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Saturday, April 5, 2014

An American Ally in Putin's Line of Fire -- Estonia's president, who was raised in New Jersey, on how Crimea has changed 'everything' and what NATO should do now -- By Matthew Kaminski, The Wall Street Journal

(Ken Fallin illustration)

Tallinn, Estonia
From the pinkish presidential palace here, the Russia border lies 130 miles due east across a flat coastal Baltic plain. Toomas Hendrik Ilves took up residence in 2006, two years after his small Baltic state joined the European Union and NATO. At the time, most people assumed that any Russian threat had been buried with Peter the Great, who first brought Estonia into Russia's empire. 

Not so fast. "Everything has changed," President Ilves says almost as soon as we sit down for a Thursday afternoon coffee. 

"The post-Cold War order. Peace, love, Woodstock. Everyone gets along—sure we have minor problems here and there, human rights not always so good, but there are no more border changes." After last month, he says, "that's out." Russia annexed Crimea, massed forces on Ukraine's eastern borders, and prodded "Russian speakers" to rise against the government in Kiev. Moscow also pointedly complained about the treatment of Slavic kinsmen in the Baltic states, the same charge used to justify the invasion of Ukraine.
"An aggressive, revanchist power," in the Estonian leader's words, makes the unthinkable thinkable. "We were already caught off guard with Crimea," he says. "Once you lose the predictability factor, you can't be 99% sure they won't do something." The most dramatic something would be a Russian military incursion into NATO's front-line states. 

Perched alone up in eastern Baltic are Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Their fear of Moscow propelled them to become the first and only former Soviet republics to seek the refuge of NATO. But now doubts are appearing. The West has responded tepidly to the Crimean aggression. Military budgets are at historic lows as a share of NATO economies. The alliance, which marked its 65th anniversary on Friday, has never faced the test of a hot conflict with Moscow.

In this new debate over European security, Mr. Ilves plays a role out of proportion to Estonia's size (1.3 million people) and his limited constitutional powers. A tall man who recently turned 60, he has the mouth of a New Jersey pol—he grew up in Leonia—and wears the bow ties of a lapsed academic. Americans may recall his Twitter feud two years ago over Estonia's economy with economist Paul Krugman, whom Mr. Ilves called "smug, overbearing & patronizing."
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