Kazakhstan and Russia
Vladimir Putin, left, with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, right, in Belarus as Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, centre, looks on. Photograph: Sergei Bondarenko/AP
Barack Obama leaves Washington on Tuesday for the small Baltic state of Estonia on Russia's north-western border to reassure the vulnerable country that it is safe within Nato from Vladimir Putin's clutches.
En route to Wales for a Nato summit that Putin, in Ukraine, has transformed into the most important such gathering since the end of the cold war, Obama will reiterate the alliance's '"all-for-one and one-for-all" defence pledges of Nato's article five commitments, seeking to assuage Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian fears of revisionist Kremlin regional ambitions.
Putin's campaign in Ukraine, his seizure of Crimea and his invasion of eastern the country have the Baltic states and Poland in told-you-so mood. They have been clamouring for years for greater commitments from the west and voicing their suspicions of Russia. Ukraine has vindicated their angst, but generated an ambivalent response in the rest of Europe, including in the east where the Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians are much more inclined to give Putin the benefit of the doubt.
About one in four Estonians are ethnic Russians or native Russian-speakers, a bigger proportion than in Ukraine, where Putin justified his actions by referring to the defence of Russophones and ethnic Russians. Latvia, where about 30% are ethnic Russians, feels similarly exposed to Putin's summoning of Russian nationalism.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of Nato, told the Guardian last week: "Obviously some of our member states are very concerned that the Russians say they reserve their right to intervene in other countries if they consider it necessary to protect the interests of Russian-speaking populations in other countries. Obviously, that creates a lot of concern among the allies."
The remarks, to an audience of young people in Russia on Friday, sent shocke waves through the central Asian republic, which also hosts a large ethnic Russian minority centred in the north on the Russian border.
"I am confident that a majority of its population supports development of close ties with Russia, " said Putin. "Nazarbayev is a prudent leader, even the most prudent in the post-Soviet space. He would never act against the will of his country's people."
Kazakhstan, he said, was "part of the large Russian world that is part of the global civilisation in terms of industry and advanced technologies. I am confident that that's the way things are going to be in the medium вЂ“ and long-term."
Nazarbayev had "done a unique thing. He created a state in a territory that had never had a state before. The Kazakhs had no statehood."
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, it left 25 million Russians in new countries on Russia's rim, вЂ“ what Moscow calls the "near abroad". Putin, who has called the USSR's collapse the 20th century's greatest tragedy, although it was seen in most of the "captive" countries as a liberation, has played the ethnic card to stir up trouble, justified his actions in the name of the defence of Russians, and generally displayed a proprietorial attitude towards Russia's neighbours, using trade and energy as weapons to get them to toe the line.