Listening to Eastern Europe

Ever since Barack Obama’s first relatively friendly state visit to Moscow, Washington and the Kremlin have engaged in a showdown of gestures over the elephant in the room:  the legitimacy of Russia’s claim to a privileged sphere of influences.  Directly after meeting with Obama, Prime Minister Putin did some male bonding with a large motorcycle gang, before sending them off toward Crimea, Ukraine under the RF flag.  Medvedev proceeded directly from the G8 in Italy to visit South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but not before threatening to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.  As for Washington, today VP Joseph Biden landed in Kiev, Ukraine, and will travel onward to visit some friends in Georgia.  These gestures on behalf of both sides say just as much as any summit speech. 

On a related note, yesterday the Washington Post ran an editorial responding to the open letter signed by more than a dozen former democratic leaders of the post-Soviet East, warning the West on the vital importantance of democracy promotion in the East and the destabilizing threat of current Russian policy.

Since the signatories are staunch allies of the United States and ofdemocracy — ranging from Vaclav Havel and Alexandr Vondra of the CzechRepublic to Lech Walesa and Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland to VairaVike-Freiberga of Latvia and Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania — they merita hearing.

The global recession has given room to “nationalism, extremism,populism, and anti-Semitism” in some of their countries, the formerleaders acknowledge. At the same time, they say, “NATO today seemsweaker than when we joined” while “Russia is back as a revisionistpower pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics andmethods. . . . The danger is that Russia’s creeping intimidation andinfluence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de factoneutralization of the region.”

In response, they say, the Obama administration should recommit toNATO as a defense alliance, not just an expeditionary force with dutiesin Afghanistan and beyond. It should support pipelines that willdiminish the region’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. It should takecare, as it evaluates planned missile-defense installations in Polandand the Czech Republic that Russia opposes, to consult closely with thegovernments that have the most at stake. It should invest inrelationships with younger generations that do not remember communismor the struggle against it.