August 2, 2017

Before his visit to Estonia, Vice President Mike Pence probably didn’t know the Russian word for “west” – zapad. But he knows it now, because it is the codename for one of the largest military exercises that Russia traditionally undertakes in the Baltic region.

Estonia, along with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are bracing for the appearance of up to 100,000 Russian troops in Belarus and western Russia, including the imposing 1st Guards Tank Army, ahead of the September exercise.

Alarmed at the size of the exercise, set to take place so close to the Baltics, the United States has sent additional forces to the region to reinforce NATO forces already deployed there.

The vice president now seems to be the administration’s “go to” person for reassuring allies in Europe that the United States is committed to NATO and to the defense of the continent. He said all the right things in Estonia, visited NATO forces there, and met with Baltic heads of state and government. But unfortunately, both his words and the 600 or so U.S. reinforcements are thin gruel when bets are being placed on the Russians doing something mischievous in September.

The Russians may do nothing more than leave behind in Belarus a substantial troop presence to bring that nation to heel and to further intimidate the Baltics. Such a repositioning would also put Russian forces in an advantageous position for an aggressive move against the Baltics later on. Or it could be something worse.

All eyes will be watching the Russian exercise buildup in August to anticipate what is in store for September. Thus far, the Russians are not allowing allied observers to monitor the exercise, which is the standard procedure for exercises of a certain magnitude in order to ensure transparency and confidence building. But confidence building is not in the Russian playbook.

Once his European tour ends, Pence will return to Washington and to the president’s agenda, which has languished since his inauguration. Burning in the president’s inbox is the crisis with North Korea, which is tumbling towards a military option with each new and improved missile launch. But unlike the president, Pence will know that his new friends in the Baltics are counting on him not to take his eye off what could be an even more immediate military crisis in the region.

If the Russians choose to use Zapad to cause trouble, it may be the president will turn to his “globalist” vice president to be the point man on the crisis and organize a response by the West. Have a few trips to Europe readied Pence for a rogue Zapad in September?

The vice president has a national security staff that has won plaudits for its international work. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and the Europe/Russia section of the National Security Council staff can also be counted on to provide the vice president and his team with seasoned support. There is no question that the Department of Defense under James Mattis, together with General Curtis Scaparrotti and his European Command are also ready to back up the vice president. The State Department will play an important role as well, albeit weakened by uncertain leadership and dwindling morale among the few seasoned senior foreign service officers remaining. The national security apparatus is solid where it needs to be to support Pence in a September crisis in the Baltics.

NATO will be a player at the table too. After all, trouble with the Baltics, unlike with Ukraine, brings the alliance immediately into the picture, especially given the many allies that already have troops deployed in the region. Pence’s quick trip to NATO a few months ago will not be enough to help him understand NATO’s role and the U.S. leadership required to move the alliance. Slowly, the administration is coming together to lead the U.S. mission to NATO, including through the nomination of former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to be the U.S. ambassador to NATO. Even if she makes it to her new post by September, she will not yet be up to speed on NATO, and will depend on the excellent NATO secretary, General Jens Stoltenberg, along with the U.S. mission staff, to help determine the right posture.

So if a crisis breaks this September, the good news is that the vice president will be well served. The Pentagon and European Command will be ready to help the greenhorn administration navigate possible courses of action. The bad news is there won’t be much time to make tough decisions, especially if they require putting together a coalition or winning allied approval.

There is one more bit of bad news too. What about the president himself?

The rest of the executive can be ready to go, only to be hobbled by indecision at the top. Will President Donald Trump be ready to act quickly and decisively in what will likely be his first major military crisis? With John Kelly as chief of staff, the odds are now better that appropriate and vetted courses of action will be teed up for presidential decisions. But at the end of the day, it will be the president who must decide. Will he be ready to move?