Havel, former CEE leaders, call on Obama to resist "creeping Russian intimidation"

Barack Obama, photo: CTK

Former president Václav Havel has joined around 20 colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe in writing an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, appealing to him not to abandon the region in the interest of forming better relations with Russia. In the letter, published on Thursday, they urge Mr Obama to boost American involvement in Europe’s security and resist Russia’s “creeping intimidation”.

The letter, which is 10 pages long, is in essence a plea for the U.S. not to ignore or even abandon its allies in Central and Eastern Europe at a time when Russia appears to be keen to reassert its influence in a region which was once well inside its sphere of influence.

The signatories say they remain deeply indebted to the U.S. for its role in bringing about the end of communism and are profoundly pro-American in outlook, but very delicately remind Mr Obama that it works both ways. Soldiers from the region, they point out, fight alongside U.S. soldiers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, often in forces which may appear tiny in comparison to countries like Britain, but which represent significant financial and human sacrifices for the countries concerned. Against that, they are worried that Washington is slowly turning its back on the region as it attempts to improve ties with Russia.

Barack Obama,  photo: CTK
The former leaders call on Mr Obama to show greater commitment to NATO’s regional role, more commitment to the missile defence scheme and ignore Russian objections to it. The U.S. president seems to be putting missile defence on the back burner, in a bid to improve military ties with Russia. They also call on him to give more support to efforts to reduce Europe's reliance on Russian energy, such as the Nabucco pipeline.

They describe Russia as "a revisionist power pursuing a 19th century agenda with 21st century tactics and methods...", adding that "the danger is that Russia's creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralization of the region."

There's been no reaction yet from the White House, but it's been welcomed here in Prague. A column in the newspaper Lidové noviny said it was important to counter claims such as those put forward by Russia's foreign minister Sergej Lavrov, who publicly argued with his Czech counterpart recently that the Czech Republic and Poland were in eastern, not Central Europe (and therefore, presumably, in Russia's traditional sphere of influence).

But the Economist, one of the world’s most influential publications, wrote in an online comment that the letter risked sounding "plaintive and naïve", pointing out that Russia no longer posed a threat to the U.S. The newspaper quoted an unnamed American official as summing up such pleas for greater U.S. support for Central and Eastern Europe as follows – “they’re asking us, in principle, to risk WW3 in their defence, and if their country stands for organised crime and economic collapse, that’s a hard sell.”