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Estonian expectations

Raimo PoomSeptember 1, 2014

The US president is stopping off in Estonia on his way to the NATO summit in Wales. Symbolism aside, Estonians want Obama to commit to an increased NATO presence, but how realistic is that, asks Raimo Poom?

Image: Getty Images

A little more than a week ago, just ahead of the latest Russian-backed terrorists' surge in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv forces captured some heavy equipment of the other side. The type of the equipment - used exclusively by the Russian army - and documents of the captured "fighters" showed they had come into contact not with "pro-Russia rebels" or local "terrorists," but with Moscow's regular armed forces.

A closer look revealed that the equipment and the soldiers came from one of the most prestigious Russian military units, the elite Pskov Airborne Division. Of course this is all a lies and fabrication, according to Russian officials - except for the widely reported secret funerals that started taking place last week in the northwestern Russina city of Pskov and the military families left without answers of their perished husbands, sons and fathers.

In a separate incident Moscow almost admitted its regular forces were in Ukraine, when a group of Russian soldiers were captured alive. An anonymous official from Moscow's defense ministry said they had "accidentally strayed into Ukraine while on border patrol."

Only 50 kilometers separate the Estonian (and Latvian) i.e. the NATO border from Pskov. Against this backdrop in Ukraine, it is quite understandable that Estonians as well as Latvians, Lithuanians and Poles feel worried. What would deter Putin's Pskov paratroopers for whatever reason from straying over the border that is just a stone's throw away if they are doing it thousands of kilometers away in eastern Ukraine?

Unlikely scenario?

However unlikely such a scenario may be in real life, its best to be cautious. So it was decided already in the spring that the eastern part of the alliance needs additional visible presence of NATO forces that would provide reassurance. Initial stop-gap measures were put in place with the expectation that NATO leaders would approve a more thorough package at the Wales summit this week.

Based on this it is easy to see that President Barack Obama's visit to Tallinn on Wednesday will drive some welcome messages home. First, of course, he will be here to personally reassure Estonia and other Baltic states of the US commitment to NATO and its borders. The message for Vladimir Putin not even to think about messing around here is crystal clear.

Copyright: Eesti Päevaleht & Delfi.ee Raimo Poom
Raimo PoomImage: Eesti Päevaleht & Delfi.ee

Second, in the heightened security environment around Europe, Obama will also be making a point to other NATO members with a visit to a country that actually spends 2 percent of its GDP on defence and commits significant resources to NATO missions past and present. Serving as an example to others will no doubt tickle the Estonian self-esteem.

But symbolism aside, Estonians will be looking at Obama to announce significant and tangible measures that would deliver the promised increased visibility and presence of NATO. They are expecting reassurance above the quick measures already in effect and beyond their temporary set-up, preferably permanent.

Concrete commitment

And this is where things can get messy. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Riga in mid-August she ruled out "permanent, sustained stationing of combat troops" in the region.

The reaction in Tallinn was borderline hysterical and probably unfair to the chancellor. As it turned out she had only uttered a line that was an accepted part of the negotiations over the package. What she could not estimate was the fact that both local politicians as well as NATO chiefs themselves had forgotten to inform the public.

Ahead of the NATO summit, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as well as Estonian politicians have hyped the expected outcome in relation to the reassurance package as bigger and better without going into much detail. In the eye of an average Estonian this has turned into kilometer-long tank columns and thousands of allied troops marching around.

The success of Obama's visit hinges on what he can outline in Tallinn, but also putting expectations in a realistic context. There are probably a few things to be said also against permanent tank column movements on the roads or thousands of servicemen descending nightly on the two bars at a small village next to their base.

But then again there is a dictator next door, who does not think twice about attacking his neighbors by military force. And NATO can be a credible deterrent to such trigger-happy leaders only if its treaty articles are backed up in a believable manner.

Raimo Poom is Head of International News for the Estonian daily Eesti Päevaleht and the online news portal delfi.ee