President Barack Obama leaves Tuesday for a trip to Estonia and later Wales, in Britain, for a gathering of leaders of NATO countries. Russia's latest actions in Ukraine are making the trip an especially important one.
The arrival of U.S. troops in Estonia last April was a concrete sign of American support for Baltic nations feeling threatened by Russia's aggression in Ukraine.
Obama's stop in Estonia -- a NATO member -- is meant to reaffirm America's defense commitments.
“Part of the reason I’ll be going to Estonia is to let the Estonians know that we mean what we say with respect to our treaty obligations,” said the president.
Fresh violence and evidence that Russia is sending hundreds of troops into Ukraine means Obama's visit comes at a critical time.
Estonia, like Ukraine, is a former Soviet Republic, and also like Ukraine, has a large Russian minority. These factors make Estonians feel vulnerable.
Heather Conley, a former Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of State, said, “There has always been a great fear in the Baltic states that if push came to shove, they question whether NATO would really have their back. And I think it’s very clear, not only with words and our solidarity, but we’ve actually put U.S. soldiers, hardware, in the Baltic states.”
But NATO's capacity to fulfill its commitments is another question. With European members cutting their defense budgets, much of the burden of providing equipment and personnel for alliance missions is falling on the U.S.
The president plans to call on member nations to do more.
“Part of the reason I think this NATO meeting is going to be so important is to refocus attention on the critical function that NATO plays to make sure that every country is contributing in order to deliver on the promise of our Article 5 assurances,” said Obama.
U.S. officials hope the crisis in Ukraine will be enough of a wake-up call for NATO members to realize they should boost their contributions.