Mixed messages leave eastern Europe on edge

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, spent a couple of days last week reassuring the Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – that fellow Nato members would stand with them, shoulder to shoulder, should they face Georgia-style aggression from close neighbour Russia. His pledge, undoubtedly sincere, was not entirely convincing.

Mullen does not speak for key European states such as France, Germany and Italy, whose leaders have been notably weak-kneed about punishing Moscow for its August incursions into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, led efforts to block a US-backed Nato membership plan for Georgia and Ukraine earlier this year. American hawk John Bolton, among others, believes that decision encouraged Russia's subsequent adventurism.

EU countries are still undecided about renewing strategic partnership talks with Russia suspended after the Georgia row. Foreign ministers will discuss an EU commission review of relations on November 10, ahead of a scheduled EU-Russia summit. The US is conducting a similar re-evaluation.

"Clearly the relationship has changed because of what happened in Georgia," Mullen said. It had caused a "real chill" within Nato and across the Baltic region. "I think it is imperative for all of us in Nato to stay unified on this issue." That is a sentiment often heard, and as often disregarded, in relation to Afghanistan where sharp alliance disagreements have emerged. Nato's Afghan over-stretch, squabbling and finger-pointing have raised doubts about its ability to act effectively elsewhere.

Verbally at least, Britain, in common with Poland, has taken a harder post-Georgia line than other leading European countries. That follows foreign secretary David Miliband's speech in Kiev in August when he called on the west to "raise the costs to Russia of disregarding its responsibilities" and warned against further aggression.

Britain's stance has been welcomed by the three Baltic states, which only finally escaped the Soviet Union's clutches in 1991 after half a century of annexation and repression. But they also say actions speak louder than words. Lt-Gen Valdas Tutkus, Lithuania's defence chief, pointed out during Mullen's visit that the main reason his country had joined Nato in 2004 was Article V of its charter – the commitment to collective defence.

Nato should upgrade its plans for protecting the region, Tutkus urged, and increase the frequency of military exercises – something Mullen said was under consideration. Whether European Nato governments will support what might be seen in Moscow as an unfriendly act is doubtful. But neither are they moving to build up non-Nato European defence capabilities, despite expert recommendations to do so.

Speaking during a visit to London this week, Maris Riekstins, Latvia's foreign minister, suggested it was too soon for conciliatory diplomatic gestures to Moscow, however great the political temptation to pretend everything is alright again. "We need to have dialogue but the question is, is the time right and has Russia fulfilled its obligations [respecting the EU's Georgia peace deal]? We don't really feel they have done enough."

Riekstins said he was confident Nato would defend Latvia and its Baltic neighbours if push came to shove, despite differences of view between "old" and "new" Europe. "The countries of old Europe made a serious commitment when we joined Nato," he said. They would be expected to stick to it. Riekstins said Georgia and Ukraine should be offered Nato membership action plans at the alliance's December meeting even at the risk of provoking Russia. At present Germany and others remain opposed to such a move.

Like the Georgia crisis, the global financial crisis is also bringing home to the Baltic states how vulnerable is their position on Europe's fringe – and how EU membership is not quite the panacea some may once have imagined.

Latvia and Estonia have enjoyed boom times since independence, with double digit growth and surging foreign investment. But now both economies are in recession, with Lithuania not far behind, as credit dries up and unemployment and external debt rise. Budget cuts and belt-tightening are the order of the day.

Continuing, chronic energy dependence on Russia is another worry, exacerbated by the absence of an EU-wide energy policy and by bilateral deals such as the Germany-Russia Nord Stream pipeline project. All three Baltic states, for example, are 100% reliant on Russian gas. And Russia has a long post-cold war history of using energy supply for political leverage.

Reviving insecurities are already creating political shockwaves. The victory of the rightwing Homeland Union in Lithuania's weekend general election brought to power a party renowned for its deep hostility to Moscow. Brussels may not want to face it. But such developments are contributing to a new era of increased tensions along the eastern EU's wild frontiers.

Simon Tisdall