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24th Sep 2018

Feature

Nato summit forges united front on Putin

  • Dalia Grybauskaite after watching Nato jets fly over the summit venue in Praga (Photo: nato.int)

The Nato summit was “no so pleasant for Mr Putin”, Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian leader, told media on Saturday (9 July) in Warsaw with her trademark, blue-eyed glare.

She said the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had failed to split the Western alliance, which is sending 4,000 American, British, Canadian, French, German and Italian soldiers to stand guard against Russian aggression in the Baltic states and in Poland.

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  • Hollande (l) rowed back on Russia "partner" comment and committed French troops (Photo: nato.int)

The numbers are tiny compared to Russian troops in the region.

But the Nato battalions make the Baltic states comparable to West Berlin during the Cold War. Soviet conventional forces also outnumbered Nato forces in Germany, but Moscow never crossed the line because the nuclear-armed Western alliance made it clear that it would respond en bloc.

The new Nato battalions made a Russian incursion “unthinkable”, Latvian defence minister Raimonds Bergmanis said.

French president Francois Hollande gave Putin some cheer on Friday, saying that Russia was a “partner” and that Nato had no say on EU policy on Russia.

Germany and Italy also gave him cheer in the run-up to the summit. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticised Nato “warmongering”, while Italian leader Matteo Renzi questioned EU sanctions on Russia.

Come Saturday, Hollande had changed his tone, however.

He pledged to send up to 250 French soldiers to Estonia next year. He also said there was a need “to be firm with Russia” and to show “unity” at a time when Baltic states felt “threatened”.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said little, but her actions spoke louder than words. With Germany to lead a force of some 1,000 soldiers in Lithuania, Grybauskaite said there had been a “change of mindset” in Berlin on Germany’s role in European defence.

Renzi also pledged 150 Italian troops.

The Nato deployments were prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago. The simmering conflict saw Russian-led forces kill three Ukrainian soldiers at the weekend.

Barack Obama, the US leader, sent another unpleasant message to Putin by posing for photos with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and the British, French, German and Italian leaders on Saturday.

“Prime minister Cameron, president Hollande, chancellor Merkel, prime minister Renzi and I met with president Poroshenko, and we reaffirmed our strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, Obama said.

Cameron said that when the 28 Nato leaders discussed Russia sanctions at a dinner on Friday he was “struck by the unity of purpose” on maintaining a tough line.

Nato ambassadors will meet Russia’s Nato envoy in Brussels on Wednesday.

But the new “dialogue” was primarily intended to avoid accidental exchange of fire and did not mean a return to “business as usual”, Nato said in its summit communique.

Most Nato states are also EU states. But the Nato communique described Russia’s role in Ukraine in much balder terms than EU summit conclusions.

“Russia continues to provide weapons, equipment, and personnel, as well as financial and other assistance to militant groups, and to intervene militarily in the conflict,” Nato said.

Speaking diplomatically?

Some Nato officials were more strident.

A reporter for Russia’s sate-run Ria Novosti news agency asked a senior Nato official at an off-the-record briefing on Friday if Nato was concerned by Russia’s build-up of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.

“I’ll try to put this diplomatically, carefully: Such a capability can be addressed and tackled”, the Nato official said.

The Polish government reined in its anti-Russian views.

Top members of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party believe that Putin assassinated the late Polish president Lech Kaczynski in the Smolensk air crash in 2010.

But the main proponents of the conspiracy theory - Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the PiS chairman and Lech’s twin brother) and Antoni Macierewicz (the Polish defence minister) - either stayed out of sight or did not mention Smolensk in public.

Kaczynski’s choice of summit venues and gimmicks was telling, however.

The Nato talks took place in Praga, a Warsaw district on the east side of the Vistula river, where the Soviet army stood and watched while Nazi forces levelled the city in the Warsaw uprising in 1944.

Nato leaders had dinner on Friday in the same room where Soviet and Soviet-controlled states in 1955 signed up to the Warsaw Pact, an anti-Nato alliance.

Kaczynski also projected Nato’s blue, black and silver livery on to the Palace of Culture, a beetling skyscraper built by Stalin in central Warsaw as a stamp of Soviet rule.

Sense of humour

The summit itself went off without a hitch.

There were two small protests, an anti-US rally by Iraqi expats and a demonstration by an anti-Nato group, but both took place without incident amid a massive police presence.

Shops and restaurants lost income due to traffic restrictions in the city, but locals reacted with a sense of humour.

Pedestrians trying to cross Aleje Jerozolimskie, a main thoroughfare in Warsaw, on Friday evening had to wait over 45 minutes until Obama’s 20-car motorcade went by.

“Just tell us how much longer - minutes, hours?”, a Dutch tourist asked police at one point. “Days?”, a young Polish man added, prompting ripples of laughter in the crowd.

It is too early to say how Russia will react to the developments.

Kremlin media and its foreign ministry mocked the Nato event as Europe’s attempt to deflect attention from Brexit and the migration crisis by talk of Russia’s “wonderland” threat. The Kremlin itself said nothing.

Meanwhile, if Putin really did have something to smile about, it was the spectacle of Poland, Nato’s largest eastern ally, embarassing itself on the world stage.

Speaking in front of hundreds of journalists on Friday,Obama told Polish president Andrzej Duda that he was “deeply disturbed” by Poland's judicial crisis.

He was referring to the fact that PiS has stuffed the country’s highest court with loyalist judges and weakened its ability to vet new laws in what the EU and the Council of Europe have called a menace to rule of law.

Putin might have also smiled as Poland laid bare its internal divisions and institutional dysfunctions.

Critical media, such as the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, mocked Duda’s cowardice for refusing to take press questions on Obama’s statement.

PiS-run public media did not report Obama’s words. TV news bulletins showed the Obama-Duda meeting in silence and said in a voiceover that the US leader had praised Polish democracy.

The day after

The dysfunctions were on show again on Sunday.

Kaczynski does not hold any office. But the day after Nato leaders went home, he assumed the role of Polish leader by giving a speech outside the presidential palace.

He hinted that he would like to replace Duda with Macierewicz.

He also said that he would build a monument to Smolensk in front of the palace, as well as in “many others” cities in “all of Poland”.

Down the road, in Warsaw’s Old Town, another group held a protest against the Smolensk project.

Kaczynski has claimed that a Polish opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), and Donald Tusk, a former PO prime minister who is now the EU Council chief, were complicit in the Russian plot.

The Old Town protest said the Smolensk story is designed to strengthen Kaczynski’s grip on power by demonising his adversaries and sowing paranoia.

Polish debate

The Nato summit prompted debate in Polish cafes, shops and families.

Olgierd, a businessman in the pharmaceutical sector, told EUobserver: “It’s not just the Baltic states that feel threatened. There’s a real war going on in Ukraine, with tanks, artillery, and that’s just 700km from here. That’s a bordering country”.

Zygmunt, a retired biologist, said: “We shouldn’t poke the Russian bear like this.”

“I have many Russian friends. They’re good people who just want to do business in Europe. We should leave Russia alone and things should go back to the way they were”.

The debate on Kaczynski was far more bitter, however.

“Who does he think he is?”, said Andrzej, a taxi driver.

“Lech was the smart twin. Jaroslaw is a maniac who’s jealous of normal people like Tusk that have wives and children … He’s turning Poland into a banana republic”, Andrzej said.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a confirmed bachelor who lived with his mother until she died.

Jagoda, a retired engineer, told EUobserver: “I hate him. I wish he was struck down with a stroke or blindness or something … When I see his face on TV, I use the kind of language I’d normally be ashamed of”.

But Rafal, a newspaper and cigarette kiosk owner, defended the PiS leader.

“People in Brussels, you foreign journalists - you have no idea what’s going on in Poland because all you know is the lies that you read in Gazeta Wyborcza,” he said.

“Civic Platform robbed the country. There was [corruption] scandal after scandal. They tried to make a coup d’etat by putting their own judges in the constitutional court before the elections and it failed,” he said.

Nato's Russia-deterrent takes shape in Warsaw

Canada, Germany, the UK and the US to take the lead in defending Europe from potential Russian aggression. France to also send troops, despite saying Russia is its "partner".

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