Gates' visit shows US support for Ukraine, Baltics
And will serve to strike back at escalating Russian threats
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was traveling to Eastern Europe on Tuesday in a deliberate show of support for Ukraine and the Baltics that also will serve to strike back at escalating Russian threats in the region, according to AP.
Gates` attendance at a NATO meeting of defense ministers in Estonia also will draw attention to an international imbroglio that got little notice during the presidential campaign but could prove to be a vexing issue for the incoming Obama administration.
Since Russia`s invasion of neighboring Georgia in August, tensions have spiked between Washington and Moscow. U.S. officials have enthusiastically embraced fledgling Eastern European nations as they take steps to join NATO and foster stronger relations with the West — all moves seen by Russia as threats.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates` trip was, in part, a symbolic gesture.
"I`m not so sure this is a meeting the secretary would have attended had the Russians chosen not to invade Georgia," Morrell said. "But in the aftermath of that, the secretary wanted to send a very strong signal of his support for Ukraine and the Baltic states and our other NATO allies from Eastern Europe that the United States stands firmly behind them."
The meeting Thursday is designed largely to discuss Ukraine`s efforts to join NATO, a move that has sputtered a bit amid economic struggles and political discord in the pro-Western former Soviet republic.
But Morrell and other senior Pentagon officials said this week that allies also were likely to discuss the friction with Russia.
Moscow took little time in sending its welcome message to President-elect Obama. Shortly after his election last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Moscow would deploy short-range missiles near Poland to counter U.S. military plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
Medvedev blamed Washington for the war in Georgia and the world financial crisis, and he repeated claims that the missile defense facilities planned for Poland and the Czech Republic were meant to weaken Russia. U.S. leaders repeatedly have disputed that charge, insisting that the system is designed to protect the region from any Iranian threat.
Medvedev said Iskander missiles would be deployed to Russia`s western enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, "to neutralize, if necessary, a missile defense system."
All this suggests that even as the next administration wrestles with a growing insurgency in Afghanistan and a difficult transition in Iraq, it also will have to find ways to quell hostilities with Russia without jeopardizing efforts to foster its young Eastern European allies and defend against Iran.
Obama already has signaled his recognition that the issue will be critical as he takes office; one member of his Pentagon transition team is an expert in Russia policy.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall previously was a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia during the Clinton administration. She currently is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.
In August, shortly after Russia invaded Georgia, Gates warned that Moscow must face retribution for its actions.
"My personal view is that there need to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state," Gates said then.
Since then, however, the U.S. has taken a less strident path, giving Russia the cold shoulder, but stopping short of escalating tensions into a rebirth of the Cold War.
Analysts, including Michael O`Hanlon from the Brookings Institution, have advised caution, warning that the U.S. should move slowly and avoid committing to final decisions on issues such as NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Such moves, he said, could further provoke Russia at a time when the U.S. needs help from Moscow on other more pressing matters such as forestalling the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
O`Hanlon said Tuesday that he believes Gates has good instincts in this area, pointing to comments the secretary made early in his tenure that one Cold War was enough. He said that responding too harshly to Russia`s recent threats could prompt a cycle of provocative measures and countermeasures.
"You don`t unnecessarily want to provoke it," O`Hanlon said.
Morrell said the U.S. is not "going out of our way looking for ways to further punish the Russians." The Russians already have punished themselves, he said, because other countries now view Moscow differently in the wake of the Georgia war.
And he said Moscow should not view as a threat the moves by Ukraine and Georgia to further integrate with the West.
"Those nations should be able to have closer ties and better relations with the West and still get along with Russia," Morrell said. "They need not be mutually exclusive."