“The most significant reinforcement of our collective defense any time since the Cold War,” President Obama called it. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but it was still an achievement: Last week’s NATO summit in Warsaw ordered troop deployments to Eastern Europe, the alliance’s most serious response yet to Russia’s aggression on its western frontier.
The weak, post-Ukraine economic sanctions and strong denunciations have only encouraged more reckless Russian behavior.
NATO will now deploy four battalions to front-line states. Not enough, and not permanently based, but still significant.
In the unlikely event of a Russian invasion of any of those territories, these troops will act as a tripwire, triggering a war with NATO. It’s the kind of coldblooded deterrent that kept peace in Europe during the Cold War and keeps it now in Korea.
In the more likely event of the sort of disguised slow-motion invasion Russia did in Crimea, NATO deployments might be able to thwart the aggression and get reinforcements.
The message to Putin is clear: Yes, you’ve taken parts of Georgia and Ukraine. But they’re not NATO.
This is a welcome development for the Balts, who are wondering if they really achieved irreversible independence when the West won the Cold War. Their apprehension is grounded in NATO’s flaccid response to Putin’s aggressive revanchism and years of American accommodation of Putin.
And what are East Europeans to think when the presumptive GOP presidential candidate speaks dismissively of NATO and suggests an American exit?
The NATO action takes on even greater significance because of the timing, coming two weeks after Brexit. Britain’s withdrawal threatens the future of the other pillar of Western integration and solidarity, the European Union. NATO shows it is holding fast and that the vital instrument of Western cohesion and joint action will now be almost entirely trans-Atlantic – meaning, under American leadership.
The EU, even if it doesn’t dissolve, will turn inward as it spends years working out its new communal arrangements. Putin was Brexit’s big winner. Any fracturing of the Western alliance presents opportunities to play one member against another. He can only be disappointed to see NATO step up.
After the collapse of President Obama’s Russian “reset,” instilling a NATO backbone and resisting Putin are significant achievements. It leaves a marker for Obama’s successor, reassures East Europeans and will make Putin think twice about repeating Ukraine in the Baltics.
However, the Western order remains challenged by the other members of the troika of authoritarian expansionists: China and Iran. Their provocations proceed unabated. Indeed, the next test for the United States is China’s furious denunciation of the decision handed down Tuesday by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague – a blistering, sweeping and unanimous rejection of China’s territorial claims and military buildup in the South China Sea.
Without American action, however, The Hague’s verdict is a dead letter. The Pacific Rim nations are anxious to see whether we will do something.
Regarding Iran, we certainly won’t. Our abject appeasement continues.
The troop deployments to Eastern Europe are a first step in pushing back against the rising revisionist powers. But a first step, however welcome, seven and a half years into a presidency, is a melancholy reminder of what might have been.