Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the Baltic states during a recent trip to the Baltics, where he met with presidents and officials from across the region, according to BBC News. Speaking at a press conference in Estonia on Monday, July 31st, Pence stated that “America stands with the nations and people of the Baltic States—and we always will.” Directing his speech towards Russia, he emphasized the need for solidarity between NATO member states as “Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force, undermine the democracies of sovereign nations, and divide the free nations of Europe one against another.” Pence was joined by Presidents from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, all of which are NATO members. He delivered this speech amid rising tensions between the Baltic states and neighbouring Russia.
Pence’s message is consistent with the newly imposed U.S. sanctions against the Russian government, passed by Congress with overwhelming approval on July 25th. Formally, on August 2nd, President Donald Trump signed the bill into law although he expressed some reservations, calling the bill “seriously flawed” and containing “unconstitutional provisions.” The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act includes sanctions against Russia on cyber security, financial institutions, corruption, and human rights abuses.
In recent years, Russian military activity near the borders of Eastern European and Baltic states have alarmed NATO. Wary of Russia’s recent actions, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Russia in June 2017 during military drills in Lithuania with the Baltic countries. Stoltenberg stated that by conducting military exercises, “we’re sending a message of deterrence” and that “an attack on one NATO ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance,” according to Deutsche Welle. Despite this warning, The New York Times reports that “Russia will be sending up to 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory” in the coming months. Russia’s growing military capabilities have been demonstrated in the Baltic Sea as it conducts joint military exercises with China, as well as military drills in Belarus.
Nevertheless, this is not the first instance of Russia attempting to destabilize the region. In 2008, Russia and Georgia were involved in a deadly war, crippling Russia’s reputation in the Western world. However, the significance of the Russian annexation of Crimea in February of 2014 cannot be understated as it led to the escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continues between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian armed forces. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that nearly 10,000 people have been killed and 23,500 wounded from April 2014 to March 2017. Further, according to Human Rights Watch, there have been massive crackdowns on government dissent including imprisonment, intimidation, silencing of independent media outlets and journalists.
Russia has been very strategic with its geopolitics, being careful not to attack any NATO members as it is cognizant of the mutual defence pact. However, as a regional hegemon, Russia is a legitimate threat because of the amount of influence it exerts through occupying key territories, causing political disruptions. As Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted in The Washington Post, “[Putin] no longer desires to join the West, but instead sees Russia as a bulwark against American hegemony and Western liberal values.” McFaul believes that Russia has been determined to regain power in what it considers its sphere of influence.
Russia’s military buildup and political willingness to use aggressive tactics towards sovereign states undermines peace and threatens stability in the region. Although the future of U.S.-Russia relations remains uncertain, the U.S. must maintain its position in support of the Baltic states and their NATO allies.
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