US President Barack Obama and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said at a joint press conference today at the Bank of Estonia that it was time to look at NATO's commitments in a new light given the crisis in Ukraine. Obama confirmed additional deployments of air and airborne forces for exercises throughout the Baltics and Poland, such as an extra rotating air unit for the existing Ämari Air Force Base, though he did not announce any specifics on the new bases NATO officials mooted in the runup to the visit.
Taking a question from ERR about the 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia that views the bilateral relationship in non-adversarial terms, Ilves noted that defense cooperation were indeed frozen with Russia this year, and said: "The NATO Russia Founding Act has been violated by Russia. We continue to support the vision of that document but its substance has changed dramatically."
Obama concurred, saying: "The circumstances have clearly changed and this will be a topic for discussion in Wales. Beyond the issue of that particular document, our top priority has been to make sure that there's no ambiguity when it comes to our Article Five commitments to our NATO allies."
Given the changed landscape, said Obama, "Given the changed landscape, not only do we need to make sure the rotations [of US troops] are effective and designed to current threats, but more broadly NATO needs to look at their defensive capabilities as a whole, [...] properly updated and resourced." He said there had been a "complacency" for a time in Europe.
Asked by the Postimees daily how more support could be given to Ukraine, Obama said: "Political support is absolutely vital. One of the goals at the summit over the next few days is to project unity across NATO with regard to Ukraine's efforts to preserve sovereignty and territorial integrity." He added that sanctions against Russia had been effective and it would be necessary to apply costs as long as Russia was "violating basic principles of international law."
"The military efforts required to deal with [Russian-led destabilization] have been a drain on the Ukrainian economy, not to mention that you have major industrial areas within Ukraine have been impacted by the conflict," Obama noted.
The two questions from the international press corps were devoted to ISIS and the Middle East - also nodded at by Ilves at the outset of the conference. The last question from the non-Estonian press also included a question on the meaning of the Ukraine-Russia ceasefire announced just before the press conference.
Obama said he had supported a ceasefire that leads to meaningful resolution, but that up to now Rusisa had not been serious about such efforts and separatists had not abided by it.
"If in fact Russia is prepared to stop financing, arming, training and in many cases joining with Russian troops, activities in Ukraine, and is serious about a political settlement, that is somethng we all hope for. Our preference is a strong. productive, cooperative Russia, but the way to achieve that is by abiding by international norms, to improve the economy and actually producing goods and services that people want."
That is not the path Russia has been following, said Obama, but rather "aggression and appeals for national sentiments that have historically been very dangerous in Europe and have rightly been a cause for concern."
In his introduction extolling Estonia's achievements, Obama included praise for digital services, saying: "I should have called the Estonians when I was setting up our healthcare website."
He also praised the military participation, including the "nine brave Estonians" who gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq while participating on foreign missions.
And he credited Estonia for its commitment to meeting defense spending requirements of 2 percent of GDP.
NOTE: Quotes have been cleaned up against delivery since the time of original publication.