KLAIPEDA — The entrance to this Lithuanian city's port is a lesson in geopolitics. Klaipeda is the major transit hub for Russia on the Baltic Sea, but there’s no overlooking the huge semi-domes of the new terminals for LNG (liquefied natural gas) which Lithuania hopes will free the country from its energy-dependence on Moscow.
There is plenty of fear going around Eastern Europe right now. Whenever you get talking in any of the Baltic states you sense — also among young people — what’s known in psycho-jargon as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: disturbing memories of experiences and suffering, one’s own and others’.
Focus is presently fixed on the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and the fighting in Novorossiya ("New Russia"). In the Baltic countries, the anxiety rises when word spreads that Russia is paying salaries of troops inside Ukraine, and that those who perish are buried on Russian soil while relatives are given a five-figure compensation.
A low-intensity war is in motion and nobody knows where it will lead.
The fate of the Baltic states has traditionally been in Russia’s hands. Today, hopes are pinned on the United States, NATO, and the European Union without whose help Baltic freedom could soon be just another episode in a longer history of foreign domination.
A new Russian empire?
However much NATO may have lacked consideration of the Russian bear since the 1990s — the list is long — nothing justifies Russia’s current brutal disregard of international law, neighboring countries and world peace. Particularly threatening is the talk of "frontline states," a clear reference to the Baltic states.
Until now the Russian claim to supervisory rights in foreign countries in its immediate vicinity has sounded ominous enough. Now the question poses itself as to whether Vladimir Putin is a player using favorable opportunities to regain control of Russia’s lost empire by freezing conflicts and using intimidation to bring neighboring countries into line; or, is he actually trying to reconstruct the Russian empire via the Eurasian Economic Union. Or both, if that suits him best.
Putin has so far not proven to be an adventurer, but rather a manipulator of calculated risk. Cold War is no longer unthinkable, and it may already have begun. In most cases however, the currencies of power are different than they were in the decades after World War II, and they need to be used and coordinated differently. The main issues are economic and financial power, energy, raw materials and cyberspace.
Though Russia boasts natural resources that the whole world needs, it is otherwise playing with a bad hand.
In dealing with this, the West is going to have to figure out more than just an escalation seesaw that already now leaves only losers. The European Union is facing a responsibility it’s not prepared to handle. More specifically, it will fall to Germany and the United States to lead on the West's response to Russia.