The Baltics “have reason” to worry about Russian aggression, according to an article published today by Bloomberg News.
But while the headline talks a big game, the content doesn’t back up the claim. What it amounts to is this: The Baltics should be worried that Western Europe doesn’t relish the thought of coming to their rescue if Russia attacks them — not, as the headline suggests, that they have real reason to believe it’s going to happen.
So while an initial glance at the piece gives the impression that we’re going to learn something new, in reality there is nothing that indicates an impending Russian attack at all.
But the article does highlight something interesting. It notes new polling released by the Pew Research Center which shows a “lack of public support” in key Western nations for using military force against Russia if it does attack a NATO member state.
In Germany, 38% said Russia should be responded to with force after such an event, while in the UK, France, Spain and Germany support was higher, but still under 50% in each country. The author notes that public opinion can change in a crisis (and it usually does) but it’s hardly surprising that as of today, most Germans and a majority of Britons aren’t exactly champing at the bit for a military engagement with Russia.
It’s a different story in the US, where a majority (56%) support the idea of using military force if Russia attacked a NATO member. A less scientific indicator of America’s willingness to engage Russia militarily presents itself in a recent video posted online by journalist Mark Rice, who asked average Americans on the street to sign a petition to support a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” against Russia to “send a message” to Putin.
I’d like to believe the video is a set-up and that these people were actors who know better than to sign a petition in support of a nuclear war, but something tells me there really are people out there who pay precisely zero attention to the world. Conversely, someone should take a camera out into the streets of Moscow and ask people if they support a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the US — maybe Americans are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to these street experiments? The results could be interesting. But, I digress.
The Bloomberg piece also points to the “ominous sign” of growing polarization in public opinion in Eastern Europe — where there is “widespread concern” that Russia poses a “major threat” to NATO countries.
What the Baltic speculation does prove, more than anything, is how little most people actually know about the full spectrum of events that unfolded in Ukraine. Sure, there are comparisons to be made between the Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine and the Baltics and the more Russia-friendly eastern regions in each country, but what so many Western reporters seem to have forgotten, is that the Baltics have been ticking along relatively peacefully beside Russia for more than two decades, despite their complicated political and ethnic divisions.
Something else which is rarely seen expressed, is that US-led NATO fear-mongering in the Baltics is actually doing real damage to these countries as we speak. Washington has been drumming up fear in Eastern Europe at an alarming rate. Last September, Obama traveled to Estonia to personally announce that any NATO ally in peril would be protected. The vision of a whole, free and peaceful Europe is under threat from a Russia whose actions “evoke dark tactics from Europe’s past,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to Nazi Germany.
The cruel irony is that the speech was not really intended to make Estonians feel safe, it was intended to make them feel scared — and as far as Washington is concerned, it may be that the more scared they are, the better.
So what do I mean when I say the fear-mongering is already doing damage? Well, the flipside of all this is that the Russian speaking populations of these countries, particularly in areas like the borderlands of Estonia, could become increasingly jaded by this rhetoric from the more EU-oriented Western regions. When the divisions and cracks that already exist within these nations should be fading with time, they are in fact being deepened.
Whether that is really by design or not, it’s impossible to know — but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that America either simply does not understand the fragility of Eastern Europe or it’s using that fragility for its own ends. In some strange way, it’s probably both. The US has shown all the grace of an elephant in a China shop in Ukraine. Washington’s tendency to simplify a problem by pretending the complications don’t exist has been on full display — and in Kiev they meddled with a time bomb.
With expected presidential candidate Jeb Bush in Europe this week rebuking Putin for — and he said this with a straight face — “shattering international norms” — and with Hillary Clinton’s record-breaking levels of Putin hatred, we can surely expect that fear-mongering will remain the biggest tool in America’s arsenal for Eastern Europe, regardless of who takes the Oval Office in 2016.
The baffling thing is, if Putin never attacks the Baltics, the US will pat itself on the back for preventing something which was more than likely never going to happen in the first place. And if trouble does visit those lands, Washington will feel it’s been vindicated — but whether it would admit to its role in the proceedings is another story entirely.
In the 15 years since he came to power, if Vladimir Putin had wanted to recreate the Soviet Union, it seems to me that he’s really left it a little late. But who knows? Maybe towards the end of his tenure he’s just going to pull an all-nighter and do it in one fell swoop? Might be better to go out with a bang.