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Russia's push into Ukraine leads NATO to increase its Baltics presence

| Sunday, April 20, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
A Ukrainian Orthodox priest sprays holy water on believers before an Easter service in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, April 19, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich (UKRAINE - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY)
Masked pro-Russian activists guard a barricade at the regional administration building that they had seized earlier in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday, April 19, 2014. Pro-Russian insurgents defiantly refused Friday to surrender their weapons or give up government buildings in eastern Ukraine, despite a diplomatic accord reached in Geneva and overtures from the government in Kiev. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

LONDON — For decades, NATO has expanded inexorably outward, taking on members and missions that have carried it far beyond its original mandate in Western Europe and deep into the former Soviet sphere.

But Russia's intervention in Ukraine has sent shivers down the spines of Eastern European countries from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. NATO's newest members have been left feeling vulnerable and wondering whether the world's most powerful military alliance is truly committed to their defense.

Concerns have been especially acute in the Baltics, where nations that were once part of the Soviet empire now stare out across the Russian border and fear that they could be next on Russian President Vladimir Putin's hit list.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — like Ukraine — have significant Russian-speaking populations, people who Putin has suggested should, by all rights, be living in Russia. Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic nations are part of NATO, having joined in 2004.

But NATO has long resisted placing much of a footprint in the Baltics, concerned that doing so would jeopardize ever-precarious cooperation with Moscow.

With that cooperation on life support, NATO has begun to pivot, announcing last week that it plans to substantially boost its air, sea and ground presence in the Baltic states.

The decision has brought some relief in the lightly defended Baltics, but also questions about why NATO did not act earlier to try to deter Russia with a more robust show of strength on its eastern flank.

“Of course, we always wanted to see a more permanent presence from our NATO allies here. But before, it was not considered so urgent,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said in an interview. “Now, the circumstances have changed.”

Paet said that as part of NATO's renewed commitment to the Baltics, NATO warplanes would, for the first time, regularly police the skies from an Estonian air base. Other measures are still under discussion, he said, including the stationing of United States ground forces in his country — a development that Paet said he would welcome.

Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said he expects a plan to dispatch American ground troops to Poland, and likely the Baltics, to be announced this week.

Dissenters dig in heels

Meanwhile, a mediator from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe headed to eastern Ukraine on Saturday seeking the surrender of pro-Russian separatists.

Gunmen occupying public buildings in Donetsk and other Russian-speaking border towns refuse to recognize an accord in Geneva on Thursday by which Russia, Ukraine and Kiev's American and EU allies agreed the OSCE should oversee the disarmament of militants and the evacuation of occupied facilities and streets.

Ukraine's foreign minister announced that operations against pro-Russian militants in the east of the country have been suspended in honor of Easter.

But Ukraine's new government inherited an army so bereft of modern equipment and training that when Russian troops entered Crimea and agitators stormed government offices in the east, Kiev proved helpless to protect its borders and citizens.

“Our army has been systematically destroyed and disarmed,” Deputy Defense Minister Petro Mehed said at a briefing last week, “and its best personnel dismissed.”

NATO plans murky

NATO has been deliberately vague about plans for the positioning of its ground forces in Eastern Europe, a strategy that is in part intended to keep Moscow guessing but reflects the lingering divisions with NATO over how far to go in provoking the Russian bear.

NATO is a mutual defense organization, meaning that an attack on one nation is considered an attack on all. But for years after the tiny Baltic nations joined the alliance, NATO stalled in developing plans for how to defend its newest members. The alliance avoided training exercises in the Baltics, out of deference to Putin's complaints that NATO was reaching too far into his orbit.

The defense plans were drawn up only after Russian forces entered Georgia in 2008, and major training exercises remained largely off the table until the recent crisis.

Kurt Volker, the American ambassador to NATO under presidents Obama and George W. Bush, said the delay was a mistake and that the alliance still is not doing enough to deter Russian advances.

“It's a reactive stance. We're saying to the Russians, ‘You do more, and we'll do more,' ” Volker said. “Frankly, Russia's not impressed by that.”

Other NATO members have openly campaigned for the alliance to seize on the crisis to make a major and lasting statement in Eastern Europe. Poland has been the most outspoken, with Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski calling for the alliance to permanently station 10,000 troops in his country.

Russia has argued that any mass deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Europe would violate the 1997 Founding Act, which covers the terms of cooperation between Moscow and NATO. Polish officials say that with 40,000 Russian troops allegedly on Ukraine's eastern border, that deal has been voided.

But that view is not widely shared in NATO, and the alliance has been careful to avoid doing anything that could give Russia a pretext for escalation.

Germany, which has extensive economic ties to Russia, has led the push for restraint.

“If we go down the direction of military threats, it's easier to call our bluff,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, who favors the use of stiff economic sanctions.

But Stelzenmüller said German officials understand what makes Eastern European leaders so nervous, given the seemingly erratic nature of Putin's recent behavior.

“The logic that Putin seems to be operating under is not the same logic that led us to believe that we could cooperate with and have pragmatic compromises with Russia,” she said.

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