The increase of tension in the Baltic Sea area since 2014 did not originate in the Baltic States, or in Poland, or the Nordics. It was a reflection from the Black Sea.

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René Nyberg
Aurora Forum
25 November 2018

On Security in the Baltic Sea Region

The increase of tension in the Baltic Sea area since 2014 did not originate in the Baltic States, or in Poland, or the Nordics. It was a reflection from the Black Sea.

A hundred and fifty years ago, it was the Royal Navy and the French Navy that brought the Crimean War to the Baltic shores to put pressure on Russia. Now it is Moscow attempting to turn the tables on the West through the same stratagem.

Unlike some analysts suggested early on in the current flare-up, there is no such thing as a Southern Baltic Sea Theatre of War. From a Russian point of view, the Baltic Sea is merely a glacis for St. Pete and the Murmansk coast.

Russia’s strategic nightmare is the vulnerability of its second-strike capability, which could be threatened either physically or technologically. That is why the radar in Vårdö in Finnmark is such an important issue.

These are the hard facts, but the psychological considerations play a role, too. I do believe that the Kremlin has accepted the loss of the three Baltic States. While Moscow continues to undermine them by various means, the Baltics are lost to the empire. NATO’s role and its presence in the Baltic Sea region is an important source of stability.

As for Finland, the situation has also changed. The old special relationship does not exist anymore, still trade and tourism (Russians traveling) continues and is affected more by the exchange rate than sanctions. Finland today issues more visas to Russians than any other country in the Schengen Area.

Even more important is the clear, working dialogue that President Niinistö has maintained with Putin. In August 2014, he was the first EU Head of State to visit Putin post-Crimea. Since then phone calls and visits once a year have been the routine. Only Angela Merkel’s efforts at sustained dialogue are comparable.

It is noteworthy that the Norwegians are debating whether Putin should be invited next August to 75th anniversary celebrations of the liberation of Eastern Finnmark by the Red Army.

Finnish EU Membership and NATO partnership are facts acknowledged in the Kremlin. The red line in Finland’s case remains NATO membership. Even with the evident closeness with NATO, bilateral agreements with the United States – and especially the military alliance of sorts with Sweden – are not the same thing as joining NATO. Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO would bring a sea change, seen from the Kremlin as a loss of face. The responses would be violently hostile, albeit not the actual application of force. The 2015-16 incidents on the Norwegian and Finnish borders in the North are etched in memory. Russia engaged in hostile action by suddenly flooding border posts with third-country citizens passing as refugees.

The most important turn of events has been the Fenno-Swedish military cooperation. Unlike previous governments that had begun to dismantle Sweden’s regional defenses, the present (outgoing) social democratic government turned the tide. As Sweden politically is not able to join NATO, they had to remedy the problem by other means. Having suspended conscription and all but disarmed its land forces, Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist intensified bilateral relations foremost with Sweden’s traditional unofficial ally, the United States. But then he turned to Finland, and the rest is history.

I’m sure you remember the pomp-and-circumstance welcome extended by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last May, when he hosted the Finnish and Swedish ministers of defense for trilateral discussions. It was extraordinary and my reading of the event was as follows. Mattis’ advice, especially to the Swedes, was “Guys, this is as good as it gets.”

Military cooperation between Finland and Sweden has picked up speed and the results have been quick to show. There is no alliance treaty and there will be no such. But who needs it.

Unlike Sweden, Finland considers NATO Membership an option. But the difference between the Finnish and Swedish positions is one of words. Both are NATO-compatible, and, as Trident Juncture showed, very much involved and even integrated into NATO operations. +++