By Startfor (June 27, 2012)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will begin a string of official visits June 27. Clinton will visit Finland before moving on to Latvia and then meeting with her Russian counterpart in Moscow. The three-day trip comes a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama concluded a tense meeting on the sidelines of a G-20 summit.
Clinton deliberately chose to visit these countries before traveling to Moscow. Finland’s growing dissatisfaction with the European Union and its concurrent rapprochement with Western security alliances present Moscow with both opportunities and challenges regarding its influence in Helsinki. Latvia is an important country for Russia’s Baltic strategy; Lithuania and Estonia have worked to weaken Moscow’s influence in the region, particularly in the area of energy. Clinton’s decision to stop in Latvia and Finland highlights the importance of these countries to Russia and Washington’s desire to undermine the Kremlin’s strategic imperatives in the region. Moscow will have to provide economic incentives in order to maintain the current balance with Riga and Helsinki as its overall strategic position weakens.
Finland is the only Scandinavian member of the eurozone and thus the only one caught up in the currency bloc’s crisis. The Finnish opposition has radicalized considerably over the past two years, with the nationalist and anti-European Union True Finns party exerting greater influence on Helsinki’s policies.
The Kremlin sees Finland’s disenchantment with the European Union as a chance to enhance economic cooperation with Finland and keep Helsinki under its sway. Russia can offer Finland’s faltering economy access to its large market base, particularly in telecommunications. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto met with Putin on June 22 in Russia to address these economic issues.
However, Russia’s opportunities in Finland are far from assured. Despite its officially neutral status, Helsinki generally distrusts Moscow’s strategic intentions and has of late been more receptive to security arrangements with Western partners. Finland has been considering participating in air patrols over Iceland alongside other Scandinavian countries, a move that could be seen as an accord with NATO, an organization Helsinki typically avoids.
Finland — like Georgia — has deep strategic value for Russia, and Moscow has opposed both countries’ inclusion in NATO. Shortly after Clinton’s visit to Tbilisi on June 6, Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov said that any cooperation between Finland and NATO would threaten Russian security. He urged Helsinki to seek security arrangements with Russia instead.
Niinisto issued a statement June 21 that sums up Finland’s position: “I believe that, given that big problems can be observed in the countries of southern Europe, the significance of cooperation among Scandinavian, North European and Nordic countries is growing. Russia is also an important neighbor for us, and so I believe that I will adhere to the principle of working with our closest neighbors.”
Clinton’s visit to Latvia is as controversial for Russia as her visit to Finland. In the past two years, Russia has lost a great deal of influence in the Baltic states, which it considers a strategic area and the main front line with NATO. Russia’s losses occurred in Lithuania and Estonia, specifically in the area of energy. Both nations have begun instituting sweeping energy reforms to break Russia’s monopoly of their natural gas supplies — Moscow’s traditional lever in its former Soviet territories.
Lithuania and Estonia are relying more on NATO and the European Union for security and economic arrangements, but Latvia has maintained close cooperation with Moscow. Russia has used Latvia’s strategic position between Estonia and Lithuania to block Baltic integration efforts, including the Rail Baltica transportation project and the development of a joint liquefied natural gas import facility.
Clinton’s stay in Riga highlights the weakening of Russia’s strategic position in Latvia. If Moscow loses its influence over the country, it would be unable to avoid a unified Baltic front on its northwestern border.
Following her visit to Georgia, Clinton continues to note — and visit — states that pose security concerns for Russia. Moscow will have to react in both Finland and Latvia to make sure they do not take irreversible steps that would harm Russia’s interests. However, Russia’s weakening position in both countries and the availability of alternatives for Helsinki and Riga will make it difficult for Moscow to use traditional intimidation tactics. Russia will be more likely to maintain its relationships with Finland and Latvia with positive reinforcement, such as economic incentives.