Russia’s increased military activity in and around the Baltics, against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, is fast reviving memories of the Cold War.
But countries in that area and organisations such as Nato and the European Union must not allow Russia to transform the Baltic Sea region into a hotspot of power games, writes GIS expert Eka Tkeshelashvili.
Some might say that the Baltics have reached a tipping point after Russia’s increasingly provocative military action during 2014, such as its incursion into the airspace and territorial waters of regional actors, as well as the harassment of their aircraft and ships in international airspace and waters.
The wake-up call for Sweden came in 2013 when six Russian military planes – including four heavy bombers – carried out a simulated missile attack on Stockholm and southern Sweden. The incident took the Swedish military totally by surprise.
Russia has stepped up military activities in the region since 2008. However - despite the Nordic countries spending years dismantling their national defence capabilities, as well as the Baltics (except for Estonia) cutting defence spending - the region could be facing a new post-Crimea reality which would change the security of the entire area.
There are three main factors which will have a profound impact on the security of the Baltic Sea region:
1. Delivery on the promises made at the 2014 Nato summit in Wales over collective defence along the alliance’s eastern borders.
The Nato summit delivered much of what the Baltic states wanted, from a rapid reaction force to the semi-permanent presence of Nato troops in eastern Europe. However, the speed and scale of implementing these will be of utmost importance. It is too early yet for the Baltic states to feel reassured that they have the backing and support of the alliance.
2. Finland and Sweden’s ties with Nato; plus the possibility of changing the attitude of the public and political elite towards membership of the alliance.
In 2014, Finland and Sweden signed an important ‘Host Nation’ agreement with Nato. The pact allows assistance from alliance troops in the Nordic countries in emergency situations (disasters, disruptions and threats to security). It also enabled military cooperation. Both countries are now part of the new ‘golden ticket’ holder – a small group of Enhanced Opportunities Partners of Nato. While it would be unrealistic to think that either Finland or Sweden might soon be contemplating full membership of the alliance, it is noteworthy that Russia’s aggressive actions have produced the opposite to Moscow’s desired effect. Instead of feeling intimidated by, and distancing themselves from Nato, both Finland and Sweden are aiming to deepen their partnerships with the alliance. This would include assisting the alliance when Nato was acting under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. In a recent poll, the majority of Swedes expressed, for the first time, a positive view towards membership of the alliance.
3. An intensified security partnership among the Baltic Sea countries
The Nordic as well as the Baltic states have intensified their coordination on security-related issues. On November 13, 2014, defence ministers from the region and the UK agreed on measures for closer cooperation. Under the agreement, participating countries will share intelligence and widen cross-border air force training in the Nordic region.
If Nato and regional players are true to their word, these factors will lead to greater cooperation, deeper partnerships, and ultimately a more secure region.