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Gates Seeks To Reassure Baltics, Ukraine At NATO Meeting

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, for a NATO meeting on November 13 that originally he was not scheduled to attend but which has now taken on symbolic importance.

"I'm not so sure this is a meeting the secretary would have attended had the Russians chosen not to invade Georgia," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters on November 11.

"But in the aftermath of that," Morrell added, "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."

Ahead of the NATO meeting, Gates is to hold talks with Baltic defense ministers. That comes as concerns in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are running high that Russia's success against Tbilisi also threatens them.

"Security concerns in the three Baltic states have obviously peaked in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war, partly because the Baltic states find themselves in a very similar situation to Georgia," says RFE/RL Brussel's correspondent, Ahto Lobjakas.

"Estonia and Latvia have very large Russian minorities, some of whose members are Russian citizens," Lobjakas continues. "Essentially, what they are afraid of is that the [Russia-Georgia] conflict could lead to a certain blurring of lines and that Russia could start reasserting its interests and influence on their territory."

Deploy Short-Range Missiles

Moscow played the Russian-citizenship card to justify its support of separatists in Georgia's territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the wake of the Russia-Georgia war, Moscow has recognized the independence of both regions and maintains large numbers of troops in each to guarantee its security.

Tensions have also risen as Russia last week announced it would deploy short-range missiles near Poland to counter U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Lobjakas says the Baltic states -- which, like Georgia, are former Soviet republics -- want their NATO partners to now take some strong, highly visible steps to make it clear that the Balts, at least, are outside Russia's playing field.

"The Balts would like NATO to hold more exercises on their territories, around their territories in the Baltic sea and the airspace, and also if possible get NATO bases, NATO installations set up on the territory similar to the fashion in which the United States is looking at setting up missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic," Lobjakas says. "And, obviously, ideally -- this is one of the unspoken assumptions -- what the Balts would like is something with direct U.S. involvement because that is the ultimate security guarantee."

NATO has yet to give a clear response to the Baltic states' desires. One reason is that the security alliance -- like the European Union -- is divided into two camps over how to deal with Moscow.

Two Camps

One camp, including Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, wants to lower tensions with Moscow as the best way to deal with the fallout from the Russia-Georgia war.

The other camp, including the United States and the newer NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, want firm responses.

Gates himself said after the Russia-Georgia war that "my personal view is that there need to be some consequences for the action that Russia has taken against a sovereign state."

After meeting with the Baltic defense ministers, Gates is to attend an informal meeting in Tallinn on November 13 with other NATO defense ministers and their Ukrainian counterpart.

The subject will be Kyiv's prospects for joining the alliance.

The United States remains disappointed that NATO stopped short of formally putting both Ukraine and Georgia on the path to NATO membership at the alliance's Bucharest summit in April.

In Bucharest, the alliance decided not to give the two former Soviet republics a Membership Action Plan (MAP), but pledged to review the decision at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting scheduled to be held in Brussels in December.

Now, with that December meeting rapidly approaching, Washington appears intent on stepping up pressure to give both Kyiv and Tbilisi more than they received in Bucharest.

However, it remains unclear whether NATO can find a unified position regarding Russia which would allow it to make any major decisions on such short notice.

Speaking on November 10, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that neither Georgia nor Ukraine would be ready to joint NATO "in the foreseeable future."

Political Crisis

As the focus turns to Kyiv's prospects on November 13, those NATO members favoring a go-slow course are likely to see problems not only in terms of Moscow but also in terms of Ukraine's own politics.

Kyiv is currently embroiled in a political crisis that pits its two most charismatic leaders against each other: President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The power struggle, whose outcome remains uncertain, is not over NATO membership, but the two leaders differ regarding how fast they want to see Ukraine join the alliance. Yushchenko is an ardent NATO supporter. Tymoshenko is seen as not opposing membership, but she also is seen as courting Russian support.

There is another complication that likely will not be mentioned at the NATO-Ukraine meeting on November 13 but which, nevertheless, will be very much present.

That is the fact that, as Gates champions expanding NATO's membership, his NATO partners know he speaks for U.S. President George W. Bush. But they do not know whether he will keep his post when the next administration takes office on January 20.

Gates' name has been mentioned in the U.S. press as one of several being considered by President-elect Barack Obama to be his defense secretary. But no decision is likely to be made in the immediate next days.