The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine, the Baltics are likely next

President George W. Bush speaks to a crowd on Nov. 23, 2002, in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Getty Images)
5 min

I was with President George W. Bush when he visited Lithuania in 2002, just after the Baltic states had been offered membership in NATO. Bush had been one of the strongest advocates for the inclusion of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in the alliance, which would establish the obligation of mutual defense.

At the celebration ceremony, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus presented Bush with the Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great, his country’s highest honor. Bush presented Adamkus with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, revealing a different set of cultural priorities. But Bush’s speech that day (which I helped produce) highlighted a greater gift: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy,” he said, “has also made an enemy of the United States of America. In the face of aggression, the brave people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will never again stand alone.”

You could almost hear three nations exhale in relief. The Baltics have the misfortune of sitting at a bloody geopolitical crossroads, and their last two occupations were particularly horrifying. Nazi German “killing units” murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Soviet Union deported half a million Baltic citizens to gulags or Siberia. The Soviets also imported ethnic Russians to change the ethnic composition of these conquered nations.

The United States never recognized Soviet Russia’s illegal occupation of the Baltics. But its and NATO’s commitment to prevent any future occupation engendered some controversy. Experts such as George Kennan thought that NATO membership for a former constitutive republic of the U.S.S.R. would needlessly provoke the Russians. And some military observers found the actual NATO defense of the Baltics — on Russia’s border and far from NATO’s centers of military power — to be a near impossibility.

The argument over the NATO-ization of the Baltics was a prelude to disputes over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and beyond. Some experts bluntly explain — as did the title of a 2014 article by the University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer — “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.” Mearsheimer contended that Russian leaders “would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion.”

In this view, Putin is primarily the defender of the Russian homeland. His soldiers might have the moral restraint of drunken Cossacks, but he is resisting the hubristic expansion of a hostile military alliance.

This conviction, no doubt, is widely shared among Russians, and easily exploitable by their leader. Putin has portrayed his unprovoked attack on Ukraine as another reaction to fascist aggression from the West. His deception runs along well-worn historical grooves. Over the centuries, Russia has faced invasions from across the vast, flat plain reaching from Germany to the heart of Mother Russia. For many older Russians, memories of World War II consist mainly of Western perfidy and Russian indomitability.

Putin has written almost lyrically about the spiritual unity between Kyiv and Moscow. Evidently he bombs only the ones he loves. But his intentions are far more practical. The Putin-NATO divide might not rise to the level of ideological conflict, but it does involve a serious argument about the future of Europe.

Most recent U.S. presidents have maintained that NATO expansion is the natural outcome of a rules-based international order. European countries that meet defined standards on good governance, economic freedom and civilian control of the military can be admitted. This has helped consolidate several democratic transitions in Eastern Europe. It has also helped rectify the terrible wrong of the Yalta agreements, which formally cut Europe into areas of dominance and threw a number of vulnerable nations to the wolves.

Putin’s contrasting goal, says former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia Alexander Vershbow, is “to pressure the West into accepting some sort of Yalta 2, a Europe divided into spheres of influence with limited sovereignty for everyone but Russia.” This would allow him to restore Russian hegemony over its “near abroad.”

Why is this conflict between rules and spheres so important? If Putin is engaged in a defensive struggle, then the Ukraine war is mainly about Ukraine. Some will propose that President Volodymyr Zelensky make the necessary concessions — no Ukrainian NATO membership, Russian control of the Donbas region — to end a bloody war. Peace through self-dismemberment.

On NATO’s vulnerable eastern edge, Baltic nations face high stakes in Ukraine crisis

But if Putin is attempting to reconstruct the Russian sphere of influence in Europe, his success in Ukraine would pave the way for future horrors. The logic that led to Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine — no NATO in the Russian sphere — would almost certainly lead toward the Baltics.

The lesson? Ukraine, with aggressive help from NATO, must defeat Russian forces, or the United States might soon face the question: Do we really fight for Lithuania? Though we are obligated, the decision and task would not be easy. Helping draw a NATO redline at Ukraine could help the United States preserve itself from impossible choices of the future.