TALLINN, Estonia — President Barack Obama pledged Wednesday that the U.S. would go to war if necessary to protect former Soviet territories in the Baltic region from Russia and signaled new steps to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, sharply raising the stakes in the confrontation with Moscow over its actions in Eastern Europe.
“The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” Obama said in a speech here, referring to the capitals of the three Baltic nations, which joined NATO in 2004 after being under Soviet rule for decades.
The NATO treaty “is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all,” Obama said. “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
Obama said “American boots on the ground” would be “continuously rotating through Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania” for the foreseeable future.
America’s vow to defend the Eastern European countries has been policy since the alliance expanded a decade ago, but Obama’s words, delivered virtually on Russia’s doorstep, were some of the most confrontational by a U.S. president toward Moscow in decades.
Left unresolved, however, was an issue that has divided Obama’s administration as well as its allies: whether the U.S. and other NATO countries should provide weapons and intelligence to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance.
Obama said NATO needs to “make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its security forces,” but he did not specify what he had in mind.
The debate over NATO’s obligation to members and nonmembers alike will be a central subject of an alliance summit that begins Thursday in Cardiff, Wales, Obama’s next stop on his brief trip to Europe.
As pro-Russia forces have pushed back Ukrainian troops with bloody losses, strong pressure has built in Washington for the Obama administration to do more than increase the economic sanctions that so far seem to have had little effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Members of Congress, many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and even key people on Obama’s team are pressing for the administration to start providing arms and real-time intelligence to bolster the Ukrainian forces.
The administration “has had a profound reluctance to go down this road,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Russia and Ukraine adviser to President Bill Clinton and now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But the situation is deteriorating rapidly and the pressure to do something is going to go up.”
Advocates of providing lethal aid and increased intelligence include not only Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but also top Democrats on national security issues, among them Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Carl Levin of Michigan, who run the chamber’s Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively; and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“Now is the time for the United States to act with our European partners to counter Russia’s irredentist goals,” Menendez wrote in a letter to the president Saturday, calling for weaponry and training for Ukraine and more sanctions against Russia.
Conversely, most European leaders are not eager to risk an escalation with Russia, taking the view that Moscow’s special influence over a neighboring state with which it has long historic ties must be recognized. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most influential European leader on this issue, signaled opposition to actions that would risk a military confrontation in Ukraine.
European nations are expected to announce another round of sanctions on Russia this week, including restrictions on trade, and penalties on financial institutions and energy companies. These restrictions are not as sweeping as some have sought, but add to those that were already imposed this year.
The Obama administration gave the Ukrainian military about $60 million worth of nonlethal equipment, including sleeping bags, night-vision goggles and protective vests. It also shares some intelligence, but not real-time information that could be used to target Russian vehicles and positions.
Supporters of providing lethal aid contend that Russia’s incursion in Ukraine represents a major challenge to the postwar European order, a point Obama appeared to cede in calling the situation “a moment of testing.” They contend that the West cannot stand by when Russian troops are apparently inflicting hundreds of casualties, including, according to some reports, executions of disarmed Ukrainian troops.
By providing selective arms to the Ukrainians, such as antitank and antiaircraft missiles, the administration might change Putin’s considerations, said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The Kremlin has apparently been trying to conceal military losses, a sign that it fears a negative public reaction to a bloody military involvement.
Providing weapons “would not be with the idea of defeating Russia,” said Pifer, who is now with Brookings Institution. “But the question is: If you drive up the cost to the Russian army, would that affect the calculations in Moscow?”
U.S. and European sanctions have damaged the Russian economy, triggering capital flight, inflation and the beginning of a recession, so an increase in military losses could be enough to cause Russia to shift course, he argued.
Yet such a move could also backfire and lead Putin to instead escalate his aggression.
“He seems pretty provoked already, he’s doubling down and has provided more assistance (to pro-Russia forces) just in the last eight to 10 days,” Michael McFaul, Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, told reporters on a conference call.
But the rising pressure on the West to do more was clear Wednesday not only in Obama’s words but also with the announcement from France that it has postponed the delivery of a warship to the Russians. Though France had resisted calls to cancel the sale of the ship, President Francois Hollande said Russia’s actions harm “the foundations of security in Europe.”
Obama will have an opportunity to discuss Ukraine with European leaders Thursday, when he meets with the heads of Germany, France, Italy and Britain, White House officials said.
Hennessey reported from Tallinn and Richter from Washington. Times staff writer Marianne LeVine in Washington contributed to this report.