There’s a certain quality of leadership that people appreciate — a blunt recognition of reality, and a reorienting of policy toward national and international interests. Usually people look to the Oval Office for that quality, but these days the only apparent source comes from the Pentagon. While the White House blathers about safety issues after Russian provocations, President Defense Secretary Ash Carter minces no words about the threat Vladimir Putin represents and Russia’s return to nuclear brinksmanship against the West:

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is criticizing Russia for aggression in Europe and is promising to continue a military buildup to deter war on NATO’s eastern flank.

In remarks Tuesday at a ceremony installing a new commander of U.S. Forces in Europe, Carter said he is particularly troubled by what he called Russian “nuclear saber-rattling.”

Carter plans to put his money where his mouth is. He discussed a new rotating deployment of up to 4,000 troops in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, NATO members who have become unnerved about Russian aggression. Carter envisions four battalions of troops, adding to 4200 US forces who have already been deployed to the region:

The NATO alliance is considering establishing a rotational ground force in the Baltic states and possibly Poland, reflecting deepening worry about Russian military assertiveness, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday.

“That is one of the ideas that’s under discussion,” Carter told reporters flying with him from Washington to Stuttgart, Germany, where he is to preside Tuesday at a ceremony installing a new commander of U.S. European Command. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti is to replace Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who has frequently and publicly cautioned that Russia poses a potential threat to European stability.

Carter said the allies are considering a rotational ground force of four battalions, which would mean about 4,000 troops. That would be in addition to, and separate from, a recently announced unilateral U.S. decision to send a U.S. armored brigade of about 4,200 troops to Eastern Europe next February.

Carter said the idea of a separate NATO rotational ground force is likely to be further discussed at a NATO meeting in June.

The Baltic states have good reason to worry, as do other eastern European states. Vladimir Putin justified his attacks on Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea on the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in those countries. He made similar claims before the 2008 war with Georgia that resulted in the seizure of two provinces, and Putin has been talking up the same issue in Moldova and in the Baltics. It’s been a couple of years since Russia tried to stir up ethnic unrest in Latvia by making its ethnic-Russian minority (27.6% of Latvia’s population) eligible for passports and Russian citizenship, and welfare from Moscow as an enticement.  Economic woes might have cooled that proposal somewhat since, but it seems doubtful that Putin has decided not to pursue the “responsibility to protect” strategy of creating unrest and the pretext for intervention in the longer strategy.

Strengthening our position in the Baltic states is a recognition of the reality of Putin’s Russia. At least someone in this administration appears to comprehend it.