Piotr Szymański – about the Russian threat on the Baltic Sea, American involvement and closer cooperation between the Nordic and Baltic states – talks to Małgorzata Schwarzgruber.
Russia violates the airspace of the Baltic States, simulates attacks on targets in the Nordic countries, and deploys a Murmansk-B radio-electronic combat system in the Kaliningrad region, which disconnects ships and planes within a radius of 8,000 km [around 4,970 miles].
There are more examples of such behavior. Sweden reported foreign underwater activity in the Stockholm Archipelago, and Finland reported violations of its territorial waters.
The Russian navy interfered with the laying of a submarine power cable connecting Sweden and Lithuania, and the air force simulated an attack on Bornholm and the Globus radar system in north-eastern Norway, known as NATO’s eye in the North. The demilitarized and neutralized Åland Islands [Finland’s autonomous territory] and the Swedish Gotland are also sensitive regional sites. In the event of a conflict, Russia could try to occupy islands belonging to states outside NATO and deploy air defense systems that hinder the Alliance’s activities in the region. As far as the Kaliningrad Oblast is concerned, we must also mention the Russian anti-ship Bastion and ballistic Iskander systems.
Do all the states in the Baltic region have a similar perception of the Russian threat?
It is seen differently in Tallinn and in Copenhagen. The Baltic States, which are Russia’s immediate neighbors, are more afraid of Moscow’s attack and the economic pressure of the large neighbor. Denmark, on the other hand, which has no borders with Russia, does not find Russian aggression a realistic scenario, but still claims that NATO’s deterrence should be strengthened. It also intends to increase the number of recruits and establish a brigade capable of operating in the Baltic Sea region that could be sent to the eastern flank of NATO and deployed in the Baltic States. The perception of the Russian threat changed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Now even the states that have previously focused on crisis management operations recognize the need to strengthen collective defense. All the countries of the region were in favor of imposing EU sanctions on Moscow, although they were severe on the Baltic States and Finland, as the Finnish food sector was heavily affected.
What is the strategic importance of the Baltic Sea?
The Baltic Sea, and more broadly the Nordic-Baltic region, is the north-eastern flank of NATO. Its importance is demonstrated by the increasing presence of allied ships, including the US Navy, and international exercises, such as “Baltops.” The importance NATO attaches to the Baltic Sea is also evidenced by changes in the structure of the allied forces in the region: the command of the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin has increased the level of readiness, the Multinational Division North-East has been established in Elbląg and the Danish-Baltic Multinational Division Headquarters North has been set up in Ādaži, Latvia. Company-sized shift subunits deployed in the Baltic States and in Poland have gained the status of NATO Battalion Battlegroups.
Does Russia also see the Baltic in this way?
The Nordic-Baltic region is of particular strategic importance to Russia, for example because of the Kaliningrad bridgehead. In addition, the Russian Navy has its headquarters in St. Petersburg, the Northern Fleet base with nuclear submarines carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads is situated in the Kola Peninsula. The region is not only of military but also commercial and economic importance: oil is transported by tankers and more Nord Stream pipelines are being built.
What is the defense potential of the countries in the Baltic Sea Region?
Each of the Baltic States is unique. The Finns have preserved the draft army and continue to base their defense doctrine on a high mobilization potential and territorial defense. For Norway, the navy is more important in the context of Arctic and High North activities. Sweden has a strong defense industry. Denmark is committed to securing the world’s shipping routes. For the Baltic States, however, it is important to invest in military infrastructure to enable the adoption of allied support. Economic and demographic differences translate into differences in national defense capabilities, as well as in armed forces models and modernization priorities. Hence the growing role and scale of military exercises increasing the interoperability of the armed forces of the Nordic-Baltic states.
What changes in security and defense policy have taken place in these countries following the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia?
Most of them have developed expeditionary armed forces over the last dozen years and have focused on engagement in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 2014, individual countries have begun to attach greater importance to defending their own territory. This change is also evident in the course of military maneuvers, the scenarios of which are becoming increasingly complex. During Saber Strike and Baltops, soldiers are no longer training in the asymmetrical conflict but operations resulting Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Although Sweden and Finland are not members of NATO, they actively participated in the collective defense exercise “Trident Juncture” in Norway, one of the largest ones held by the Alliance’s troops since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, in the Baltic States and in Poland, multinational NATO forces, i.e. Battalion Battlegroups, have been deployed. Poland has become the center of the American military presence in the region. In our country, the Americans have an armored brigade battlegroup whose subunits train in many areas of NATO’s Eastern flank. If we add the base in Redzikowo to this, it will turn out that the USA is increasingly more anchored in the Baltic Sea region.
The presence of the United States in the Baltic region is becoming increasingly more evident. What role does this state play in the cooperation of the Baltic States?
The Americans are, in a way, a catalyst for regional military contacts. It would be more difficult for small countries to develop cooperation with Washington alone, hence the diversity of its formats. The development of such defense cooperation in recent years is evidenced, inter alia, by the conclusion of the 2018 trilateral Swedish-Finnish-American memorandum of understanding on military cooperation. This is a clear change in the case of Finland, which has traditionally sought to remain outside the rivalry of the superpowers. Before 2014, the regular presence of US soldiers in joint exercises would be perceived in Helsinki as a provocative action against Russia. After 2014, it became a standard. The USA also invests in the development of military infrastructure in the region as part of the European Deterrence Initiative – hundreds of millions of dollars from the American budget are spent on the modernization and expansion of air force bases, such as Šiauliai in Lithuania, Lielvārde in Latvia, Ämari in Estonia, and Łask and Powidz in Poland. Washington also co-finances purchases of military equipment, such as Javelin fire-and-forget anti-tank missiles that are acquired by the Baltic States.
When we talk about the Baltic Sea, we should also remember about the British.
They are another leader in the Baltic Sea region. London supports the USA in strengthening NATO’s Eastern flank. The United Kingdom is the framework state for NATO’s Battalion Battlegroup in Estonia, where it has posted around 800 soldiers. Under its leadership, it has also created the multinational Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), which could consist of up to 10,000 soldiers. The backbone of the JEF is provided by Great Britain, and smaller subdivisions are formed by Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. During the recent JEF maritime maneuvers “Baltic Protector”, 3 thousand soldiers and over a dozen ships practiced various maritime operations and landings, e.g. of the British marine infantry near Klaipeda, on the Baltic Sea for a couple of weeks.
Why does Germany, the strongest European state, not want to be a leader in this region?
Germany does not currently have sufficient military capacity and political will to play such a role. However, they should not be marginalized. After 2014, Berlin has also changed its attitude towards military engagement in the Baltic region. Previously, they had been more cautious in their approach to relations with Russia, reluctant to strengthen the allied military presence on the Eastern flank. At that time, it was difficult to imagine 500 German soldiers in the NATO Battalion Battlegroup in Lithuania, while this is now a reality. In autumn 2018, Germany engaged around 8,000 soldiers in the “Trident Juncture” exercises.
Cooperation in the Baltic region takes place not only within NATO, but also in various regional formats. Which are the most effective ones?
NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation) is an example of successful collaboration between Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. These countries have lifted restrictions on military mobility by signing agreements to facilitate access to their territories. They have also adopted an ambitious exercise scheme, such as the Arctic Challenge, one of the largest air maneuvers in Europe. It also gradually increases the ability of all types of armed forces to work together. The Baltic States also engage in close cooperation. They have established, inter alia, a joint defense academy – Baltic Defence College, BALTDEFCOL, a division of mine countermeasures vessels – the Baltic Naval Squadron, BALTRON, and an airspace surveillance system – the Baltic Air Surveillance Network, BaltNet. This cooperation makes it possible to combine capabilities within NATO, e.g. by participating in exercises or by reporting units to permanent allied naval teams. The Northern Group is an important forum for consultation meetings at the political and military level. Apart from the Baltic and Nordic countries, the Northern Group also brings together Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland.
However, the cooperation has not always been crowned with success.
Joint purchases of arms and military equipment are most difficult. Both the Baltic States and the Nordic countries most often opt for separate tenders. In the case of the Nordic Defence Cooperation, the experience with the joint purchase of NH-90 helicopters by Norway, Sweden, and Finland was disappointing. This was not possible due to excessive delivery waiting times. Furthermore, Norway withdrew from the planned purchase of the Swedish self-propelled gun articulated haulers Archer, and Sweden withdrew from the purchase of the AMOS mortar developed together with Finland.
How does Baltic cooperation fit into NATO’s activities?
There is a synergy between regional cooperation and NATO cooperation. I would like to point out that Norway is not a member of the European Union, Denmark is excluded from the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, and Sweden and Finland are not members of NATO. However, Alliance members are working closely with the last two countries. In 2016, the so-called Host Nation Support (HNS) arrangements between Sweden, Finland and NATO came into force. They enable the Alliance forces, with the consent of the governments of Stockholm and Helsinki, to use the maritime, land and airspace of Sweden and Finland to operate in the Baltic region.
How does Poland fit into the cooperation in the Baltic region?
It is important for Poland to be able to integrate with both the Baltic and Nordic countries. This includes not only military but also economic, trade, energy and research cooperation. Our country is becoming a Baltic state to an increasingly greater extent. In the past, something always distracted us from the sea – we had to seek access to the Baltic Sea. Today, the main East-West axis, where Polish history takes place, is being gradually joined by another axis: North-South. This is also visible in the Tri-City initiative. As part of it, it is planned to strengthen power engineering cooperation and to jointly implement infrastructure projects, e.g. roads and railway connections. Projects such as the Baltic Pipe, or the construction of a Polish-Danish gas pipeline that will enable Poland to import Norwegian gas, are also noteworthy.
Piotr Szymański is an analyst for the Centre for Eastern Studies. He works in the field of Northern European security and defense.
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz