Shoring Up the Eastern Flank: VP Pence’s Visit to Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro

By Kamil Szubart

From July 30 to Aug. 2, 2017, US Vice President Mike Pence paid a three-day visit to Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro. This trip took place less than a month after President Donald J. Trump’s visit to Poland, where he participated in the Three Seas Initiative Summit (TSI) in Warsaw, gathering political leaders from 12 countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

“Pence’s visit to Eastern Europe—taking in two ex-Soviet republics—was primarily focused on the US commitment to NATO.”

The Pence visit can be seen as part of the new US strategy toward the region, which includes a reassuring US politico-military commitment to Central and Eastern Europe, especially significant after the 2014 Russian aggression in Ukraine, and increasing economic ties between US businesses and their partners in the region.

Some also looked for the Trump Administration to use Pence’s trip to underscore a hard line toward Russia and to counter the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. After the success of Trump’s visit to Poland, the White House has begun to consider Central and Eastern Europe as a strong foothold and as a strategic balance for US interests in Western Europe, and particularly in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.

Pence’s visit to Eastern Europe—taking in two ex-Soviet republics—was primarily focused on the US commitment to NATO. He echoed Article 5 by saying, “At the heart of our alliance is a solemn promise that an attack on one is an attack on all.” Trump previously had been criticized for failing to pledge commitment to the Alliance during his first visit in Europe and, specifically, during the NATO Meeting in Brussels on May 25, 2017.

Estonia: In the Shadow of Zapad 2017

In Estonia, Pence met with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and the three Baltic States presidents: Kersti Kaljulaid (Estonia), Raimonds Vējonis (Latvia), and Dalia Grybauskaitė (Lithuania). Estonia and its Baltic sister states are facing a tremendous threat from Russia. Despite the fact that these countries have been in NATO since 2004, their forces would be unable to counter Russian aggression, and Russian troops attacking from three sides (Belarus, the Kaliningrad Oblast, and the main Russian territory) could overrun the Baltic States within 45 to 60 hours.

Therefore, the Baltic States have increasingly invested in their armed forces. In fact, Estonia, along with Poland, is the regional leader in defense expenditures and is one of only five NATO member countries—the US, the UK, Poland, Estonia, and Greece—to invest more than 2% of GDP on defense. The Baltic States also spent plenty of diplomatic capital to bring NATO to the region. At the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, the leaders of 28 NATO member countries agreed to deploy four multinational Battalion Battle Groups (BBG) to the Baltic States and Poland. And since 2004, NATO also has been responsible for protecting Baltic airspace within the framework of Baltic Air Policing. In response to the 2014 Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO enhanced its air mission adding four jet fighters to protect the states.  

The visit also was symbolic because it took place exactly one month before joint Russian and Belarusian military exercises called Zapad 2017. In recent years, Russia has increased its military capabilities through regular military exercises that often involved imagined aggression against NATO nations and their allies (a nuclear attack on Stockholm, for instance). Baltic leaders will also recall that the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia followed the Kavkaz 2008 military exercises. Russia further increased tensions by delaying its notification of Zapad 2017 to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), violating the 2011 OSCE Vienna Document that is designed to ensure transparency in large-scale military exercises. This year’s drills might engage up to two Russian divisions throughout Belarus, Kaliningrad, and the Russian Western Military District.

Georgia: Waiting for NATO

The second stop was Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where the Vice President met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Again, Pence reaffirmed the US commitment to Article 5. He also noted that the US and its allies are seeking better relations with Russia but that the US “strongly condemns Russia’s occupation on Georgian soil,” directly referring to the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Pence also attended the 2017 Noble Partner military exercises, involving the US, Germany, the UK, Turkey, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Armenia.

Notably, Pence strongly supported Georgia’s ambition to join NATO. Although it was agreed at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest that Georgia could become a member, there has been no consensus regarding the next enlargement of the Alliance. Most NATO member countries—and particularly France and Germany—are aware that putting Georgia on the formal road to membership will trigger a possibly hostile Russian response. Moreover, a Georgian membership could mean collective defense is required in the event of another conflict between Georgia and its neighbor. Currently, Georgia can only expect NATO support for political reforms, the strengthening of civilian control of the military, and participation in the Partnership for Peace (PfP).

Montenegro: A Bulwark in the Balkans

Finally, on Aug. 2, Pence held a meeting with Montenegrin President Filip Vujanović and Prime Minister Duško Marković. On July 5, 2017, Montenegro became the 29th NATO member state, the first in nearly 10 years.

Montenegro’s role within NATO will be to help stop the spread of Russian influence throughout the Balkans. Recently, Montenegro accused Russian secret services of masterminding a coup attempt to prevent the country from joining the Alliance, and in June 2017 the Montenegrin High Court charged two alleged Russian intelligence officers with attempting acts against the constitutional order.

This episode illustrates that the Balkans have become increasingly unstable due to Russian influence, poor economic conditions, the rise of Islamist extremism, and foreign terrorist fighters returning from the Middle East and North Africa.

The visit in the Balkans is a clear signal to Russia that the US and its allies will stand together with Montenegro against any pressure and outside (i.e., Russian) interference. During the meeting with Balkan leaders, Pence underlined the need to keep the door open to further NATO enlargement in the region, which could help with stability, democracy, and human rights issues. Pence’s visit and words were also a boost to other countries in the region, especially Serbia, FYR Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are interested in joining NATO and enhancing bilateral ties with the US.

Whatever the Balkan nations took away from the visit, it is probable that Pence made a much better first impression on Montenegro’s Marković than President Trump did. At the NATO meeting in Brussells, Trump appeared to shove the Prime Minister aside to get to the front of a group photo opportunity causing a minor diplomatic stir!

INSCT Research and Practice Associate Kamil Szubart is a 2017 visiting fellow at INSCT, via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He works as an analyst for the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznan, Poland, where he is responsible for German foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic threats in German-native-speaking countries and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and the UN. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation examining US-German relations in the field of international security since 9/11.