June 11, 2024

The Baltic-Nordic Region: Well Prepared is Half Deterred

ZUMA Press/Scanpix
A Finnish soldier assigned to the Pori Brigade fires an M120 120 mm mortar system under the supervision of U.S. Soldiers with 4th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade, 4th Infantry Division during a cross weapons training at Niinisalo, Finland, July 21, 2022.
A Finnish soldier assigned to the Pori Brigade fires an M120 120 mm mortar system under the supervision of U.S. Soldiers with 4th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade, 4th Infantry Division during a cross weapons training at Niinisalo, Finland, July 21, 2022.

In early 2024, Europe saw an impressive number of striking statements about the probability of a wider war on the continent by high-level political leaders and military officers in the Nordic-Baltic region.

Sweden’s Minister of Civil Defence, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, kicked off the new year at the annual security-related conference in Sälen by saying: “There could be war in Sweden.” A week later, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas estimated that Russia could threaten NATO in three to five years – an assessment shared by Denmark’s Minister of Defence, Troels Lund Poulsen. Norway’s Chief of Defence, General Eirik Kristoffersen, chimed in by warning that Norway only has one to three years to build up its defence against an aggressive Russia.

Even the Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer, said ahead of NATO’s Steadfast Defender Europe-wide drill: “Not everything is plannable, not everything is going to be hunky-dory in the next 20 years. I’m not saying it is going wrong tomorrow, but we have to realise, it’s not a given that we are in peace.” Already in late October last year, Germany’s Defence Minister Boris Pistorius sent shockwaves through Germany by suggesting that German armed forces should become “kriegstüchtig” – i.e., able to wage war. In January 2024, Pistorius assessed that Russia could attack NATO in five to eight years’ time.

At the same time, the public discourse was swinging back to the pre-2022 defeatism. The old fait accompli scenario, in which Russia grabs a piece of Estonia and presents NATO with a nuclear ultimatum, also made a comeback. What the scenario does not take into consideration, however, is how much the strategic outlook has changed since Finland joined NATO – for Russia.

Geography of Deterrence

Physical geography cannot be changed, but the geography of deterrence can. Finland and Sweden’s decision to join NATO did just that from the Alliance’s collective defence perspective. If Norway and the Baltic states had previously been separated by a gap of the size of Finland and Sweden, now the wider Baltic-Nordic region is connected into a coherent operational area. The difference that it makes from NATO defence planners’ point of view is significant. Even if the assumption was, before becoming full members, that Finland and Sweden would fight on the side of NATO in a potential regional conflict, it was not possible to make official defence plans for and with the two Nordic countries. Now that their territories and military assets can be fully integrated into NATO’s new regional defence plans, planning and executing of NATO’s Baltic defence becomes much easier – and, even possible, in the first place – for the Alliance, while the situation is now much more complicated for Russian planners. With Finland and Sweden in the Alliance, NATO can now deliver on the 2022 Madrid summit pledge to “defend every inch of Allied territory at all times.”

Finland’s more than 1340 km long border with Russia has doubled the total length of the NATO-Russia border, which caused some alarm ahead of the accession of the second newest member. But thanks to Finland’s notable defence capability, the longer border is an advantage for NATO, as it significantly complicates the outlook for Russian offensive campaigns. If attempting any attack on the Baltic states, Russia would first have to reinforce the border with Finland, which is currently exposed and blank of equipment and troops that have been drawn to Ukraine, apart from the Northern Fleet base in the Kola Peninsula up north. Reportedly, Russia has had to reinforce the air defences around St. Petersburg, which were stripped and moved to Ukraine in the early stages of the war, after Ukrainian drone attacks. The air and sea assets of the Northern Fleet, including strategic nuclear submarines, are still widely intact on Russia’s Arctic coast. However, the Alliance could now hold these under threat, as the Russian base is located only around 200 km from the Finnish border.

Furthermore, the most significant change from NATO’s point of view is that the Baltic states can now be reinforced not only from air and land (from the south through Germany and Poland) but also from sea. A major headache for NATO planners used to be that the Baltic states were an exposed allied outpost, sandwiched between Russia and the Baltic Sea, and therefore relatively easy to cut off from the rest of the Alliance, especially through the Suwalki gap between Lithuania and Poland that connects the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to Belarus. Now, Finland’s territory has opened up a new supply route to Estonia, connecting it through Northern Sweden to Norway’s Atlantic coast – the only land route connecting Finland to the western allies. The Gulf of Finland is so narrow between Helsinki and Tallinn (only 80 km) that Russia’s Baltic Fleet is now stuck in the port of St. Petersburg, if NATO so decides.

For Latvia and Lithuania south of Estonia, the picture is somewhat more mixed: Sweden’s territory is a game-changer for NATO by connecting the whole region, from the Norwegian High North down to the Danish Straits as an access point into the Baltic Sea in the south. Especially the island of Gotland is located very conveniently in the middle of the Baltic Sea, around 300 km from the Latvian coast. However, Russia’s control over Belarus has mitigated the positive net effect of Sweden’s NATO membership for Latvia and Lithuania. Sweden has, however, pledged to contribute a reduced brigade of up to 1000 troops to the multinational NATO Forward Land Force in Latvia. Sweden is assessed to even have the potential to take on a leadership role in the maritime domain in the Baltic Sea region, with its capable navy specialised in Baltic Sea shallow water and submarine warfare.

Finnish military personnel install the Finnish national flag at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on April 4, 2023. AFP/Scanpix

The Snow That Starts Speaking Finnish

Another new and innovative fait accompli scenario was suggested by the Danish military analyst Anders Puck Nielsen. Nielsen’s idea was that Russia could potentially attempt a limited military operation in Northern Finland, with the same idea of presenting NATO with a challenge that the Alliance (and especially the United States) would be reluctant to meet, thereby undermining NATO’s Article 5 collective defence pledge. Again, the scenario did not account for what Finland brings to the Alliance: a wartime troop strength of 280 000 plus reserve up to 870 000, one of Europe’s largest artilleries and recent investments into long-range fires as well as air defence, capable air force (that will soon phase out the F/A-18 Hornet jets for 64 new F-35s), and long-range JASSM missiles that can reach strategic targets in Russia. In addition, the close cooperation of the Nordic air forces, constituting a combined fleet of some 250 jets in total and especially the longstanding and frequent trilateral exercise activity of the Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish air forces in the northern parts of the countries, is a force to reckon with for Russian planners.

Apart from the Nordic capabilities, the United Kingdom and the United States have been exercising with Finnish and fellow Nordic allies up in Northern Finland almost nonstop since Finland submitted its NATO application in May 2022. One of Europe’s largest live-fire artillery exercise ranges is located at the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, together with an air base that hosts the Lapland Air Wing of the Finnish Air Force. The Lapland Jaeger Brigade is famous for its Arctic warfare know-how, which it has been sharing with, for example, American allies in several exercises. Northern Finland is, therefore, not an empty no-man’s-land that Russia could poke into undisturbed.

The threat of Russia’s war escalating horizontally into NATO territory remains a possibility, as Russia has been acting recklessly, especially in the Black Sea airspace. Russian drones have crashed into Romanian territory, and Moscow threatened to shoot down a French surveillance aeroplane, to name just two publicly known incidents. While the grey areas in the Baltic Sea region are now history, with Finland and Sweden having become NATO members, in the Black Sea region there are still many countries remaining outside of the EU and NATO and vulnerable to Russian pressure or even aggression. These concerns were behind the French security agreement with Moldova in March 2024. However, the initial fears over Russia’s military dominance in the Black Sea have been mitigated in the past two years by Ukraine’s repeated successes in destroying approximately one-third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, despite not having a navy.

Keeping Russia’s low-key aggression in check

In the Baltic Sea region, the situation has never been better in terms of clarity of military arrangements. The new clarity that Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession brought into the region’s defence planning has raised the stakes significantly for any Russian attempt at challenging NATO. But an area that Russia excels at, and the Western countries still struggle to come to terms with, is hybrid operations below the threshold of military aggression. Russia has plagued its Baltic and Nordic neighbours with regular cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and recently even car sabotages. Air space violations are a common occurrence and NATO’s Baltic Air Policing intercepted Russian military aircraft over 300 times in 2023 alone. Also, Russian GPS jamming has become a nearly everyday phenomenon both in the High North and in the Baltic region, jeopardising civilian traffic. The increasingly frequent human-caused damage to undersea infrastructure, such as data cables and gas pipelines, has also been linked to Russia.

Additionally, Russian buyers have been purchasing real estate in strategic locations in the Nordic region, often close to military installations, such as the cottages overlooking a military airbase in Northern Norway that the Swedish Defence Forces rented during NATO’s Nordic Response exercise in early 2024. Finland is also experiencing the direct repercussions of the fact that since the autumn of 2023, the war in Ukraine has been going better for Russia due to Ukraine’s lack of ammunition and other equipment, thus freeing up capacity for an instrumentalised migration campaign at the Finnish border. This is no new tactic: Russia conducted the first test case in 2015-16 at the Finnish and Norwegian borders, and having found it a good way to put pressure on neighbours, a similar campaign was repeated in 2021 from Belarus to Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Instrumentalised migration is a low-cost tool in Russia’s hybrid toolbox, with potentially high impact.

The myriad of different hybrid methods Russia utilises against its Baltic and Nordic neighbours continue to present a significant challenge, as calibrating response can be tricky due to often lacking evidence for attribution and lack of adequate tools to respond with. Both the EU and NATO have started to improve awareness and create appropriate responses to such actions, but much more work needs to be done. Russia has been able to develop its hybrid interference instruments over the past decades as the countries in the region have largely had to tolerate the low-key aggressions, in the absence of definitive attribution and effective response methods.

In sum, the Baltic-Nordic region has never been militarily as well-connected and coherent, and most importantly, prepared. All countries in the region take the Russian threat very seriously – and understand what is at stake in Ukraine. The Baltic states were leading the initial European response to Russia’s full-scale war and have donated the most military equipment as a share of their GDP. The Nordic countries, apart from Iceland which does not have its own armed forces, all rank within the top 10 of Ukraine’s military supporters in absolute terms and show no signs of tiring. The Baltic-Nordic region embraces Ukraine’s victory as theirs, as should the rest of the West. However, Russia continues its hybrid campaign against the countries in the region largely without having to fear decisive consequences, which requires robust cooperation among the targeted countries and relevant institutions, such as the EU and NATO. It is paramount to keep Russia’s low-key aggression in check and to hold Russia accountable for not only the major crimes against humanity it is committing in Ukraine but also the below-threshold interference against its other neighbours.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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