Geopolitical Diary: Russia's Retaliatory Options
By: Stratfor.comFebruary 19, 2008
The Russian press (which is to say, the state-controlled media) was deathly quiet about Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia on Monday. Even the basic reports of states' initial recognitions of Kosovo showed up hours late.

Historically, when Russian newspapers are silent, it means one of two things: First, there could be a total lack of consensus and direction among Moscow's upper leadership regarding what to do-which typically sets the stage for a palace coup. Such silence reigned after the Cuban Missile Crisis and just before the fall of Nikita Khrushchev, as well as after the 1999 NATO-Yugoslav War, which led to Vladimir Putin's rise. Second, the Kremlin could have a major plan on which it is about to act. Such quietness also preceded the building of the Berlin Wall and the 1979 attack against Afghanistan.

In the face of the major powers' recognition of an independent Belgrade, Moscow needs to repair the image of Russian power-both in the former Soviet Union and in Europe itself. But it is not enough simply to expand and entrench Russia's influence somewhere. To regain its credibility, Russia must strike back at those that made Kosovar independence possible: the European Union and NATO.

This eliminates many of Russia's options. For example, pushing hard in Georgia by annexing the Caucasian state's two separatist regions might represent a kind of victory for the Kremlin and serve certain Russian interests, but at the end of the day, Georgia is a peripheral concern for the Europeans. Russia needs to move in a region in which Europe has a direct stake.

The list of possibilities is brutally short. There really are only three points where Russian options significantly overlap with European vulnerabilities. The first is Ukraine, which the Europeans have marked for eventual EU membership. But "eventual" is the key word here; while Ukraine is high on Europe's "to-integrate" list, real work has not yet begun there. Additionally, Russia already is neck-deep in Ukrainian politics, so any surge might prove difficult to identify. Russia needs far more than a token victory-it needs to hit where Europe can feel the impact.

The second option is the Finnish frontier. The European who has taken point for the bulk of the EU Kosovo policy is Martti Ahtisaari, who served as prime minister of Finland-and, incidentally, held the rotating presidency of the European Union-when the first Kosovo crisis erupted in 1998. He has since served as the U.N. mediator on the Kosovo issue. The EU plan for Kosovo's guided independence largely is his brainchild. Add in a century of complex relations between Finland and Russia, and a Finno-Russian crisis could fit the bill.

But there are problems with this strategy. Russia has no real tools for pressuring Finland, shy of a military invasion. Moscow is angry, but it does not want to start a hot war, and Finland's military exists for but one reason: to defend against a Russian attack. During the Cold War, Russia was powerful enough to cow Finland into neutrality, but Russian power is no longer sufficient enough to intimidate Helsinki to that degree. In the aftermath of a Russian defeat over Kosovo, a Russian military move against Finland actually could result in a close NATO-Finland relationship that might even include NATO membership for Helsinki. This only would compound Russia's humiliation.

The final option involves the three Baltic republics: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. These former Soviet states house substantial Russian minorities, and each has a reputation for seizing whatever opportunity it can to twist the Russian tail. Unlike Finland, the Baltics are not militarily capable of attempting a reasonable independent defense. The only thing preventing a Russian move against the Baltics is the risk of a NATO or EU reaction-all three Baltic states are members of both organizations. Yet, unlike the former Warsaw Pact states of Central Europe, the Baltics lack the infrastructure connections to the core of Europe that would enable them to be defended easily by NATO allies. They sport no NATO bases of military significance, and the only NATO member with a meaningful expeditionary capability is the United States, which has all of its deployable troops locked down in Iraq.

Russia hardly needs to conquer these three states to prove its point. Simply using military force to settle a minor border dispute-even one over a space as small as a few acres-would be sufficient. Russia needs to pick a fight it can win, as well as one that humiliates NATO and the European Union. The Baltics could provide the only potential crisis that delivers both.

Moscow has always thought that NATO security guarantees are not worth the paper they are written on. If Russia is to avoid being pushed not only out of the Balkans but also eventually out of its own periphery-and if Putin is going to secure his own skin (to say nothing of his legacy)-the Kremlin might finally have to test that position.

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