In the wake of Russia's increasingly belligerent behavior in Ukraine, President Barack Obama delivered a ringing declaration of NATO's support for the Baltic countries Wednesday in the capital of Estonia, a former Soviet Republic and current NATO member that also has reason to fear Russian aggression. Mr. Obama vowed the U.S. and NATO would honor the alliance's pledge of collective defense and back it up with a beefed-up troop presence and air patrols. He also pointed to NATO's decision to create a rapid reaction force and pre-positioning of military equipment in the region as evidence of the alliance's resolve to defend its members.
Mr. Obama's remarks clearly were prompted by Russia's slow-motion invasion of Ukraine where armed separatists backed by Moscow in the eastern part of the country are demanding independence from the government in Kiev. The conflict threatens to upset the post-Cold War order in Europe, a possibility Mr. Obama alluded to when he said no country can be allowed to redraw international borders at the point of a gun. Unfortunately, he was saying that in Tallinn, not in Kiev. It's NATO's response to Russian aggression there that's most worrisome.
It was probably no coincidence that on the same day Mr. Obama spoke in Tallinn, early reports surfaced in Kiev that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed to a cease fire between government troops and the rebels. The news sparked hopes the conflict might finally be winding down, but almost immediately the purported accord began to unravel.
Mr. Poroshenko issued a clarification suggesting what he and Mr. Putin had discussed was a cease fire "regime" — presumably meaning the conditions under which talks could proceed and the subjects to be covered — rather than an actual halt in the fighting. A few hours later the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement confirming the conversation between Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko had taken place but then went on to insist Mr. Putin could not possibly agree to a cease fire since Russia was not a party to the conflict — a preposterous claim given NATO reports that thousands of Russian troops, along with their armor and artillery, have crossed the border into Ukraine in recent weeks.
In denying that Russia had any hand in supplying, arming and backing up the rebels with its own forces, Mr. Putin revealed himself as a master practitioner of the Big Lie, defined as a falsehood so blatantly absurd that people simply refuse to believe anyone would dare utter it unless it were true — so therefore it must be true. While the world was still reeling from that whopper, Mr. Putin quickly followed up with another: A "peace plan" that would require Kiev to withdraw all its troops from eastern Ukraine and allow separatists there to set up a Russian puppet state called, appropriately enough, "Novorossiya," or "New Russia." All would be well if the Ukrainian government would only accept his proposal, Mr. Putin said.
Coming on top of Mr. Putin's seemingly offhand comment recently that Russian troops could be in Kiev within two weeks, the message of his "peace plan" was clear: Surrender or risk a full-blown invasion and the toppling of your government.
NATO and the E.U. seem have been caught off guard by the shamelessness of Mr. Putin's tactics. Perhaps that's because the Europeans have been reluctant to acknowledge the presence in their midst of an aggressive hostile power that reminds them of a painful era in the continent's history they'd rather not revisit. The ceaseless territorial demands in the name of reuniting ethnic populations, the promises of peaceful intent that are regularly broken and the miasma of deceit and lies that barely cloak the willingness to resort to brute force — all are features of the 20th-century totalitarian dictatorships that led the democracies of that era to war and ruin.
Mr. Putin has resurrected those dark impulses anew in pursuit of his grandiose dream of a 21st-century Eurasian Union dominated by Russia and opposed to the West. And he won't stop until he is put on notice by the U.S., the E.U. and NATO that they are determined to resist his territorial depredations. That means putting the squeeze on Russia's economy with even tougher sanctions against its banks and key industries, including an arms embargo against Western sales of military equipment and dual use technology. NATO should also consider expanding ballistic missile defenses to the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe and offering covert military aid to Kiev on the same scale as Russian arms shipments to the rebels.
Europe has tried to hold back from doing anything that might escalate tensions with a nuclear-armed Russia because the consequences of another war on the continent are simply too terrible to imagine. But if a war between Russia and the NATO is to remain unthinkable, the West must demonstrate to Moscow in no uncertain terms that it is prepared to win it if Mr. Putin were ever foolish enough to start one. NATO has gone out of its way to assure Russia that it does not consider Moscow an enemy and that it has no hostile designs on its territory. But at some point such reassurances may come to appear to be concessions that only invite future aggression.
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