Try this scenario: Sometime in the next 16 months, civil unrest breaks out in one or more of the Baltic States. It’s the Russian population, calling for “independence” from the central government and closer ties to Moscow. Fighting erupts as Russian tanks mass along the border and jets fly over Riga or Vilnius or Tallinn. They are all targets. Take Vilnius: While there are few ethnic Russians in Lithuania, it is the land bridge between Mother Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Supplying Kaliningrad would be Putin’s casus belli.
The Baltic authorities call on NATO to respond—invoking Article Four of the charter, which requires consultations, and possibly Article Five, requiring force. But the West is distracted. Europe is overwhelmed by crises in Greece and Ukraine, by the U.K. referendum to leave the E.U., by ongoing Muslim migration to the north. The United States is occupied by its presidential election, by Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, by economic shocks.
The cries for assistance go unheard. The Obama administration has refused even to try to secure permanent forward bases in the Baltics—which would provide a credible deterrent—apparently due to the belief that providing for a real defense is “provocative.” We are too busy, too self-absorbed, too confused to worry about promises made years ago. Obama won’t arm the Ukrainians. What makes us think he’d defend the Lithuanians or Latvians or Estonians?
Before the White House recovers from its “surprise” at events in the Baltics, Putin will have achieved his strategic goals and established reflexive control over the situation.
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