With the Russian bear on the prowl, stalking the frontiers of eastern Europe, the anxiety felt by those who lived for decades under Kremlin oppression comes as no surprise. Neither does their gaze westward toward NATO and the US, which is why Vice President Joe Biden flew to Poland and Lithuania this week to reassure our allies on and near Russia’s borders — wherever those might be now — that we intend to stand firm in our alliance with them to defend their territorial integrity and sovereignty. However, the Washington Post reports that these allies are just as anxious at the end of Biden’s visit as they were when he arrived, having heard nothing of substance from the US during the visit:
As Ilves, a Swedish-born, American-educated former academic, noted in his appearance with Biden Russia’s intervention is “forcing us to reassess the assumptions of the past 20, 25 years.”
“The old idea of NATO, which I remember from 20 years ago, out of the area or out of business, predicated on a Europe that no longer has any threats – that, unfortunately, has turned out, with the actions we’ve seen against Ukraine, to no longer to apply,” he said. “The East-West relationship needs to be put on a new standing.” …
But in many ways, the visit itself was the message. Even Grybauskaite used the term “symbolic” to describe it before meeting with the vice president.
Beyond spine-stiffening pep talks – and some aspirational discussions about weaning Eastern Europe from Russian natural gas – Biden pledged very little of substance during the trip.
The US does not appear to have much urgency in communicating urgency except through speeches. With Russia fomenting unrest among ethnic Russians in Ukraine as a pretext for military action and with large ethnic-Russian enclaves in some frontier nations, eastern Europe wants to see a display of toughness from the West. Instead, it got some double-talk about defense:
[Biden] highlighted recent U.S. military contributions to Poland’s defense, a dozen U.S. F-16 fighter aircraft. The administration also has increased by 10 aircraft its contribution to the Baltic air policing program, another step Biden noted.
But those planes will leave with the United States as early as next month when it rotates out as the NATO partner to the Baltic nations for the air policing effort. Poland will replace the United States in that role, casting doubt on whether the increased air patrol will continue beyond then.
Biden’s team didn’t offer any sense of understanding their urgency:
The senior administration official traveling with Biden, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the meetings, said there is an assumption that once the United States rotates out of the program “an equal number of planes from allies will rotate in.”
An “assumption”? Er, shouldn’t this be something we confirm? That’s not a show of strength, or even business as usual. Poland, which has suffered for centuries under Russian domination, wants to feel reassured that the US takes its security concerns seriously, and the US in response can only offer an assumption that the additional strength added to air defenses might remain in place. The “senior administration official” promised to take “a close look at making sure that that number stays elevated” only after being probed on the specifics.
No one expected much out of Biden’s visit to our eastern European allies, but this grudging effort falls short of even lowered expectations. If we want our allies to remain confident in our ability to provide for their common defense, we have to act like we care about it in the first place. Not only does this make the entire visit look like a sham, it projects an air of unseriousness about American military preparations that is very dangerous in this crisis. We’re not going to go to war over Crimea, but we should at least project a readiness to act in coordinated defense of NATO partners, rather than shrug off any responsibility for our part in coordinating strategic levels of assets in the region.
No wonder our allies feel just as anxious now as they did before Biden arrived. Perhaps they should feel even more anxious. Smart power, indeed.