After Ukraine, Countries That Border Russia Start Thinking about Nuclear Deterrents

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Byline: Elisabeth Braw

So much for a world without the atomic bomb. Not so long ago, President Barack Obama said he believed such a future was in the cards. Now, after Russia's annexation of Crimea, not so much.

Many states in Russia's neighborhood are giving new attention to nuclear protection. "Although there's a very small risk of Russia acting against Poland, that risk is much bigger now than it was just a few weeks ago," Stanislaw Koziej, head of Poland's National Security Bureau, tells Newsweek. The most important deterrence, he says, is "NATO solidarity and the presence of the U.S. military in Europe. Nuclear deterrence is a very important factor that NATO has at its disposal, and it's becoming increasingly important."

That's a very different tone from the one struck by Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, four years ago, when he proposed a treaty to limit nuclear weapons in Europe. Indeed, Sikorski himself invoked nuclear rhetoric earlier this spring when calling for sanctions against Russia.

Twenty years ago, Ukraine was the world's third largest nuclear weapons state, behind only Russia and the United States. Then it signed a treaty voluntarily handing over its arsenal to Russia, in exchange for guarantees that Russia would respect its borders.

As the annexation of Crimea has shown, that pledge was worth little. The message received over the past few months by countries bordering the Russian Federation is: If you have nuclear weapons, never given them up; if you don't, try to get the Americans to shield you with theirs.

Five years ago, speaking to a jubilant 20,000-strong crowd in front of Prague's famous castle, newly elected President Obama outlined his vision for eliminating nuclear weapons. And a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the 180 American nuclear weapons stationed in Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Turkey seemed like a leftover. But Peter Doran, director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C., and co-author of a new report on security in Central and Eastern Europe, says, "Crimea has changed the world. The treaties--the U.N. Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the Budapest Memorandum, the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the Russo-Ukrainian Treaty of 1997--that created peace in Europe for the past 20 years have been called into question by the invasion and annexation of Crimea. Georgia was the first sign that Vladimir Putin is a revisionist. Then came Ukraine. What will the third country be?"

The Baltic states are the most anxious. They enjoyed only two decades of independence after World War II before being annexed by the Soviet Union. Though they've been independent since 1991, Estonia and Latvia in particular host large Russian minorities (25 and 26 percent, respectively). The fear is that, just like in Crimea, the Russians could use that as a pretext for interfering and making trouble.

"Of course we're worried," says Ants Laaneots, Estonia's former commander in chief, who served as outgoing Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's military adviser until Ansip's term ended last month. "The Russians are following a doctrine that includes restoring control over the post-Soviet space."

Laaneots, an officer in the Soviet Red Army until Estonia's independence, predicts that Moldova and the breakaway republic of Transnistria will be first, then the Baltic states. He also knows General Valery Gerasimov, Russia's chief of general staff, who in the 1990s commanded Russia's forces in the Baltics. "He's a professional, by no means an extremist," Laaneots says. "Unfortunately, it's politicians who are giving the commands."

On April 2, NATO suspended cooperation with Russia. When the NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002, it was in the collaborative post-9/11 spirit. NATO's members and Russia agreed to "work towards achieving a true strategic and modernized partnership. …