Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Baltics in the Age of Trump

Maybe the Baltic countries should join together to form a joint confederation.  I don't know what you would call it Litvonia or Esluvia or Latuvia, but they certainly don't get much attention on their own.  It's been nearly 30 years since Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union, the first of the Baltic nations to do so.  It got a lot of attention at the time, much moreso than Estonia or Latvia which seceded in turn, but since then Lithuania has found itself lagging behind in name recognition.  The few movie and television references than do pop up are usually its northern neighbors, like the time George wanted to convert to "Latvian Orthodox" on Seinfeld or Dinesh fell for a cute Estonian programmer on Silicon Valley.

Yet, some of the most famous sports and entertainment celebrities have been Lithuanian.  Johnny Unitas politely turned down an award by the Baltimore Greek community for sportsman of the year following his Super Bowl victory, noting that he was Lithuanian.   Robert Zemeckis, who gave us Forrest Gump and Back to the Future, is similarly proud of his Lithuanian roots.  Then there are all those Litvaks with Jewish ties to Lithuania, namely Bob Dylan, Michael Bloomberg and Jon Stewart.  Vilnius was once known as the "Jerusalem of the North."  Of course, Latvia and Estonia have their famous celebrities as well, but it is pretty hard to top Charles Bronson, another famous Litvak.

These countries want to be seen as independent nations, not the "Baltic states," which is what Trump repeatedly referred to them during his meeting and press conference with the three presidents yesterday.  The only times these countries came together under the same flag was when they were annexed by Russia in the late 18th century and again by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.  Not the kind of "shared" history one wants to recount.  I don't think Trump once referred to the countries or their leaders by name.

The latter is understandable as even former President Obama had a very hard time getting Lithuanian President Grybauskaite right, although he gave it a game effort.  However, Trump did press the Lithuanian President to praise him for his strong role in NATO, but Ms. Grybauskaite politely avoided his name, keeping the discussion on a national, not personal, level.

Trump of course sees everything through his personal view.  It is hard enough for him to stay on topic, as seen in the clip above, let alone address the needs of other nations, particularly small nations which he probably never heard about before this meeting.  It does appear someone on his staff made an effort to coach him a little, and gave him a well-prepared speech for his press conference.  He managed to stay on track until a reporter asked him about Mexican border security.  The derailment was what you would expect at the 27-minute mark.  A Lithuanian reporter tried to bring the subject back to the Baltics at the 31:30 mark, but Trump wasn't quite so animated, falling back on statements he made earlier.

Fact of the matter is that neither Trump nor anyone in his administration has any real interest in the Baltic nations, save maybe Defense Secretary Mattis.  He is probably the only one who sees these countries as being on the front line of defense against Russia, should the Kremlin make another incursion into Europe, something that weighs heavily on the minds of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians.  What the Baltic nations wanted from this administration was the assurance that the United States would have their backs if such a moment came.  However, praise for the "industrious nations" didn't translate into a strong commitment, but rather a murky reference to the Baltic nations continuing to meet the NATO target of 2 per cent of their GDP on defense, which all three nations now do.

It seems that Trump may have gotten a little coaching from Putin in their last phone call on this subject, as Russia has long considered NATO a direct threat to its national security and wants the US to roll back its joint military exercises with the Baltic nations which occur annually.  He no doubt avoided any discssion of Russia's "Zapad," which it conducts every year along the same borders, many times bigger than the US and NATO-led military exercises.

Estonia and Latvia feel more of a threat, both internal and external, than does Lithuania, largely because they have a much larger Russian-speaking community within their borders.  The fear ever since Crimea is that Russia will try to mobilize pro-Russian sentiment within the Baltics for these communities to break off and seek annexation with their "homeland."  It hasn't been successful since most Baltic Russians consider themselves citizens of the countries they live in, and do not feel discriminated against as apparently Russians did in the Ukraine.  Efforts in Narva, Daugavpils and Klaipeda failed miserably.  These Baltic cities all have large Russian-speaking communities.  Nevertheless, it is a constant threat, which all three Baltic presidents noted, particularly the Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who mentioned the Russian cyber attacks on her country in 2007, resulting in deep resentment toward Moscow ever since.

But, Trump seems more concerned with Germany meeting its two percent target on military spending than he does the very real threat Russia poses to NATO member countries.  For him, it is a "transactional" or "pay-to-play" relationship.  It's not like Germany has a small military or that it fails to meet its NATO obligations.  Being one of the world's largest economies, even if it only invested half of the two percent target number on defense spending that would still be significantly more than most other countries in the world.  As it is, Germany is the second largest contributor to NATO behind the United States.

The Baltics know they are not in the same bargaining position as Germany, the UK or even Poland.  They have to meet the target number despite the strain it places on their economies so as not to give the US an out should the time come when it truly does need its help to defend its borders.  Lithuania is in a particularly onerous location, as Russia's nuclear submarine fleet is stationed in Kaliningrad, which Lithuania shares a long border with.

None of this escaped previous presidents.  President George W. Bush even made a trip to Vilnius in 2002 to confirm the United States commitment to Lithuania, vowing no more Yaltas.  A bronze plaque of his famous quote is anchored to the wall of the old city hall, where he gave his speech on a cold November day.  Bush was largely responsible for speeding up the process of having the Baltic nations become part of NATO in 2004.  President Obama reaffirmed that commitment in a speech in Tallinn, Estonia, in September, 2014, marking the tenth anniversary.

It was nice of Trump to welcome the three presidents to the White House this week, but what the Baltic nations would like to see is a similar commitment like that of his predecessors.  I'm sure Latvia would be open to a visit by the US President, completing the trifecta, so to speak.  However, it is doubtful that will ever happen.

In the meantime, the Baltic nations content themselves with Trump surrogates like Gen. Jim Mattis, who was in Lithuania last year, overseeing the joint military exercises.  Actions speak louder than words, President Grybauskaite said on that occasion, and so far the US continues to honor its agreements with NATO and the Baltic nations, despite the continual griping by Trump on twitter.

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