Anyone who's been paying much attention to the news lately knows that there's a bit of a sticky situation that's developed in Eastern Europe, between Russia and Ukraine. I actually majored in international affairs in college, so this is something I've had a particular interest in. Now, I'm hardly an expert these days, so my opinion is no more valid than most anyone else's, but I thought I would post my thoughts on where this might go. But first, a brief recap of the situation.


The background for this is that Ukraine had been examining various trade relationships favoring either Europe or Russia. Then president Yanukovych wanted closer ties with Russia, while many citizens wanted closer ties with Europe. This led to a wave of protests and riots which resulted in Yanukovych being deposed.


Ukraine achieved independence from Russia with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but terms were eventually reached allowing the Russian Black Sea Fleet to remain based at Sevastopol in the Crimea region. Sevastopol has been a major Russian navy base since the end of the 18th Century, and remained a source of tension between the two countries. As Russia was allowed to use Sevastopol as a base, this let them keep large numbers of troops in the area. As the crisis in Ukraine proceeded, Russia has taken control of the region, with the supposed aim being to protect ethnic Russians in the region.


The reaction in the West, by which I mean Europe and the United States has been somewhat limited. There has been diplomatic pressure brought on the Russians, and recently economic sanctions have begun to be imposed. Russia almost literally laughed off the first wave of sanctions, but another wave may be having more impact, as they have responded with some sanctions of their own. And this brings us to where we are today.


Russian forces are currently massed on Ukraine's eastern border. That part of Ukraine is predominantly ethnic Russians, so it's possible that Russian leader Vladimir Putin will use “mistreatment” of Russian speakers as an excuse to move on that part of the country. He's also started talking about alleged mistreatment of native Russian speakers in the Baltic republic of Estonia, another former Soviet republic.


When it comes to the West's policies towards Estonia, there is a big difference compared to those policies towards Ukraine, and that difference consists of four letters. N. A. T. O. Estonia is a member of NATO, and other member states are pledged to defend Estonia in the event of an attack, while no such treaty with Ukraine exists. It was a safe bet that there would be no military response to Putin's seizing the Crimea, but what about Estonia?


I'm not sure what Putin's game plan is here. It could be that he's just trying to rattle people's cages, make his other neighbors nervous, and so distract the West from his next moves in Ukraine or elsewhere. I can't imagine that Putin really wants a military confrontation with NATO, as that's not likely to end well for anyone. I tend to feel this is the more likely situation.


An alternative scenario comes to mind, though. If Putin doesn't think NATO actually will respond with force to a move on Estonia, then he may very well make that move, in effort to expand Russia's borders. He, or his advisers, may be thinking that the West, especially the United States, is tired of military conflicts. We're out of Iraq, and we're trying to wind things down in Afghanistan. Only a few weeks ago, the Secretary of Defense proposed significant cuts to the Pentagon's budget.


If Russia attacks Estonia and NATO does not respond, I think that's pretty much the end of NATO. Who can take them seriously after failing to live up to their obligations in such a situation? It could be that this is Putin's plan. It's less about Estonia itself, and more about trying to attack NATO's credibility. It's no secret that the alliance makes Russia uneasy, as they're clearly the primary focus of it. If Putin can break it up, he gains a freer hand in his dealings with the former Soviet republics, and possibly beyond.


I really hope this isn't his plan, because this could get very ugly very quickly if it is. The situation certainly deserves attention and monitoring. I hope that smarter people than I will be able to keep it under control.