OBAMA IN EUROPE
KEFLAVIK, Iceland — With concerns rising about Russia's intervention in Ukraine, President Barack Obama will use a visit to neighboring Estonia on today to reassure fretful allies that the United States and Europe are serious about defending them from a newly aggressive Russia.
Just over a year after Obama told Baltic leaders at the White House that NATO's commitment to their security was "rock-solid," his visit to Estonia is an effort to reinforce that message, while telegraphing to President Vladimir Putin of Russia that he should refrain from further meddling in the region.
On the eve of a NATO summit meeting in Wales where members are expected to endorse a rapid-reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe — their most concrete response yet to Russia's stealth military intervention in Ukraine — Obama is seeking to solidify assurances to the alliance's new front line, including nations with large Russian-speaking populations, that no member is too small to be protected.
The president said last week that his stop in Estonia was intended "to let the Estonians know that we mean what we say with respect to our treaty obligations."
It will include a meeting with President Toomas Hendrik lives, who has been outspoken about calling for a firmer Western response to Putin, as well as Latvia's president, Andris Berzins, and the president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite.
Obama "wants to send the signal that these three Baltic states are as central and important to the way we look at European security and defense as any other NATO member, that there's no difference between Estonia or Great Britain when it comes to the security of Estonia or Great Britain," said Ivo Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO who is now the head of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In sessions with the Baltic presidents, a speech to students, young professionals and civil society and political leaders, and a visit to U.S. and Estonian troops, Obama will also try to demonstrate to the world, and Russia in particular, that the former Soviet republics are wrapped securely within NATO's protective embrace.
"The other message that's being sent is to Vladimir Putin, to say, 'Don't even think about it, because these guys are part of this alliance,'" Daalder said.
At the same time, the trip is a chance for Obama to showcase the kind of financial commitment he is seeking from other NATO members as the alliance grapples with an eroded defense capability because of shrinking military budgets.
The United States is responsible for 75 percent of NATO military spending, and only a few European countries meet the alliance's target of having military budgets of 2 percent of gross domestic product.
Estonia is the only one of the Baltic states to meet that goal.
The United States quickly recognized the Baltic states' independence in 1991, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has had strong ties with them for three decades.
Leaders in the Baltic states and elsewhere in Europe are also looking to Obama and NATO for concrete assurances that the commitment to defending them will be lasting and are eager to hear a longer-term strategy toward Russia.
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