02 August 2017

Pence on the frontline

Vice President Mike Pence’s geopolitical tour in Europe’s east transmitted important messages to America’s NATO allies, partners, and rivals. Pence visited key countries in three regions where U.S. competition with Russia is intensifying – Estonia in the Baltic region, Georgia in the Caucasus, and Montenegro in the Balkans. His statements indicated that Washington plans to respond more decisively to Putin’s offensive against the sovereignty and integrity of any European state.
For NATO members such as Estonia and Montenegro and for America’s strategic partners such as Georgia, Pence’s message was one of commitment and solidarity. For an expansionist and revisionist Russia the message was one of resistance and determination. Each visit needs to be followed up with practical joint initiatives to strengthen regional security and enhance the role of NATO as a security provider.

In meeting with the three Baltic Presidents - Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Raimonds Vējonis of Latvia, and Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania – Pence asserted that the largest threat they faced was “the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east.” In response to Moscow’s persistent pressure against the Baltic countries, Pence underscored that a strong and united NATO was more important now than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Washington remains committed to stationing NATO battalions on Baltic territories under the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) initiative and providing them with defensive weapons to deter a Russian assault. In early July, the United States deployed a Patriot air defense system for the first time in Lithuania as part of a multi-national NATO exercise, Tobruq Legacy 2017. Each Baltic country is seeking anti-aircraft missiles to deter a Russian military incursion, while Poland has already announced its decision to purchase the Patriot system.

Pence’s visit preceded Russia’s Zapad 2017 military drills scheduled for 14-20 September, which NATO officials calculate could bring up to 100,000 troops to the Baltic borders with Russia and Belarus. Lithuania in particular has expressed fears that the exercise could simulate a cross-border intervention by Russian forces. Because they are more vulnerable to attack than other NATO members, the Balts seek concrete assistance from their allies. They are also making significant contributions to Allied security given their experiences with Russian cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns that the United States is now experiencing. 

In Georgia, Pence met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, condemned Russia’s occupation of a fifth of Georgian territory, and signaled strong U.S. support for Georgia’s desire to join NATO. The Caucasus was downgraded as a focus of interest during the Obama administration, creating perceptions that Washington was surrendering ground to Moscow. With Putin placing increasing pressure on all three South Caucasus states to curtail their Western aspirations, Pence’s visit signaled that the United States aims to connect them to Europe through energy, transport, trade, and eventual integration.

Pence also visited with U.S. and Georgian troops participating in the Noble Partner 2017 exercises, the largest joint drills between the United States and Georgia, combining 1,600 U.S. and 800 Georgian soldiers, together with other NATO members as well as Armenia. Noble Partner will continue until 12 August. Georgian officials view the exercises and Pence’s visit as unequivocal support for the country’s ambitions to join NATO. Georgia already contributes to the NATO Response Force (NRF), a multinational contingent of land, air, navy, and special operations units that can deploy quickly when needed.

In Montenegro, Pence met with President Filip Vujanović and Prime Minister Duško Marković. He also participated in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosova, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia. This highest-level visit of an American official in Montenegro’s history underscored Washington’s commitment to defend NATO’s newest member and confirmed that all Balkan states belonged in the West. Pence commended Montenegro for resisting Moscow’s offensive against its independence, particularly in foiling the coup d’etat concocted by Russian intelligence services in October 2016. 

In the longer-term, close and consistent U.S. involvement in the Baltic, Caucasus, and Balkan regions will help resolve inter-state disputes that Moscow has perpetuated to keep each region divided. Washington can engage in curtailing the Russia-directed insurgency in Ukraine’s Donbas, resolving the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and reconnecting Georgia with its separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the Balkans, a greater push is needed to settle political disputes between Serbs and Albanians, and Macedonians and Greeks, and to help transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into a functioning state that can move into Western institutions. All these steps will strengthen the Alliance and bolster American security.

Just as the Kremlin grievously miscalculated by interfering in the U.S. presidential elections and now faces even stiffer financial and diplomatic sanctions, its intervention in countries such as Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine will simply push them closer to NATO. Following Pence’s trip all eyes will now be on the Trump administration to develop initiatives for consolidating the security of America’s most exposed allies and partners and neutralizing Putin’s strategy of subversion. This can begin by supplying Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons, as recommended by the Pentagon and the State Department.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: White House/Myles D. Cullen