Presidents give a lot of speeches, and most of them don’t mean very much. They “urge,” they “call on,” and they “challenge”—and, for the most part, their messages bounce off their intended audiences. Congress doesn’t fund the program or balance the budget; the American people carry on wasting energy and dropping out of school. But there are occasions when presidential words are not mere puffs of breath and waves of sound—and today was one of those occasions.
Ever since Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine, the question has been whether the United States would really act to defend its new NATO allies on Russia’s borders. During the Cold War, the United States stationed a powerful army in West Germany to put force behind its treaty guarantee of European security. Then the Cold War ended. NATO enlarged to include first Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic in 1999, then the Baltic republics, plus Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004, and most recently Albania and Croatia in 2009.
Partly for economic reasons, partly to appease the Kremlin, NATO did not garrison the new member states on Russia’s border. Polish officials would joke that the only uniformed American in their country was the defense attaché at the U.S. embassy, which was an exaggeration, but not by much. They had NATO’s word—America’s word—but not much more than that word. And all of them had to worry: Was that enough?
The worry has intensified since Barack Obama came to power. Eager to prove themselves loyal allies, the new NATO members had cooperated with the United States—and then some—in the first decade of the 2000s. They had sent troops to the Iraq War. They had allowed the CIA to hold and question detainees on their territory. They had accepted a U.S. missile-defense system—even as the U.S. insisted that the system was intended to protect only against Iranian missiles (which didn’t threaten them) and not against Russian missiles (which did).
No Eastern European good deed went unpunished. Their cooperation with the CIA was leaked to the U.S. media, exposing them to accusations that they had violated European Union human-rights treaties. Their Iraq sacrifices counted little with an administration that wanted to exit that war on almost any terms. In the fall of 2009, the missile-defense system was canceled, ostensibly for technical reasons, but more likely (or so the Eastern Europeans believed) as part of the Obama administration’s hoped-for “reset” of relations with Russia.
Just as candidate Obama traveled to Germany in 2008 to dramatize how the Bush administration had alienated America’s traditional allies in Western Europe, so in 2012 Mitt Romney visited with former Polish President Lech Walesa to emphasize how badly the Obama administration had upset new allies in the East.
Now the long-dreaded crisis has arrived. Putin’s Russia has launched an escalating war against Ukraine. The number of dead is rising toward 3,000, including the 300 passengers aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight almost certainly brought down by a Russian-supplied missile. The justification for Putin’s aggression—Russia’s right to intervene on behalf of Russian-speaking minorities—could be applied against Estonia and Latvia as well as against Ukraine. And those small countries are far less capable of resisting Russia than Ukraine is. Pretty much all they have, in fact, is the guarantee of NATO’s Article 5: an attack on one member is an attack on all. Can that guarantee be relied upon? There has been no shortage of commentators arguing that it cannot.
True, the United States and Germany have stepped up their presence inside the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea. Elite special forces have been rotated into the three Baltic republics. Military equipment will be prepositioned in Poland. In March, NATO announced that it would hold exercises in western Ukraine at the end of September—exercises that look a lot like practice for a defensive war against a Russian invasion of an Eastern European country. Just this past week, NATO agreed to form a new "very high-readiness" brigade that could quickly deploy anywhere in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, U.S.-led sanctions are exerting an ever-tightening grip on the Russian economy. Earlier this week, one gas-industry insider told The Financial Times that without access to U.S. technology, Russia’s hopes to develop a liquefied natural-gas industry would be squashed “like a bug.”
That all sent a message, but only indirectly. The direct message came on Wednesday, in Tallinn, Estonia, in the sharpest language any U.S. president has used toward Russia since Ronald Reagan upbraided the Evil Empire. One by one, President Obama repudiated the lies Vladimir Putin has told about Ukraine: that the Ukrainians somehow provoked the invasion, that they are Nazis, that their freely elected government is somehow illegal. He rejected Russia’s claim that it has some sphere of influence in Ukraine, some right of veto over Ukrainian constitutional arrangements. And he forcefully assured Estonians—and all NATO’s new allies—that waging war on them meant waging war on the United States. “[T]he defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London," Obama said. "Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who'll come to help, you'll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now."
This is the ultimate commitment, given by the ultimate authority, in the very place where the commitment would be tested—and would have to be honored. There’s no turning back from that. Today, for the first time perhaps, Eastern Europeans have reason to believe it. And Vladimir Putin? His depredations have brought about the very result he claimed most to fear: a reanimated NATO rededicated to the defense of all its members, new and old, West and East, backed by the ultimate commitment of the United States.
In Tallinn, President Obama gave the most important speech about European security—and issued the most important pledge—of the post-Cold War era.
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