NATO summits in the post-Cold War era have been notoriously tedious, with President Obama making little effort to hide his restlessness in Chicago in 2012 and Defense Secretary Robert Gates demanding that his staff supply him with crossword puzzles in Strasbourg, France, in 2009. But when the president arrives in Wales this week for the latest NATO summit, he'll face an agenda all but guaranteed to keep the world's interest.
For that you can thank Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose string of provocations and attacks on neighboring Ukraine have given the 65-year-old alliance new life. Nothing, it seems, focuses Western attention more than Russian tanks crossing the border of a sovereign nation. With reports that Putin has sent military vehicles into Ukraine to aid the separatists battling Kiev, NATO has found the second wind it has been looking for since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rival Warsaw Pact.
In the 17 NATO summits after the toppling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the top agenda item has been the search for a new purpose for an alliance that had wildly succeeded in its original goal of containing the spread of the Soviet empire. With Putin's aggressive actions, though, that search is over. And, after several summits devoted to talk of NATO-Russian partnerships, the new purpose of the alliance turns out to be not that different from the original purpose famously stated by NATO's first secretary-general, Britain's Hastings Ismay, in 1952—to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."
At the least, Russia is being kept out of this summit. Putin has pointedly declined invitations to recent meetings, staying away from Chicago in 2012 because he claimed to be too busy picking a Cabinet. This time, he wasn't invited. Instead, Obama said last week he wants to use his time in Wales "to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia." He will be touting that message even before he arrives in Newport. It is the main focus of his stop Tuesday and Wednesday in the Baltic state of Estonia.
"Part of the reason I am going to Estonia is to let the Estonians know that we mean what we say with respect to our treaty obligations," he said. That means Article 5 of the NATO charter in which an attack on any NATO member is to be treated as an attack on all. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are three of the newest members of the alliance, and Putin bitterly denounced their acceptance into NATO. Now, in the wake of the unrest in Ukraine, no member of the alliance feels more threatened than the Baltic states.
The third president to visit Estonia, Obama is going to Tallinn primarily to calm those fears. "It is clearly not accidental that the president has decided to stop in Estonia on the way to the NATO summit," said Charles Kupchan, senior director for European affairs for the National Security Council. By going there, he said, Obama wants "to send a message to the Russians that their behavior is unacceptable." He said that message will be targeted, in part, at the large Russian population in Estonia. He will be telling them, "We stand with you. Article 5 constitutes an ironclad guarantee of your security."
Kupchan put Obama's message to Putin even more bluntly: "Russia: Don't even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you have been messing around in Ukraine."
Nothing that stern has been said about Russia at any NATO summit in decades, another sign that Putin's actions have settled the debate about the alliance's modern mission.
"In some ways, NATO should thank Vladimir Putin because it was really searching for its purpose," said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the State Department. In the wake of NATO's role in Afghanistan, she said, the alliance was having "a fairly significant identity crisis as people were looking towards the summit.... Now, it has not only been repurposed, it's been reinvigorated."
She added that Obama's stop in Tallinn could be a powerful indicator of NATO's resolve, with the Baltics being "NATO's new front line." Conley said the stop is needed because "there has always been a fear in the Baltic states that if push came to shove, they question whether NATO would really have their back." The president's visit could allow the Estonians to breathe easier.
Steven Pifer, who spent more than 25 years working on Russian and European issues at the State Department and as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, said the current crisis in Ukraine has sharpened the thinking of the allied leaders. Now at the Brookings Institution, Pifer said he detects "really a strong sense within the alliance that NATO needs to come home; needs to refocus on territorial defense, and needs to move away from the out-of-area counterinsurgency stabilization missions that have characterized the last ten or 15 years."
He noted that the agenda in Wales will be crowded. In addition to Ukraine, the leaders are trying to wrap up the NATO mission in Afghanistan and will be conferring with Obama on a coordinated response to the ISIS fighters terrorizing parts of Iraq and Syria.
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