Navy ships and air force maneuvers, redeployment of troops and equipment, airborne assault drills – NATO has never before marked its presence on the Baltic Sea so intensively. It is a reaction to Russia’s increasingly aggressive policy. Has the small water area enclosed by the Danish straits become the new geopolitical hotspot?
“Our national defense strategy clearly states that we have again entered the era of great power rivalry,” said on July 4 the US Navy Chief of Naval Operations, Adm John Richardson, onboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. A moment later, he announced that the US Navy is reactivating the Second Fleet, established in 1947 to keep permanent control over the North Atlantic Ocean and neighboring seas. It was deactivated after 64 years, in view of the American perception that the region of its responsibility had become peaceful enough to make some savings there. Eight years was all it took to withdraw from that decision. Another piece of news reached the world several months later: the Second Fleet will lead the Exercise BALTOPS 2019.
The British Enter the Game
This year’s edition of the largest and oldest NATO exercise on the Baltic Sea was special also for another reason. For the first time in history, the participants included the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), created and led by the United Kingdom. It was deployed to this part of Europe already in May, within the frame of the Baltic Protector mission. The detachment sent to the Baltic comprised of 17 ships, including the huge HMS Albion landing platform/dock, and almost 4,000 seamen and marine infantrymen. “For JEF, it is the first naval deployment on such a large scale,” explains Emma Carr of the Royal Navy’s press office. Prof. Tomasz Aleksandrowicz, an expert in the field of defense at Collegium Civitas, adds: “The turmoil surrounding Brexit tarnished the reputation of the United Kingdom. I guess the British want to show that in spite of everything they can still be efficient and don’t want to give up their role as a key player on the European stage.”
In June, several dozen ships, supported by tens of aircraft and helicopters, exercised for two weeks on waters extending from the Bay of Mecklenburg to the coasts of Estonia. The peak of these maneuvers were assault operations executed in, among others, the Baltic States, virtually a stone’s throw away from Russian territory. It is merely one of the long list of examples for NATO’s enhanced activity in the Baltic region. We have already got used to the permanent presence of NATO ships on the Baltic, belonging both to the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1), consisting of frigates and destroyers, and the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1). We are also familiar with the missions of pilots protecting the airspace over the Baltic States. However, in May of this year, a new exercise was conducted on the northern edges of Estonia, and its results were widely discussed throughout Europe. The Polish Navy played an important role in the exercise. During the Exercise Spring Storm 2019, Naval Strike Missile launchers belonging to the Naval Missile Unit were redeployed by the ORP Gniezno transport and mine-laying ship to the Gulf of Finland. Near the island of Muhu, seamen conducted simulated firings at water and land targets located even 200 km away. The media commented that it was the North Atlantic Treaty’s way to show it is capable of blocking the exit of the Baltic Fleet ships into open sea, and threatening Russian ports and military installations. However, NATO does not operate in a vacuum.
Mystery at the Swedish Coasts
March 2014: Russia annexes Crimea. A month later, fights break out in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin actively, though unofficially, supports local rebel groups. In reply, NATO strengthens the so-called eastern flank, deploying forces in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and other states. In the meantime, Russia starts flexing muscles and provokes also in the Baltic Sea. Again, the list of examples is long: in July 2017, Russians organize exercises together with the Chinese Navy. On that occasion, the Pyotr Velikiy class heavy nuclear battlecruiser, and the world’s biggest nuclear ballistic missile submarine, Dmitriy Donskoy, enter the Baltic through the Danish straits. Soon after, the Russian army conducts amphibious assault drills in Kaliningrad.
September 2017: the world holds its breath for the Exercise Zapad, organized by Russia in cooperation with the Belarusian army near the Polish borders. According to unofficial information, the exercise might involve even 100,000 troops. The Baltic Fleet ships go out to sea, and analysts remind that similar maneuvers preceded the aggression on Georgia, and later Ukraine.
In October 2018, Sweden (which is not a NATO member, but cooperates with the Alliance), observes an unknown object in the Stockholm archipelago. Several people take photos, based on which local experts conclude it is a submarine, most likely Russian. They immediately think of similar events from previous years. In the fall of 2014, the Swedish army even made an official announcement, admitting that the presence of a foreign submarine had been confirmed near Stockholm, but eventually the vessel was not found. Lastly, in the spring of 2019, when NATO was preparing for the Exercise Spring Storm, Russian Navy’s latest purchase, the Karakurt class missile corvette, appeared near Latvia’s territorial waters.
Even more is happening in the airspace over the Baltic Sea. In November 2018, Belgium’s VRT television reported that two armed Russian Su-24 bombers flew over the BNS Godetia ship, which was leading the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1. Swedish fighters exercising nearby were directed to intercept them. Only at the beginning of February 2019, the Polish F-16s on duty in Lithuania within the Baltic Air Policing mission, had to twice escort the Russian An-26 transport aircraft, and, also twice, the Ił-22 radio-electronic warfare machines. The aircraft got dangerously close to the borders protected by NATO pilots. The British reported a similar situation in May. Two days – six interceptions. Typhoons stationing in Estonia were scrambled, for instance, to a pair of the Su-27 fighters and one Ił-22. These are merely a few of the incidents from the last six months. Russian machines, which is time and again confirmed by NATO officials, regularly approach the airspace of our Baltic neighbors, or even violate it, often maneuvering sharply and provocatively.
On top of that, Russia is obviously building its potential in the Kaliningrad Region. In March 2019, for example, the Baltic Fleet press services informed that an additional air defense regiment had been sent there. It is equipped with the S-400 Triumph missiles, capable of destroying aircraft and enemy projectiles at the distance of 400 km. The situation in the Baltic region is becoming more and more tense. Some commentators are even inclined to refer to it as the new cold war.
The balance of power and interdependencies on the Baltic Sea has changed dramatically within the last few years. “In the times of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy, supported by the Polish and the GDR navies, held absolute power in that region. After the fall of communism, there was an almost 30-year-long geopolitical pause, during which no power tried to impose their rules. Currently, this pause is coming to an end,” thinks Jacek Bartosiak, PhD, an expert on geo-strategy and military matters. On the one hand, NATO has expanded to the east. East Germany has been absorbed by the Federal Republic of Germany, Poland and the Baltic States created after the collapse of the USSR have joined the Alliance. On the other hand, after over a dozen years of slackness, Russia has decided to regain lost influences. “The Baltic Sea is very important to Russia, because for now, sea routes are the only way to reach the Kaliningrad Region without crossing through NATO territories,” emphasizes Wojciech Lorenz, an expert on international security of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. The Alliance is not limited in that way. “Still, access to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is much easier from the sea,” convinces Prof. Krzysztof Kubiak, an expert on military matters of the Jan Kochanowski University in Kielce. On land, NATO forces have to cross the so-called Suwalki Gap, i.e. a very narrow corridor squeezed between the Russian and Belorussian territories. “Strategy-wise, the center of gravity on the Baltic has moved from the Danish straits region to the waters located far to the east. Today, I would place it somewhere in the triangle marked out by the Estonian-Russian borderland, the Kaliningrad Region, and Gotland,” emphasizes Prof. Kubiak. The first two locations seem to be obvious, but why Gotland, belonging to Sweden, which is not a NATO member? “The island is a perfect place to deploy Russian anti-access systems. They would enable Russians to block the Danish straits and make it impossible for NATO ships to enter the Baltic Sea,” explains Prof. Kubiak. After the end of the Cold War, Sweden withdrew its army from there. Now they have become aware of the potential threat and decided to again deploy army detachments on Gotland.
Consequently, there is an ongoing trial of strength on the Baltic Sea. “According to the maritime law, international waters are open to everyone. Hence, a situation that would be unthinkable on land is possible on seas and oceans. Tanks of conflicting states can’t exercise next to each other, but ships surely can,” emphasizes Capt (N) Witold Kustra, PhD, of the War Studies University in Warsaw. Therefore, Russia and NATO exercise demonstrating their potential, capabilities, and level of determination. According to experts, it is still hard to say which side would gain advantage in this struggle. “Comparing the size and number of missiles is merely statistics. In the event of an open conflict, the side which makes a good first move will prevail,” argues Prof. Andrzej Makowski, a naval warfare theory specialist of the Naval Academy in Gdynia.
According to Wojciech Lorenz, the initiative is definitely on the Russian side, since they were the ones to undermine the post-Cold War status quo. “Russians are modernizing the Baltic Fleet. Recently, they have introduced into service the first Karakurt class corvette, armed with Kalibr missiles. They are also building up their anti-access systems. The thing that is favorable for Russians is the decision making procedure followed by their country. Everything really depends on one person – Vladimir Putin. NATO is an alliance of many states, so, naturally, the decision making chain is longer and more complicated,” enumerates Lorenz. In his opinion, Russia has adopted the tactics of balancing on the edge. “It is ready to bear the high risk connected with provoking the conflict, in order to translate it into political benefits,” explains Lorenz. “Russia acted in a similar way engaging in the conflict in Syria and provoking Ankara. Moscow’s bluff was exposed when Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft violating its airspace. This doesn’t mean that it would be similar in the Baltic Sea region, where Russia has regional advantage and the capability to block, or at least significantly hinder the access of NATO forces to the region of conflict. That’s why the presence of the US and NATO forces in the region is so important – to bear the cost of possible aggression and thus make it unprofitable,” concludes Wojciech Lorenz.
Has the Baltic Sea become one of the hotspots on the world’s geopolitical map? “Its importance has definitely increased, but in the global context, the Mediterranean Sea still remains more important because of the Middle Eastern oil or waters in direct vicinity of China, with whom Americans compete in the economic sphere,” thinks Capt (N) Kustra. That is not all. “An analysis of the Russian war doctrine clearly indicates that if there was to be an open conflict in Middle-Eastern Europe, it would be an air and land conflict. Wars in this part of the world are fought with tanks and aircraft, not ships, and this has remained unchanged for ages,” argues Lorenz.
Prof. Makowski admits that operationally, the Baltic Sea has been dead for historically significant operations of medium and large vessels. “As a closed and relatively small water area, it is entirely within the range of missiles and air force of both sides of the potential conflict. It is hard to imagine that someone should start a war here and sacrifice their large vessels,” emphasizes the specialist. According to Jacek Bartosiak, PhD, the location of the Baltic and the conditions there entail specific consequences, also for Poland. He thinks that there is absolutely no point for us to modernize our navy. We should have submarines, mine countermeasure forces and small vessels that will protect us against hybrid attacks. Building large battleships does not make much sense. They are expensive, and they would be quickly destroyed on the Baltic Sea. Besides, they will never be the thing that tips the scale in our favor. “How on earth could two or three Polish frigates help Americans on the Atlantic?” wonders Bartosiak.
Prof. Makowski does not agree with these arguments. In his opinion, the likelihood of conflict on the Baltic is very small, and if it does come to it, we will not be able to win it alone. We heavily depend on our allies, to whom we must offer something in return. But what? “Please remember that the USA or the UK are naval states, with strong presence on waters all around the world. Thus, it is worth to have ships that can operate together with them in international teams, on the North and the Norwegian Sea, for instance, and in this way show our readiness to protect our common security,” argues Prof. Makowski. For small and medium states, preventing war seems to be more important today than taking part in it. Meanwhile, experts point out that many different scenarios are possible on the Baltic Sea. “We are particularly exposed to various types of incidents in the so-called grey zone, i.e. below the threshold of war. Ships and aircraft maneuver in close vicinity, there can be a collision, accidental shooting down of an aircraft, or even terrorist attacks,” says Prof. Makowski, adding: “I don’t think, however, that anyone deliberately strives for confrontation. The Baltic Sea is too valuable economically, both to the West and Russia, to risk immersing it in chaos. I think that talking about it in the context of cold war is after all only a figure of speech, a literary metaphor.” Capt (N) Kustra assesses the situation in a similar way. “The Baltic Sea is an arena on which both sides are flexing their muscles. Neither of them is crazy enough to go one step further. Russia took Crimea, but repeating this in Latvia or Estonia wouldn’t be possible for one simple reason: NATO forces are stationing there. Besides, Moscow has other than military means of exerting pressure, like gas or oil. The same goes for the West, which can continue to impose more and more sanctions on Russia. I think that if something bad were to happen on the Baltic, it would have already happened.”
It does not mean that the North Atlantic Alliance can let the guard down in the region even for one second. “The capability to deter the adversary does not consist only in possessing weapons, but also in demonstrating readiness to use them if need be,” concludes Prof. Kubiak.
autor zdjęć: Marius Vågenes Villange Forsvaret