A threatening gesture?

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By John Barnhart

    I couple of articles I’ve read in the Wall Street Journal this month have gotten me thinking about the Baltic States.
    One was an opinion piece in the Journal’s weekend edition on May 3 written by a German fellow named Hans-Werner Sinn, who was identified as president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Germany. In the commentary, entitled “Why we should give Putin a chance,” Mr. Sinn wrote:

    However, it must be borne in mind that the present crisis was triggered by the West. The overtures made by NATO to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in recent years effectively threatened to encircle Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the only ice-free port at its disposal.    
    If U.S. President Barack Obama believes that Russia is just a regional power that will have to put up with this, he is wrong. Russia has protested as energetically as the U.S. did at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Moscow used a referendum as its instrument in Crimea, but things could have been far uglier.

    Latvia was the subject of the other article I saw, appearing on the front page of the Journal’s May 5 edition. Latvia is very afraid of Russia. Approximately a fourth of the country’s population are ethnic Russians and 40 percent speak Russian, rather than Latvian, as their native language. There have been tensions between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians. Some of these Russians are non-citizens, even though they were already living in Latvia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Latvia became independent. Some, according to the story, have chosen to remain non-citizens out of loyalty to Russia, which makes me wonder why they don’t move to Russia. Others claim Latvia discriminates against them by making it hard for them to get citizenship.
    The article quoted a Latvian citizen —  an ethnic Russian who speaks Latvian — who is a human rights attorney. She said, “There’s a saying here that ‘a good Russian is a dead Russian.’”
    Against that backdrop, we have Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin using the defense of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers as his excuse for the actions he’s taking in Ukraine. It’s easy to understand why Latvia is very frightened.
    Because the Baltic States are NATO members, the United States has a treaty obligation to defend them if they are attacked. That’s why we’ve sent additional jet fighters to take part in NATO’s regular Baltic Sea patrol. It’s also the reason for deploying 600 paratroopers to Poland and the Baltics for exercises. The idea is to send the message that the U.S. will honor its treaty commitments.
    We have a similar treaty commitment to some countries in the Far East, and they are very afraid of China. During President Barack Obama’s recent trip to that part of the world, some government officials in these countries brought up Ukraine. Obama administration officials were quick to, correctly, point out that Ukraine is not a NATO country and we have no treaty obligation to defend it. President Obama, while in Japan, said we will honor our defense treaties.
    I’m not sure how comfortable these countries feel with President Obama’s promises. Last summer’s red line on poison gas in Syria debacle has left his international credibility in ruins.  Lost credibility is difficult to restore, a process that may require him to do something more forceful in the Baltic, like send troops to the Baltic States and warships to the Baltic Sea to add an exclamation point to America’s NATO commitment. The danger is that such action may end up being interpreted by Russia as a threatening gesture, rather than an exclamation point.