I am beginning to despair of our government ever thinking sensibly about foreign policy.
I was not especially in favor of NATO expansion in the 1990s. NATO was a cold war artifact, and I didn't see why it should be extended into eastern Europe, whose future was surely somewhat uncertain. Two War College colleagues of mine from opposite sides of the political fence wrote an effective op-ed opposing it, on the grounds that it would needlessly antagonize Russia. I don't blame NATO expansion for what Putin is doing now. Yes, he resents the US's pretensions, power and influence, but he simply wants to restore Russia to something closer to its former glory, just as Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin did after the peace of Brest-Litovsk. It is not clear that he actually wants to annex more of Ukraine, and indeed, as I write, there are reports of a peace agreement with the Kiev government that will agree to decentralize the country further and presumably end any idea of its becoming a NATO member or a western bastion. As I indicated months ago when the crisis began, I think that we can live with that and that we do not have much choice.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, however, are another matter altogether. As I learned writing my dissertation 40 years ago, they were one of the success stories of the interwar period, when they built thriving economies based upon dairy products. They are culturally more part of Scandinavia than of Russia, and their democracies are working quite well. Their Russian minorities realize how much better off they are under their current governments than they would be in Putin's Russia. Whether or not they should have been invited into NATO, they are there now, and we have to take our alliance obligations seriously.
When the United States broke James Baker's promise not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact or the former USSR, it stated that it would not station troops permanently in the new nations. Even though Putin is now violating international law by sending Russian troops into Ukraine to help the rebels there, we apparently still feel compelled to stick to that pledge. We are creating a rapid deployment force that could supposedly move into the Baltic states if they were threatened. Putting on my military strategist's hat for a moment, let me say that I think this is a serious mistake.
A conflict over the Baltic states between NATO and Russia would be a limited war, a struggle for relatively small pieces of territory. It would not involve the United States on a huge front. Estonia is largely protected by large lakes on its eastern frontier. Latvia and Lithuania are somewhat more threatened, but the terrain is difficult and an invasion could probably be blocked at key points. In addition, NATO would have as a potential counterstroke the option of occupying Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that used to be part of East Prussia and which is entirely cut off from Belarus by Poland and Lithuania. The question, however, would be who got there first. Putin knows how to pick the right moment for an adventure, and he could easily provoke or fake incidents in the Baltic and get troops into them within the 48 hours it would take for our force to deploy. That is why, I think, NATO has to station substantial forces in those territories now--just as it had to field large armies along the NATO and Warsaw Pact border during the Cold War.
I still think we should also be making diplomatic proposals to try, in essence, to re-establish peace in Europe. I do not think they will succeed, because I don't think Putin will accept the status quo any more formally than he already has--but he will not last forever. We cannot however, as I argued last week, trust to some inevitable historical tide to keep the new nations free and democratic. Rather than send more troops back into the Middle East and Central Asia where they can do nothing but harm, we should offer them to the Baltic states, who belong inside the ambit of western civilization.