President Obama gave a speech on Wednesday, in a city most Americans have never heard of, committing the United States to possible war against Russia. He said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Western military alliance better known as NATO, would fight to defend eastern European members like Estonia against any foreign aggression. In other words, if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Estonia or Latvia as he invaded Ukraine, then Putin would trigger war with the US and most of Europe.
Obama's speech from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, though just a speech, may well be America's most important and aggressive step yet against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. While the speech will do nothing for Ukraine, it is meant to stop Russia from invading, or perhaps from sponsoring rebellions in, other European countries — so long as those European countries are part of NATO, as most are.
"We'll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania," President Obama said from the capital of Estonia, one of the three Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union but now are members of NATO. "You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again."
Obama was making a promise, and a very public one meant to reverberate not just in European capitals but in Moscow as well: If Russia invades any member of NATO, even these small Baltic states on the alliance's far periphery, then it will be at war with all of them — including the United States.
"The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London," Obama said. To be really clear: that defense means war with Russia, which has the world's second-largest military and second-largest nuclear arsenal, a prospect so dangerous that even during the angriest moments of the Cold War, the world managed to avoid it.
The idea, though, is not that Obama wants to go to war with Russia, it's that he wants to avoid war with Russia — this is also why the US and Europe are not intervening militarily in Ukraine to push back the Russian tanks — but that avoiding war with Russia means deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading these Baltic states in the first place by scaring him off.
The risk of such an invasion, by the way, is real: these countries are about one-quarter ethnic Russian, and Ukraine's own Russian minority which was Putin's excuse for invading Crimea in March. Putin also clearly sees former Soviet states as fair game; he has invaded Ukraine and Georgia, both marked in red on the above map. So the Baltic states are rightly terrified that they are next.
Here is Obama's dilemma, and Europe's: They want to prove to Putin that they will definitely defend Estonia and Latvia and other eastern European NATO members as if they were American or British or German soil, so that Putin will not invade those countries as he did in Ukraine. But the entire world, including Putin, is suspicious as to whether or not this threat is a bluff. And the worst possible thing that could happen, the thing that could legitimately lead to World War Three and global nuclear war, is for Putin to call Obama's bluff, invade Estonia, and have Obama's bluff turn out to not be a bluff.
(Just in case you thought I was exaggerating about the threat of nuclear war: Russia announced on Wednesday, shortly after Obama's speech, that its strategic nuclear forces would conduct "major exercises" later this month.)
This all started when NATO invited a bunch of former Soviet states, such as Estonia, to join in the 1990s and 2000s because it wanted to keep them safe from Russian aggression, and wanted to isolate Russia. The entire point of NATO is as a military alliance, and mostly an anti-Russian one, in which declaring war against one member means you are at war with all of them. So the idea is that this will prevent Russia from invading Estonia, because this would trigger war with the US, UK, Germany, France, and many others, which Russia would lose.
But no one is really sure whether the US and other Western European countries would be willing to go to war against Russia should Putin invade a peripheral NATO member such as Estonia or Latvia. Western analysts are legitimately divided on how this would play out, and it is not hard to find former — or current — US officials who worry that, if the moment came for NATO to launch World War III in defense of Estonia, they would decide that it was not worth the trouble.
That's why Obama went to the Estonian capital of Tallinn this week, and why he stood up with the Estonian prime minister to pledge as clearly as possible that he would definitely go to war against Russia if it came to it — precisely so that it never will come to that.