Twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reassertion of their independence, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have been well-described as a “belt of freedom and democracy,” buffering the rest of Europe from Russia.
While each country is different, each shares a strong commitment to maintaining its hard-fought independence. The process of developing democracy and building a free market economic system after 50 years of communist subjugation is hard enough. But having to deal with a large and menacing neighbor bent on sabotaging their efforts makes it all the more difficult.
In spite of its size and military might, Russia’s actions continue to manifest a lack of confidence in its own system. The increasing success of neighboring states previously part of the Soviet Union highlights the dichotomy.
Regardless of the motivation, Russia’s actions are being resisted, and the governments of Georgia and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) seek help from the United States. More than any transactional process of concession-based “reset” between the United States and Russia, what is most likely to improve Russia’s behavior and relationship with the West is the success of these countries (in part because it would also serve as a powerful and inspiring example to the Russian people).
So, what can we do to help? Even though each of these countries face unique challenges and offer distinct opportunities, all five eagerly seek closer ties and cooperation with the U.S.
Unfortunately, there is a significant Russian influence in Ukraine, so it is not making as much progress as it could either politically or economically. Members of the opposition party helped see Ukraine through the Orange Revolution, but were unable to live up to expectations. Ukraine needs foreign investment, but until it can successfully implement lasting reforms, investors will be cautious about exposing themselves to a business climate with extensive corruption.
Despite the 2008 Russian invasion into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgian prospects are more hopeful. The dynamic leadership of Mikheil Saakasvilli is modeled on the economic principles of Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. With Russian troops still occupying one-fifth of this country and nearly 1,000 troops fighting alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Georgia has requested and should be allowed to purchase defensive weapons from the United States. Likewise, Georgia, as a future NATO member, is an excellent site to support missile defense of the United States and Europe. Economic cooperation in the form of a free trade agreement with the United States and admission into the E.U. would also help ensure Georgia’s long term success.
The Baltic States have fared better. However, in its continued efforts to keep major parts of Europe dependent on Russian energy, Russia has frustrated Lithuania’s attempt to secure financing and commitments for a nuclear power plant (to replace a Soviet-era plant required to shut down as a condition of E.U. membership). This could represent an investment opportunity for U.S. companies.
The Baltic States have demonstrated their commitment to NATO and the U.S. by participating in both Iraq and Afghanistan without caveats, and Estonia is one of a few NATO members prepared to honor its pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. All three want NATO to continue “air policing” over their territory and we believe they are willing to provide the bases and reimburse the U.S. for our costs. This arrangement could serve as an example for other NATO members as we reconfigure our force structure in Europe.
The Baltic States are strongly opposed to the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. If states currently hosting these weapons insist on removal from their territory, some have indicated the Baltic States may be willing to host them, especially with thousands of Russian weapons across their borders. And, understandably, they are all deeply concerned about what U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia missile defense cooperation could mean for their defense.
During a recent visit to these nations, we repeatedly heard what President Reagan’s legacy means to the people and leaders there. One prominent Baltic leader urged the United States to locate “Reagan Centers” in each country, not only to cement the 40th president’s legacy, but to provide an understanding of the political and economic policies that have helped create freedom and prosperity in the United States.
In this centennial anniversary of Reagan’s birth, we agree and believe that American leaders, both inside and outside of government, should work together to make such centers a reality.
Perhaps nowhere on Earth can peoples be found who are more committed to freedom than in Georgia, the Baltic States, and the Ukraine.
The U.S. should seize this moment with the 21st century’s “belt of freedom and democracy,” not only to support them, but to provide a clear example to the Russian people who, with the right policies and leaders, could enjoy the same opportunities.