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Russia Milking the Baltics

By Alex Botting

On October 7, as world attention turned to the protracted U.S. government shutdown, Russia seized the opportunity to turn the screws on its Western neighbors by announcing the suspension of dairy imports from Lithuania.

Given that Lithuanian dairy products are of the highest quality in the region, this was an unusual and unsubstantiated charge. It is more understandable, however, when viewed in the political context—on the eve of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. This summit will determine the path to EU integration for six former Soviet Republics.

Despite Lithuania’s complaints to the World Trade Organization (WTO), these suspended dairy products will no doubt sit at the Russian border until long after the conference has ended, at great cost to the Lithuanian producers (for whom Russia represents 85% of their market). In other words, this will fuel Russian confidence that it can act with impunity towards its Eastern European neighbors – a dangerous precedent.

To understand Russia’s actions, we must look at what’s driving them: the increasing loss of control over its traditional ‘sphere of influence’ as China begins to assert its dominance in Central Asia.

Over the past decade, China has successfully used its economic potential to boost influence in Central Asia, taking a dominant stake in its major strategic resources: oil and gas. In the past year alone, it has signed major energy agreements in all five Central Asian countries, culminating in a successful Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit at which a framework for cooperation was agreed on issues of security, energy, and development. China’s ultimate goal is to develop the vast local resources and criss-cross Central Asia with pipelines that can serve its internal energy needs, as well as develop its political influence in the region.

Russia is powerless to compete with China on an economic front and may foresee a threat to its political control of the region. This comes at a time when Russia hoped a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would revert Central Asia to its pre-9/11 status quo.

Rather than challenge the inevitable, Russia is increasingly turning to its Western border to serve the international ambitions that are so popular at home. Russia pursues this strategy with ease, in part due to the Obama Administration’s apathy towards the Europe and Eurasia regions.

In the wake of the “strategic pivot” towards Asia, as well as increasing budget pressures at home, the U.S. must make tough choices with regards to strategic focus. This will come as little comfort to allies such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, who rely on the U.S. as a security guarantor of last resort.

U.S. detachment over recent years has precipitated a trend in the region of electing governments that favor rapprochement with Russia. With no means of protection from Russian strong-arming, tough responses to Russia can do nothing but escalate a fight which they are sure to lose, such as what happened with Georgia in 2008.

Yet rapprochement has paid little dividend either. Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s promise to normalize relations ended a Russian embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water but has done nothing to solve the larger dispute over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nor has it stopped Russia from engaging in disruptive activities in these areas.

Similar stories can be told by Ukraine and Lithuania. In the case of the Bulgarian government dissolution was expedited, if not caused, by Russian pressure on the local energy markets. In each case, Russia has sought to penalize countries that seek EU or NATO integration by creating a substantial cost to pursuing the process. Russia’s preferred alternative to developing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Free Trade Zone would be a step towards greater regional reliance on the Russian economy. Pressured by Moscow, this step has already been taken by Armenia, Belarus, Moldova and the Ukraine.

In light of this situation, the EU and Lithuania appeal to the WTO over the embargo on dairy products is a laudable example of how to conduct oneself in the international arena– adhering to the institutional “rules of the game”. However, the (lack of) results speak for themselves.

Russia’s strategy of applying economic and military pressure to elicit political gains may be unpalatable, but its efficacy is beyond reproach.

As of yet, it is not clear that the EU and its constituent countries are willing or able to move beyond multilateral diplomacy in response to Russian aggression. Yet without a credible deterrent, there is no reason to suspect that Russia will change its behavior.

The United States is understandably wary of straining ties with Russia as the withdrawal from Afghanistan looms. A successful withdrawal requires access to Russian air transportation hubs, as well as those of Central Asian countries where Russia retains influence.

However, as the withdrawal approaches Russia has shown increasing reticence to a ‘zero option’ approach from the U.S., knowing from experience the potential for a destabilizing effect in Central Asia. This creates a window of opportunity for the U.S. to impart diplomatic pressure on Russia vis-à-vis its actions towards its Western neighbors.

Moreover, as the pressure on U.S. military resources abates in a post-Afghanistan world, this diplomatic pressure can once again be backed by a credible threat of force, restoring a balance of power in the region.

Even if we set aside the question of whether the U.S. has a moral responsibility to protect these countries, there is a compelling national interest to embrace this opportunity: Europe’s eastern borders act as a strategic buffer zone, enabling the U.S. to manage its security threats from afar.

Azerbaijan and Armenia serve as a buffer to Iran; Georgia as a buffer to Dagestan and Chechnya; and Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine as a buffer to Russia. If these countries are lost into the orbit of Russian influence, the U.S. and the EU will be more vulnerable because of it.

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Alexander Botting is a Senior International Consultant to governments and commercial entities in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia.

[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Political Map]

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