September 7, 2020

Military Tension Increases in the Baltic Sea Region

This handout photo made available on August 25, 2020 by the Swedish Armed Forces shows a JAS-39 fighter aircraft and a CV-90 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun seen at a road base on Gotland, Sweden.
This handout photo made available on August 25, 2020 by the Swedish Armed Forces shows a JAS-39 fighter aircraft and a CV-90 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun seen at a road base on Gotland, Sweden.

On 24 August, the Swedish Armed Forces issued a press release stating that they were stepping up military readiness because of Russian and Western military activity in the Baltic Sea region of an intensity not seen since the Cold War. The press release raised the interest of the media and was reported by various outlets, including the Financial Times and the Washington Post.

The Swedish decision was made after a long series of Russian military exercises leading up to the strategic command-post exercise Kavkaz 2020 scheduled for September, and was also a response to the ongoing crisis in Belarus and indications that Russian forces may have crossed the border to support President Lukashenka. On 3 August, Russian Naval Forces had launched exercise Ocean Shield 2020 in the Baltic Sea. This exercise involved more than 30 ships of various types, naval aircraft, coastal air defence and Marine units, and took place immediately after a naval parade in St. Petersburg and Kronstadt. Exercise Ocean Shield has been held annually since 2018 and is an example of increased Russian military activity in Europe. Such military exercises and the unfolding developments in Belarus have contributed to an increasing need to collect information—signal intelligence aircraft from both NATO and non-NATO nations are presently seen on a daily basis in the Baltic Sea region as well as in the far north and over the Black Sea.

Another noteworthy event took place on 28 August when six US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers overflew the territories of all 30 NATO Allies and trained alongside around 80 Allied fighter aircraft, demonstrating US commitment to NATO and sending a clear message to Russia. The Russian military caused one incident when two Su-27 fighters made several dangerous turns in front of the B-52 bombers above the Black Sea, adding to the long list of similar incidents when the reckless behaviour of Russian pilots could have led to disaster. On the same day, a B-52 was harassed by a Russian Su-27 fighter in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. This occurred as the B-52 was approaching Danish airspace in the vicinity of the Island of Bornholm. The Russian Su-27, flying from Kaliningrad, followed the B-52 well into Danish airspace over the island, committing a significant violation of the airspace of a NATO nation.

Another trigger prompting the Swedish Armed Forces to raise their readiness occurred when three Russian Ropucha class landing ships, each capable of transporting main battle tanks and more than 300 troops, left Kaliningrad and passed east of Gotland. This Russian amphibious force continued north and turned into the Finnish Gulf where the ships conducted an exercise on the coast of Hogland, an island that had belonged to Finland before being occupied by the Soviet Union during World War 2. The marines and their vehicles eventually landed in Lomonosov, west of St. Petersburg, and transited approximately 100 km to a training area in Kirillovsk. Without doubt other Baltic Sea region nations also monitored this Russian amphibious force that participated in an exercise, which involved more than 6,000 servicemen. Moscow has repeatedly demonstrated both the will and the capability to use military force and such an amphibious force is one of the many offensive tools in Russia’s toolbox suited for operations against neighbouring nations.

In response to these activities, the Swedish Armed Forces decided to launch an operation to step up maritime surveillance and to increase military presence on Gotland. According to Sweden’s Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist this military deployment “is a way of sending the signal, both to our partners and to the Russian side, that we stand up for Swedish integrity and sovereignty.”

Other Baltic Sea nations have so far maintained a somewhat lower profile than the Swedes and their strategic communication has not changed significantly following the Russian exercise. On 26 August, the Finnish Navy tweeted that “Securing maritime traffic and our territorial waters is the core task of the Navy. We monitor our seas around the clock every day of the year,” sending an implicit message that Russian sabre rattling is nothing new.

Nevertheless, military activity in the far north, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions has increased to a level not anticipated as little as three years ago. The scale of activity and the often aggressive behaviour demonstrated by the Russian military has become a new normal, increasing the risks of miscalculation and serious incidents. The question is what conclusion will nations draw from of all this? Decreasing western military presence in the Baltic region would certainly be interpreted by Moscow as a sign of weakness. The Baltic states, as frontline states, should certainly avoid sending signals that suggest a weakening commitment to their own security and defence. One crucial indicator is the level of defence spending. Real cuts would be noted not only by Moscow but also by allies.

The text was published by daily Postimees (in Estonian) on September 7.