U.S. Visit Will Show Support for Ukraine

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is to attend a NATO meeting of defense ministers Thursday in Estonia in a deliberate show of support for Ukraine and the Baltics that also will serve to strike back at escalating Russian threats in the region.

Gates' attendance at the meeting also will draw attention to an international imbroglio that got little notice during the presidential campaign but could prove to be a vexing problem for President-elect Barack Obama after he takes office on Jan. 20.

Since Russia's brief war with neighboring Georgia in August, tensions have spiked between Washington and Moscow. U.S. officials have enthusiastically embraced fledgling Eastern European nations as they move to join NATO and foster stronger relations with the West. Russia sees such activity as a threat.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Tuesday that Gates' trip was, in part, a symbolic gesture. "I'm not so sure this is a meeting the secretary would have attended had the Russians chosen not to invade Georgia," Morrell said. "But in the aftermath of that, the secretary wanted to send a very strong signal of his support for Ukraine and the Baltic states and our other NATO allies from Eastern Europe that the United States stands firmly behind them."

The meeting is designed largely to discuss Ukraine's efforts to join NATO.

But Morrell and other senior Pentagon officials said the allies also were likely to discuss the friction with Russia.

Moscow took little time in sending its welcome message to Obama. Shortly after his election last week, President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Moscow would deploy short-range missiles near Poland to counter U.S. military plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Medvedev blamed Washington for the war in Georgia and the world financial crisis, and he repeated claims that the missile-defense facilities planned for Poland and the Czech Republic were meant to weaken Russia. U.S. leaders have repeatedly disputed that charge, insisting that the system is designed to protect the region from any Iranian threat.

This suggests that even as the next administration wrestles with a growing insurgency in Afghanistan and a difficult transition in Iraq, it also will have to find ways to quell hostilities with Russia without jeopardizing efforts to foster its young Eastern European allies and defend against a possible threat from Iran.

Obama already has signaled his recognition that the issue will be critical as he takes office; one member of his Pentagon transition team is an expert in Russia policy. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall previously was a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia during the Clinton administration. She currently is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

In August, shortly after the Russia-Georgia fighting, Gates warned that Moscow must face retribution for its actions.

"My personal view is that there need to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state," Gates said then.