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Obama's Tallinn speech met Baltic expectations

In remarks delivered ahead of the NATO summit, US President Barack Obama pledged to protect the alliance's smaller members. DW asked Estonian experts and politicians to share their impressions in Tallinn.

Ladies in cocktail dresses and men wearing bow-ties and others in Estonian Navy uniforms were slowly heading to their seats at Nordea Concert Hall in downtown Tallinn on Wednesday. On the speaker system, a US pop song's chorus of "You're the perfect man for me, I love you I do" preceded the guest of honor's arrival.

Moments later, US President Barack Obama - in Estonia ahead of the NATO summit in Wales on Thursday - was greeted by the colorful crowd. After meeting with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts, Obama addressed a roomful of Estonian officials and experts who praised the remarks as a strong and clear message to their region.

Equality of NATO members

Obama spent more than half an hour reaffirming NATO's commitment to protect its eastern members amid growing Baltic concern over developments in Ukraine. He won a round of applause for saying that "the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London."

Barack Obama in Estonia (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Obama's speech was bigger on symbolism than specifics

Obama's remarks carried "a very important security message for us," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told Deutsche Welle after the speech. "That means that all member states are equal, and it doesn't matter if the country is big or small, the security level for all NATO countries is the same."

The Baltic countries grew wary of their territorial integrity after Russia annexed Crimea in March, claiming that it was moving to protect the peninsula's Russian-speaking majority population.

The former Soviet-occupied republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all with sizeable ethnic Russian populations of their own, are worried that Moscow might use the same excuse again. "The concern is that Russia sees Russians abroad as a possible reason or prerequisite to invade into the country," Paet said.

Psychologically important message

Obama said that NATO membership and Article 5 of the alliance's treaty, guaranteeing collective defense if a member comes under attack, guarded against such a scenario.

NATO satellite photo of Russian troops in Ukraine

Possible Russian troop movements don't just concern Kyiv

"You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again," Obama said, referring to annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the Soviet Union that was stipulated by the Treaty of Non-Agression signed by Moscow and Germany in 1939.

"This is a key message for the Baltics, meaning that this time NATO will be able to defend them," said audience member Raivo Vare, an Estonian expert on Russia and the Baltic. He pointed out that Obama also used many references to Estonia's history in what was a psychologically important move for Estonians.

The director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, Andres Kasekamp, was similarly impressed by the historical side of Obama's speech. "He was not offering anything new or unexpected, but the way he presented it and how he tied these general principles and problems in global politics today with the Estonian experience was brilliant," Kasekamp told DW.

Concrete steps to follow

Having delivered his symbolic message with gusto, Obama stayed rather tight-lipped on the practical steps to guarantee Baltic security. His hosts had been pushing for increasing NATO's military presence in the region.

Obama instead outlined plans such as positioning more US equipment in the region, providing more military training, and rotating NATO military forces through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Estonians obviously hope for specific steps, but Kasekamp said nobody expected them to be unveiled in Obama's public speech. However, the analyst cautioned that "if they don't come at the summit in Wales then we'll definitely be disappointed."

NATO summit in Newport, Wales

NATO members will discuss its next steps as a group soon at this Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales

In Foreign Minister Paet's view, Obama made it clear on Wendesday that NATO's military presence in the Baltic region will continue. The minister said any detailed discussion were still likely up for discussion among the alliance at its summit in Newport: "It's up to NATO to make very clear political and principled decisions."

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