn Commitments’

The former Soviet republics of Latvia and Estonia have large ethnic Russian minorities, and Russia has long complained about their treatment. The Estonians are “scared to death” that Putin will threaten them as he has the Ukrainians, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said this week.

“In response to Russian aggression, America is taking steps to make clear that our allies will honor the solemn commitments under Article 5 of the NATO treaty,” Biden said. “That is an absolute, ironclad guarantee.

Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser called for NATO to put a ‘‘big emphasis’’ on deterrence to reduce the likelihood of requiring an Article 5 defense action.

‘‘I think Putin understands strength, and deterring him is possible -- he knows that we are superior militarily, we are superior economically, and we have the moral upper hand,’’ Mikser said yesterday at the Atlantic Council conference. ‘‘So I think we are capable of deterring him, but we should make it very clear, very visible, very credible.’’

U.S. Poll

While NATO has made symbolic military deployments, it’s unclear how the defensive alliance would respond to the kind of intimidation and destabilization campaign Russia used to annex Crimea and now is waging in eastern Ukraine.

A poll of Americans published yesterday highlighted the public pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to limit the American role abroad. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 47 percent of respondents said the U.S. should take a less active role in world affairs, a larger share than in similar polls taken in 2001, 1997 and 1995.

Support for Obama’s handing of the Ukraine crisis dropped to 37 percent from 43 percent a month earlier, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Merkel’s View

Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, and Obama and his European counterparts have made it clear that the alliance won’t be drawn into a war with Russia over it.

‘‘We in Europe are very much in agreement that a military resolution of the problems cannot happen,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday in Aachen, Germany. “It’s not on the agenda. War is no solution, and so we have to find other ways.”

Merkel is scheduled to discuss Ukraine with Obama at the White House tomorrow. Her visit comes as the U.S. and Germany are advancing economic sanctions against Russian individuals and companies and are threatening broader sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine.

The U.S. yesterday handed over responsibility for the Baltic air-defense patrols to the U.K., Denmark, France and Poland. An airborne infantry company with about 150 troops from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, landed in Estonia on Apr. 28 for military exercises.

A total of about 600 soldiers from the brigade are deploying to Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Estonia, to train with local forces, the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany announced April 22. Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said yesterday his country seeks a permanent presence of NATO forces to increases deterrence.

Obama has added a stop in Poland to already scheduled June travel to Brussels for a G-7 summit and to France to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing yesterday.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.