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Increasing US presence in Baltics has little upside

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke Tuesday during the opening ceremonies for the International Military-Technical Forum.EPA

A month ago, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that the conflict in Ukraine could turn a corner. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for four hours at a resort residence on the Black Sea. Both sides agreed that they would push for full implementation of agreements struck at Minsk, which include a ceasefire and more political autonomy for the Russian-speaking, rebel-held areas in the east.

But since then, tensions with Russia have spiked to alarming levels. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that he is preparing for a full-scale Russian invasion. Meanwhile, President Obama is considering a proposal to allow US tanks and heavy weaponry used in a training exercise to remain in the Baltic states, on Russia's doorstep.

Unless the United States is really planning to go to war with Russia, such a move has little upside, and a lot of downside. Storing equipment there requires beefing up the infrastructure and security required to protect it, moves that would make it look like NATO is building military bases on Russia's border. That would destroy what's left of a landmark 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia, which stipulates that the two sides are not enemies and would not keep a permanent military presence in those states.


It's certainly true that Russia has already violated the agreement, and that the security environment has changed dramatically since 1997, due to Putin's aggressions. But Putin's greatest fear has been encroachment by NATO. There's no telling how he will react if he sees his paranoid nightmare becoming a reality. That's the reason US allies in Europe are nervous about the plan. They view it as a step away from a diplomatic resolution with Moscow. We should heed their advice, if for no other reason than to keep the allies on the same page.

There are better ways to show resolve and reassure the Baltic states that the United States is serious about its commitment to Europe's collective security. Bolstering the bases we already have in Italy and Germany, expanding NATO's Rapid Reaction Force, and continuing to engage in military training exercises would be wiser moves. The US military has already stationed 150 troops in each of the Baltic States and in Poland since April of last year.


Russia's immediate target right now isn't the Baltics, but Ukraine. US, British, and Canadian troops are training the Ukrainian army but not providing lethal military assistance. If Russia really is preparing for a full-scale invasion, tanks in Latvia and nonlethal assistance are not going to help. In that case, it might make more sense to provide light weapons to the Ukrainian army.

But it's worth remembering that Russia and Ukraine will always be neighbors. Although Russia has behaved in a shocking manner, Kiev is not blameless. Poroshenko has not held up his side of the Minsk agreements either, and his surprising appointment of ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili — a persona non grata in Moscow — as governor of the Odessa region was an unnecessary irritant. At the end of the day, Ukraine and Russia must find a way to live together that both sides accept.


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