A Baltic Response to the Bear

Russia is developing a comprehensive strategy of bleeding American power around the globe. The United States must respond not at its point of greatest weakness, as the Bush administration may be tempted to do, but at its points of strength.

Russia's leaders have made it clear over the past month that their invasion of Georgia is not an isolated retaliation against a troublesome small neighbor. It is part of a broader effort by the Kremlin to establish new rules for big-power relations on its own terms while U.S. forces are stretched to their limits in the greater Middle East.

The emerging change in power relationships does not rise to the level so far of a new Cold War. Look at President Dmitry Medvedev's recent tut-tutting comments about U.S. economic and military problems, and you sense that he subscribes to the opportunist's creed of kicking people when they are down: Of course you kick them then. When else are you going to kick them?

But the Kremlin's larger intent -- to create "a new world order" on the back of gathering U.S. weakness -- has emerged with stunning clarity and velocity in the past three months. Russia is thinking strategically about world affairs while an expiring U.S. administration is not.

When I was in Moscow this summer, Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were beginning to talk about new global security arrangements to reflect Russia's rising influence and concerns. As I wrote then, neither I nor they seemed to have much idea what they meant, beyond their belief that the world was entering the "post-American era," as Lavrov told me.

That sentiment echoes more loudly through Russia's declarations in the aftermath of the Georgian crisis. "A single-pole world is unacceptable," Medvedev said Aug. 31 in laying out his five principles of international behavior for the 21st century. "We cannot accept a world order in which one country makes all the decisions, even as serious and influential a country as the United States."

Medvedev also asserted Russia's claim to a sphere of "privileged interests" in former Soviet states and other neighboring countries. The unspoken corollary of this fifth Medvedev principle was that the United States and its NATO partners were not strong enough to resist this doctrine of hegemony.

It is no coincidence that the Russian resurgence comes at an awkward time for the United States. Advisers to both Barack Obama and John McCain had hoped for a relatively quiet six-month period after the next inaugural to test or develop a new relationship with Medvedev. But those hopes have evaporated since the invasion of Georgia and the expansion of Russian ambitions on the world stage.

Close cooperation between President Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who currently serves as president of the European Union -- has prevented the Russians from using the conflict in Georgia to divide Washington and its NATO allies. But wedge-driving remains a primary Russian goal that must be resisted.

That can best be accomplished by concentrating on Russia's northern flank, where NATO is united and relatively strong, rather than becoming embroiled in new quarrels over a future NATO role in the Caucasus region and in Ukraine, where the alliance is still divided.

This is the time for Bush and other NATO leaders to give high priority and visibility to discussions with Finland, which is considering joining NATO. If Finland joins, Sweden might follow, Swedish officials say.

Alliance members also should move now to bolster the defenses of the three Baltic NATO members -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- as Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, has recently suggested. The holding of no-notice joint maneuvers with the Baltic states would be one way to catch Russia's attention.

These steps would be far more effective than an overtly political effort by Bush to make one last stand for Georgian and Ukrainian membership plans at NATO's December meeting. That would be a quixotic, destructive gesture that has no chance of success.

A spirited debate is erupting piecemeal within the administration over whether to give priority to a northern flank initiative such as the one I have described or to confront the Russians politically and verbally in Georgia. Go north, Mr. President.

And make that debate much more systematic and comprehensive. After seven years of fighting jihadist terrorism globally and pursuing shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you must now adjust U.S. global strategy to deal with a Russian bid to fashion a new world order essentially without you.

Jim Hoagland