Why Should NATO Commit to Eastern Europe?

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As the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ended in Wales, a plan to come to the aid of its Eastern European member nations and Ukraine emerged. President Obama made it clear at the closing press conference that “actions have consequences,” referring to Russia’s overreach in Ukraine and that the organization would protect its Eastern Europe members. Essentially, NATO agreed to create a “rapid-reaction force” that would place permanent troops in Eastern Europe and increase military cooperation with Ukraine.

This agreement builds international cooperation and protection for Ukraine and the other Balkan countries while attempting to discourage Russia from any further action.

The Vulnerable Baltic States

When it comes to the situation in Ukraine, there are many reasons why the NATO coalition has formed a strong stance against Russia. With the Cold War still fresh in the former Soviet states’ mind, the resurgence of Russia’s power and influence in the region is nothing to bat an eyelash at. Most of the Balkan states are a mere 24 years old and they are all still growing and maturing into stable nations. As seen in Ukraine, these nations are vulnerable to Russia’s influence and force especially because these former Soviet states still have Russian influence within their culture and language. Among other things, Russian culture was cited as the reason for the annexation of Crimea, and with Russian still spoken in Latvia and Estonia, the threat is clear.

So then why has Ukraine been the only country to succumb to the Russians? The answer is complex, but can be explained in part by NATO. In 2001 and 2002 as a part of a NATO expansion effort, the alliance admitted Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. After meeting certain guidelines, these Baltic countries entered into the NATO alliance and gained the protection of the NATO allies.

This protection provided reassurance to the Baltic States that they were free to continue developing into strong and independent nations. In addition, the expansion provided the countries a seat on the international stage where they could discuss and act upon issues affecting their country, region and the world.

However, Ukraine was not apart of the expansion package because of its deep seeded political corruption. Earlier this year we saw this corruption first-hand as former President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power after a failed trade deal with the European Union led to protests and violent events. It was revealed that President Yanukovych was living a life of luxury in an opulent mansion while his country was facing hardships, including lack of economic growth, government mismanagement and lack of opportunities for the Ukrainian people.

As Russian forces and pro-Russian rebels eventually overtook the Crimean peninsula and continue to fight today, its easy to speculate if admittance into NATO would have provided protection to Ukraine and discouraged Putin from entering Crimea in the first place. As other Eastern European nations gain the confidence from NATO’s summit announcement that Russia will not assert its power in their countries, Ukraine remains entrenched in a battle against Russia and pro-Russian forces.

What is in it for NATO and the US?

Besides the obligations to defend its member nations, this strategic effort to protect against Russia’s overreach also has hidden benefits for the alliance and the United States. NATO has long been waning in power and has been somewhat lifeless as it has struggled to find its place in the changing and challenging international scene. The new presence in Eastern Europe establishes a concrete path for the group to follow and allows NATO, including the US, to follow through on their calls for Russia to back down its aggression against Ukraine.

It’s certain that without NATO, President Obama would not be able to bring assurance to Eastern Europe or bring troops into the region to protect Ukraine. With NATO leading the charge, Obama is able to act on his foreign policy without committing American troops to lead the campaign. This is evidence of America’s retreat as the world’s leader by default and move toward the need for collective and united military action.

After two failed wars in the Middle East and a poor image in the international community, this is an important step for the United States and NATO and its leaders should be commended. This diplomatic and united foreign policy engages more than war-tired America and focuses on providing assistance to Eastern Europe and collectively shows Russia that it needs to end its overreaching actions in the Ukraine.

About Melaine Furey

Melanie Furey is a research professional from Cleveland currently working abroad in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica. Most recently Melanie worked as US Senator George V. Voinovich's Research Coordinator where she carried out several research projects on topics including the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, diversity in the United States and American political parties. Now Melanie works as a teacher and is conducting independent research on US foreign policy, Costa Rica and Central American issues and other related topics while abroad. Melanie holds a B.A. in Economics from Allegheny College and a Masters Degree in International Relations from Cleveland State University.
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