By Hanna Kozlowska
September 8, 2014
With an unpredictable Russia looming over their eastern borders and a painful anniversary reminding them of their powerful neighbor’s biggest act of aggression — World War II — Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland are sounding the alarm, warning that a European war, or even a global one, is increasingly possible.
On his way to a NATO summit in Wales, President Obama stopped in the Estonian capital of Tallinn to restore some confidence in the easternmost members of NATO. He reiterated NATO’s commitment to all of its members in a speech that Max Fisher, of Vox, called perhaps the “most important and aggressive step yet against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.”
“The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” Mr. Obama said. “An attack on one is an attack on all, and so if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, ‘Who’ll come to help?’ you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America.”
Mr. Obama referred to the Baltic States’ historical fears just two days after the 75th anniversary of the eruption of World War II: “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
This reassurance came at a time when the three Baltic States and Poland are increasingly worried about Russia’s threatening posture.
Recently, before a European Union summit, President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania said that we should be calling a spade a spade. It is a “fact,” Ms. Grybauskaite told reporters, that Russia is at war with Ukraine, a country that aims to be closely affiliated with the European Union. Russia is “practically” in a state of war with Europe, she said.
Another former Soviet republic, the small state of Estonia, has lived in fear of its overwhelming neighbor for far too long, an editorial says from ERR News, a public broadcasting outlet in the country. The true end of World War II in Estonia, the editorial claims, was when the last Russian troops left in 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This withdrawal should be “irreversible,” the editorial emphasizes.
“Reckoning August 31, 1994 as the end of World War II in Europe is more than a dramatic way to impress upon the world how the Baltics and the rest of Eastern Europe suffered, often in silence, in the half century after VE Day,” the editorial says, referring to May 8, 1945, Victory Day in Europe.
Today, by “some odd historical parallel,” the editorial adds, Estonia prepares to host foreign troops, those of NATO, on its soil. And although some object to being handed “from one empire to another,” ERR News does not “see a danger of becoming an American vassal state or of a new occupation.” There is “nothing similar here to Soviet occupation,” when “boys” were sent to fight in Afghanistan against their will.
Like Ukraine, both Estonia and its neighbor Latvia have large ethnic Russian populations. Russia claimed to have been protecting the rights of Russian speakers when it invaded the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March. Roman Imielski, the managing editor of the prominent Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, asked Valdis Zatlers, the former Latvian president and head of the Latvian Parliament’s security council, whether the country was concerned that Russia could use a similar excuse in Latvia.
Mr. Zatlers said the internal situation in the country was “stable,” as Latvia was a democratic country that treats all of its citizens the same way. “What Vladimir Putin is doing today is not a challenge for Ukraine of the Baltic States, but for the entire world,” he said.
Mr. Putin is “testing” the world, Mr. Zatlers said. “He is like a gambler in a casino.” He wants to see how far he can go.
The West should have reacted more decisively to the annexation of Crimea, Mr. Zatlers said, and now we must take action: We must tell Mr. Putin to “retreat from Ukraine, stop sending arms and financing this war.” Eastern Ukraine should be a demilitarized zone, and those who fought on the rebel side should have the possibility of seeking refuge, despite the “atrocities” they have committed. “I’m sorry to say this,” he continued, “but peace is more important.”
NATO’s easternmost states need the alliance’s troops on the ground, Mr. Zatlers added. And to those countries that oppose new sanctions on Russia — including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — Mr. Zatlers would say, “Remember about the lesson that we learned after World War II and what happened to the world after its end.”
This lesson is well remembered in Poland. Its prime minister, Donald Tusk, who was just announced as the next head of the European Council, said at a World War II commemoration ceremony that Russia’s behavior warrants a tough response from NATO.
“Today, looking at the tragedy of the Ukrainians, looking at the war, because we have to use that word, we know that September 1939 cannot be repeated,” Mr. Tusk said. The phrase “no more war,” inscribed on a World War II monument at the site of his speech, “can no longer be the manifesto of the weak and helpless, an expression of the illusion that around us there are no people and no countries who want to use force and warfare as a means of pursuing their political goals.”
In Poland, the memory of the West’s abandonment of the country during World War II and in the following decades remains strong.
A group of Polish intellectuals, headed by the World War II veteran, historian and diplomat Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, signed a call for action that was published in several of the biggest European newspapers. The letter recalls the appeasement of Hitler’s Germany in the run-up to World War II: “West Europeans should never again espouse such selfish and short-sighted policy towards an aggressor. Sadly, current developments and the sudden rise in tension in Ukraine are reminiscent of the situation that existed in 1939.”