Obama EU visit throws spotlight on Nato

Role of East European countries in alliance crucial

President Barack Obama meets Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Doug Mills/ The New York Times

President Barack Obama meets Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Doug Mills/ The New York Times


US president Barack Obama’s four-day visit to Europe continued yesterday with a visit to the EU headquarters in Brussels, where he held talks with the heads of the European Commission and European Council, but of potentially more significance was his meeting with the secretary general of Nato.

With yesterday’s trip his first to the home of Nato after more than five years in the job, Mr Obama was widely expected to underline his commitment to the North Atlantic alliance. He duly delivered, describing Nato as the “cornerstone” of US security, but repeating the long-held US criticism that the EU is not pulling its weight in defence spending. “Our freedom isn’t free,” he said.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the role and identity of Nato has been uncertain. Conceived in the shadow of the second World War as a bulwark against rising communist power in the East, Nato has in more recent times defined itself through its engagement in “out of area” activities, such as the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

Back to the future
But Ukraine has revived echoes of the kind of cold war conflicts that justified Nato’s existence in the first place. With the resurgence of West/Russia tensions that have lain dormant for years, Nato is back on familiar territory.

Since the outset of the crisis, Nato has taken a cautious approach, quietly echoing the public statements of western leaders as Russia tightened its grip on Crimea. But the alliance has stepped up its language in recent days.

On Sunday, Nato’s supreme allied commander for Europe, Gen Philip Breedlove, warned about the build-up of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine, in particular its implication for the Transdniestria region. “There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that and that is very worrisome, “ he said, a view echoed by Obama on Tuesday in The Hague.

How Nato responds to the events has come under scrutiny. The fact that neither Ukraine nor Moldova is a member of Nato has effectively ruled out Nato intervention in Ukraine, despite the West’s commitments to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

Indeed many Nato members who expressed concern in 2008 about Ukraine joining the alliance are now privately relieved that its membership plan did not proceed, pointing out that Russia’s action in Crimea would almost certainly have prompted Nato action.

Obama confirmed yesterday that Nato membership for Ukraine or Georgia is not on the table though, interestingly, support for Nato membership in countries such as Sweden and Finland has risen since the Ukraine crisis.

More significantly, Russia’s incursion westwards has thrown up questions about Nato’s commitments to its eastern European members.

While Turkey, for example, has long been valued by the US as an important member of Nato in its role as buffer between the West and Middle East, the Ukraine crisis has forced Nato to reassess its more northeasterly borders.

The outer reaches of Nato stretch to the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which together with Poland encircle the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Any threat to these members would instigate a response from Nato .
Muscle in east
Obama and EU leaders yesterday moved to reassure the bloc’s smaller, east European countries that the principle of collective defence was non-negotiable. “There’s no junior Nato members versus senior Nato members. When it comes to the principle of collective defence, everyone is on the same footing,” Obama said, with a number of Nato countries looking at enforcing their military presence in the East.

Nonetheless, a military response by the West to the Ukrainian crisis remains highly unlikely, with the nearest move in terms of intervention likely to be the proposed Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission to the area to which Russia has agreed. Such a mission will involve teams monitoring the reality in Ukraine. But a paper published by foreign affairs this week has raised questions about the efficacy of such a mission. It argues that monitoring missions tend to produce “frozen conflicts” that advantage separatists.

It points out that, because an OSCE or UN monitoring mission requires agreement from Russia, its mandate would be limited to terms agreed by the Kremlin. It is increasingly unlikely the OSCE mission will extend to Crimea.

Tasking the OSCE with monitoring the situation in Ukraine may be an important step in the West’s diplomatic engagement with Russia, but whether it will be a sufficient deterrent to Kremlin expansion in the long term is unlikely.

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