US President Barack Obama has made a strongly symbolic first state visit to Estonia, on his way to attend the NATO summit in Wales.
Before a mixed audience representative of Estonian civil society, as well as the presidents of the three Baltic republics, Obama offered reassurance of protection in the face of historic nervousness towards Russia by citing collective defence article five of the NATO charter.
Obama said: “We will be here for Estonia, we will be here for Latvia, we will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO you will never lose it again.”
The Balts and Poles alike have all requested a boost in NATO presence on their soil in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.
According to Estonia’s non-executive President Toomas Hendrink Ilves, there are just 150 US troops there, on a rotating, non-permanent basis.
In Latvia even more than in Estonia, demography feeds anxiety, as each country has a large Russian-speaking minority, of two million and 1.3 million, respectively.
Catlyn Kirina, an expert in international relations at Tallinn University, explained this anxiety: “Especially after the Ukrainian situation a lot people are afraid that yes, this might happen here as well that one day the Russian minority will stand up and say that we want to join Russia or that we want to cut off north-east Estonia and give that to Russia.”
In the Estonian capital, free of Moscow’s rule only since 1991 (the same as for Latvia and Lithuania), residents are clear what sort of response they want from their allies…
Tallinn resident Eve Pooler said: “Stronger! I don’t like how Russia is dealing with Ukraine. Of course I want to hear a stronger message, like a lot of people!”
Obama promises more US boots in Europe, including air power in the Baltic region. He also backs NATO help for countries not in the alliance, notably Ukraine, though took care not to commit NATO militarily there, while leaving the door to membership open.
He delivered a terse message to Russia about respecting international peace.
He also condemned the execution by Islamic State militants in Iraq of American journalists, saying their acts had achieved nothing.
Obama said: “They failed because, like people around the world, Americans are repulsed by their barbarism. We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only united us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists.”