The Baltic Sea – Sea of Peace?


This is my second talk out four at the New York Times journey in the Baltic Sea 3-17 September 2017 ( Please find attached to my essay a PowerPoint presentation with maps and pictures mostly taken from Wikipedia.

René Nyberg – 7th September 2017

New York Times Journeys

In its in-depth account of Russia’s hacking of the US presidential election (June 27, 2017), the Washington Post mentions possible countermeasures. Among them, the paper noted, was a suggestion that fortunately was never acted upon – move a US naval carrier group into the Baltic Sea as a symbol of resolve. This suggestion is just plain silly. The Baltic is a shallow inland sea that is too small for a carrier group to operate. The German Kriegsmarine referred to the Baltic condescendingly as “the bath tub”, so constrained did the German Navy feel eighty years ago in the narrow confines of the Baltic.

The Baltic Sea has never been a mare clausum, a sea closed to specific states. Even during the Swedish dominance of the 17th century, Dutch and English merchantmen insisted on their right to freely enter the Baltic. Yet it remained very much a Lutheran pond culturally with German as the lingua franca. This situation did not change even with the reconfiguration of military forces following the ascendency of Peter the Great’s Russia.

In Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, Peter the Great stands at the edge of the Neva River and conceives the idea of a city that will threaten the arrogant Swedes and open a “window to Europe.” By pushing the Swedes back from the Neva, conquering the city of Viborg in Finland, and annexing what are today Estonia and parts of Latvia in the Great Northern War (1700-21), Russia put an end to a century of Sweden’s great power dominance.

A glance on the map is enough to understand Muscovy’s urgency in seeking an outlet to the sea. The Black Sea was blocked by Tartars and the Ottoman Turks. The Barents Sea and its inlet the White Sea was far away and hard to reach, although the passage to the ice-bound Arctic waters was known already during Novgorod times and monasteries had been built in the North of Russia. The most famous is the Solovetsky Monastery on an island in the White Sea. During Stalin’s rule, it was converted to the Solovki special prison, becoming the “mother of all GULAG” prisons immortalized in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich.

English ships seeking the Northeast Passage to China reached Archangelsk in the mid-16th century and established their first contacts with Muscovy. The Baltic was solidly blocked by the Danes and Swedes and the Teutonic Order. First attempts to secure an outlet to the Baltic Sea were made in the 15th century. Muscovy had rid itself of the “Tatar Yoke” and ended the dominance of the Golden Horde after a victorious battle in 1480. A decade later, Ivan III founded a fortress on the eastern shore of the mouth of the river Narva defying the Teutonic Knights. The citadel he built was intended to rival the Hermann Castle (Hermannsborg) constructed by the Danes two centuries earlier. The two forts still face each other in a most symbolic way over the border river separating Estonia and Russia, the European Union and the Russian Federation.

After Peter’s victories, Russia emerged as the dominant power of the Baltic, although challenged without success by the Swedes with the occasional support of the Royal Navy and financial aid from France. The Danes, of course, never failed to ally themselves with Russia or Poland against their “hereditary enemy”, the Swedes. After the partition of Poland and the final victory over Sweden in 1809, Alexander I was the master of the eastern littoral of the Baltic Sea all the way from the Finnish coast of the Gulf of Bothnia to present-day Lithuania. The triumph over Napoleon saw Imperial Russia emerge as the predominant military power of Europe and the hegemon of the Baltic Sea.

Poland was partitioned at the end of the 18th century by Russia and Prussia, (later the German Reich). Sandwiched between two mighty neighbors, Poland was set to repeat its tragic fate again in World War II. Historically, the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the first European power to challenge Muscovy allying itself on several occasions with the Turks and the Swedes or against the Swedes. With the radical redrawing of the map of Poland after 1945, Poland emerged for the first time in its history as a country with a homogenous population and a long Baltic Sea coast.

To bypass Poland’s narrow European gauge railroads, if necessary, the distrustful Soviets built a ferry connection in the 1980s. It ran from the Soviet Lithuanian port of Klaipeda, formerly the German Memel, to the port of Mukran on the East German island of Rügen on the Pomeranian coast.


The two inland seas Russia has fought for centuries to dominate are separated by thousands of miles. But since the time of Varangians, the Baltic and the Black Sea have constantly interacted. Almost as a rule, the Swedes challenged Empress Catherine II whenever Russia went to war with the Ottoman Turks in the Black Sea. In the Crimean War of 1853-56, Russia faced Britain, France, Sardinia (Italy), and the Ottoman Empire mainly on the shores of the Black Sea, but British and French men-of-war brought pressure on Russia by bombing Kronstadt outside the imperial capital of St. Petersburg. They also attacked and raided other naval bases and depots in the Gulf of Finland and Bothnia.

The Russian Baltic Fleet was the showcase of Imperial naval might. Its ice-bound bases were centered in the Gulf of Finland, Kronstadt, Helsinki and Reval (Tallinn). A port on the Latvian cost in Libau (Liepaja), constructed at the turn of the last century, became its first ice-free base. The catastrophic war against Japan in 1904-05 saw the loss of its complete Navy. The Baltic Fleet was sent to reinforce the overwhelmed Russian forces in the Far East Banned from using the Suez Canal, it was forced to sail around Africa. The fleet was destroyed in the battle of Tsushima in 1905.

In both world wars, the dominance of Germany in the Baltic Sea region left little space for Russian naval operations. In World War I, the Russian navy was largely confined to the Gulf of Finland. During World War II, the Soviet navy was isolated in Kronstadt, where it participated in the defense of Leningrad. The Siege of Leningrad lasted from September 1941 to January 1944. It is one of the longest sieges in history.

The war in the Baltic also witnessed spectacular, large-scale evacuations. The Russians evacuated Tallinn in June 1941 and their leased naval base in Hanko, Finland in December 1941, which they had obtained as a result of the Winter War 1939-40. The Germans were able to evacuate more than a million men from the occupied Baltic States during the last months of the war. This is at least three times more men that were evacuated from Dunkirk in the spring of 1940. At the end of the war in May 1945 the German Army Group Courland of 200,000 men including 42 general officers surrendered trapped on the Latvian coast. Tens of thousands of Estonians and Latvians escaped over the sea to Sweden.

After Finland was forced out of the war in September 1944, the anti-submarine net closing the Gulf of Finland was cut and the mines swept, The Red Fleet was again able to enter the Baltic Sea. A Soviet submarine sank the German passenger ship Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 off the Pomeranian coast. The ship was carrying wounded and evacuees from Eastern Prussia. It went down with more than 9,000 people onboard – the worst loss of life in any maritime sinking ever recorded. The story is depicted in the novel Crabwalk by the German Nobelist Günter Grass, published in 2002.

Russia has long sought warm-water ports and access to the open sea. To redeem Constantinople, Tsargrad, the city of Caesar (Czar, Emperor), as it was called in Russian, from the infidel Turks was something of a manifest destiny that Russia never attained. At the Allied Conference of Potsdam, July-August 1945, Stalin failed to secure Soviet bases on the Turkish Straits or in present-day Libya on the Mediterranean. A Russian base today in Tartus, Syria and Russian sights on a new foothold in Libya brings us to the present day.

The two ice-free outlets of Russia, Murmansk in the North and Vladivostok in the Far East play a limited economic role. Russia is an energy exporting country and its oil flows mainly to Europe through the Danish or Turkish Straits. To reach the European market, gas has to transit Ukraine or Poland or cross the Baltic or the Black Sea via undersea pipelines. LNG shipments from the Kara Sea in the Arctic will soon provide a new outlet for Russian hydrocarbons. To reach China and the Asian market, thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines are being laid.

When President Truman congratulated Generalissimo Stalin in Potsdam on his victory and the capture of Berlin, Stalin responded by noting that Alexander had reached Paris. Indeed, with the establishment of an Empire in Eastern Europe the Warsaw Pact, Moscow’s influence had peaked. The Red Army stood at the gates of Hamburg. To reach the Atlantic was only a question of days, but – to make a long story short – the Cold War never turned hot thanks to nuclear deterrence.

With the loss of the outer and inner empires – the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union – Russia contracted to pre-Petrine borders. The Russian shoreline of the Baltic Sea was reduced to coastlines in the far end of the Gulf of Finland and Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad (Königsberg), the northern part of former East Prussia, became an exclave separated by Lithuania and Belarus from Russia. It is the home of the Russian Baltic Fleet, which is based in Baltiysk (Pillau). In an agreement with the EU and Lithuania, Russian transit by train from Belarus to Kaliningrad via Lithuania was regulated.

Soviet propaganda declared the Baltic to be a “Sea of Peace” and flurry of peace events were duly organized especially in the port city of Rostock in Eastern Germany. The most spectacular military incident in the Baltic remains the “Whiskey-on-the-Rocks”. In 1981, a Whiskey-class diesel submarine of the Soviet Baltic Fleet carrying nuclear torpedoes ran aground on the rocky shore next to Sweden’s main Karlskrona naval base in southern Sweden.

The Sea of Peace was full of military activity. The Danes kept a close eye on Soviet men-of-war passing through the Danish Straits. This provided valuable intelligence in connection with the Cuban Crisis of 1962. NATO intelligence-gathering airplanes regularly flew missions all the way to the Gulf of Finland. These flights were so regular and so frequent that they came to be referred to as the “Streetcars of the Baltic.”

The end of the Cold War changed everything. Military tension lessened and the Russian Baltic Fleet rusted away as did the other Russian fleets. But since the war in Georgia 2008 Russian military spending has been on the rise. The increase in military activity in the Baltic Sea since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war of attrition in Eastern Ukraine is again a reflection of tensions in the Black Sea area. To ensure the defense of NATO’s eastern members the Baltic States and Poland, NATO has deployed a forward presence in all of these countries on a rotating basis.

Since the membership of the Baltic States in 2004, NATO has also policed the airspace over the Baltics. The deployed numbers are not important, but historically it is something of a sensation to see Poles welcoming German troops.

Despite the fury, the Baltic remains a sideshow. It is hardly risk-free, but a sideshow nevertheless – just like it was a hundred and fifty years ago.


The Baltic Sea has always been an important trade route. St. Petersburg remains Russia’s largest port. For Finland, the Baltic Sea continues to be a lifeline to global markets. The notable change today is explosion in passenger traffic crisscrossing the Baltic. Ferries the size of modern cruise ships churn between Germany and Sweden, or Stockholm and Helsinki, or Helsinki and Tallinn and other Baltic ports. Millions of ferry passengers each year enjoying brief voyages offering the possibility to make merry, relax or shop till you drop.

In her highly-acclaimed book Lenin on The Train, the British historian Catherine Merridale describes her retracing of Lenin’s sea voyage from Germany to Sweden. She discovers on the ferry from Sassnitz, Germany to Trelleborg, Sweden that she is apparently travelling along a major Baltic artery for tax-free booze.

“…the saloon, a carnival of plastic palms and blue banquettes, felt more like Tirana or Bucharest, especially when everyone began to shout. (…) It centered round a monstrous stretch-wrapped pallet-load of beer, as awkward as a restaurant-size fridge, which several men were attempting to heave over a step.”

Merridale realizes that these assiduous partiers are the descendants of an impressive line of raiders, smugglers, and traders that began with the Varangians and the Hansa. +++