VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) – After moving to annex Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin insists he has no intention of invading other regions in Ukraine, much less other nations. But leaders in Russia's backyard aren't so sure, and they're looking to Vice President Joe Biden for assurances that the U.S. has a plan to prevent that from happening.
Biden was meeting in this Baltic capital Wednesday with the leaders of Lithuania and Latvia, two small countries that, like Ukraine, border Russia. Almost 10 years to the day after Lithuania and Latvia joined NATO, the Baltics are suddenly plunged into the type of eerie concern about foreign aggression they may have thought they'd left behind at the end of the Cold War.
A day after promising more sanctions and regional military exercises to send a stern signal to Putin, Biden was making the case that the U.S. stands ready to defend nations like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia whose NATO membership entitles them to a defensive response from the U.S. and others.
"Have no doubt: The United States will honor its commitment. We always do," Biden said Tuesday in Warsaw, Poland, which shares a border with both Russia and Ukraine.
Still, the entire region is reeling from Moscow's move to absorb Crimea into its orbit. Tough talk, sanctions and travel bans have not been enough so far to dissuade Putin and his military from seizing control of Crimea and then, after a Crimean referendum that the West has condemned as illegal, declaring it part of Russia. Other countries watching warily are concerned they could be next.
"The punishment doesn't fit the crime, and the Baltic states and central European states know this," said Michael Geary, a European relations analyst at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. "They're worried that the U.S. response has been mediocre at best, and there's a palpable sense they need reassurance. Will they be protected in the event of further westward march by Russia?"
Yes, they will, Biden was seeking to assure the Baltic leaders as he closes out a two-day trip to the region intended to send a stern signal to Putin.
After arriving on a drizzly morning at Lithuania's presidential palace, Biden and his national security team sat down for a series of meetings with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Latvian President Andris Berzins. "The situation is alarming," Grybauskaite said at the start of her second session of the day with Biden.
A day earlier, Biden offered similar assurances to Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, along with Poland's prime minister and president during back-to-back meetings with the NATO allies in Warsaw.
More sanctions are coming, plus new NATO training and exercises that will take place in Poland, Biden said. He added that the U.S. was considering rotating American forces to the Baltic region as a step toward ensuring the collective defense of NATO allies. Those forces could conduct ground and naval exercises, and engage in training missions.
At the same time, other major Western powers were seeking fresh ways to show that Russia would incur real costs unless it changes course.
The British government said it was suspending military cooperation with Russia in light of the crisis. President Barack Obama invited world leaders — excluding Russia — to discuss what comes next during a meeting in Europe next week on the sidelines of a nuclear summit. At Warsaw's request, the U.S. last week sent some 300 air troops and a dozen F-16 fighters to Poland for joint training in a show of military support for a key ally. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a phone call with Obama, agreed that U.N. and other international monitors must be sent in to other parts of Ukraine without delay.
With Crimea now in Russia's control, attention has turned to eastern Ukraine and other areas with large ethnic Russian populations to see whether Putin will seek additional territory in what some fear is a return to Moscow's traditional imperial ambitions. Critics of the Obama administration's approach say that without a more forceful response, Baltic countries and other regions like the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria could be next.
"The West must impose real costs on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine," Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham. R-S.C., said in a statement. "By failing to do so, we only invite further aggression elsewhere."