Russia’s war in Ukraine, Germany’s Zeitenwende, Finland and Sweden’s likely accession to NATO, and Denmark’s opting into the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy have produced fundamental shifts in the Baltic region.
ICDS’s Tony Lawrence spoke with Hamburg University Professor (emeritus) Dr Michael Epkenhans, former Director of Historical Research at the Centre for Military History and Social Sciences of the German Armed Forces at Potsdam and editor of the Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift, Germany’s leading journal on military history, about the security of the region and the historical and present-day significance of the sea at its heart.
Tony Lawrence: Perhaps we can start with a little historical context and talk about the strategic importance of the Baltic Sea. When did nations begin to see the Baltic Sea as a strategic space? And what has been its significance for Western states and for Russia throughout history?
Professor Dr Michael Epkenhans: The strategic – or more precisely, the commercial – importance of the Baltic Sea dates back to the Middle Ages. I come from Lüneburg – one of the Hanseatic League’s founding members. The German cities attached high commercial, and political value to this region.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Baltic Sea was vital for both Sweden, which regarded it as its Mare Nostrum, and for Russia, which was building up naval forces under Peter the Great. In the 19th and 20th centuries, in the clash of empires between Germany and Russia and then during the two World Wars and the Cold War, the Baltic Sea was the first line of defence against a Russian invasion of the Western world. Russia could fight its way to the Rhine and into the West by land, but to move towards the Atlantic it would first have to conquer the Baltic region. Free access to the Atlantic would mean control over the main lines of communication to North America – and without US support from across the ocean, the Europeans would not have been able to defend their countries against Russian aggression.
TL: How did Western and Russian interests in and views of the Baltic Sea change after end of the Cold War?
ME: In the early 1990s, the West – particularly Germany – was convinced that Russia had changed, and that we could look forward to a common future. The signatories of the  Helsinki Accords were genuinely convinced that democracy and peace would be the main pillars of Europe in the future. It is simply outrageous how Russia has undermined this belief in our common future, destroyed everything we believed in, and turned the clock back to 1939 with its war of aggression against Ukraine.
TL: The war has largely been fought on the land and in the air. What are your observations of its maritime aspects?
ME: The most helpful course of action to Ukraine would be to close the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to Russian warships, which Turkey, of course, has done.
The only other option would be to send in an American, or other, task force just to show the flag and to deter Russia. Seeing now how vulnerable the Russians have been to Harpoons and other modern weapons, I would recommend supporting Ukraine by supplying it with as many sophisticated weapons as possible, both to deter Russia from attacking its coast and allowing it to sink as many Russian naval vessels as possible. The recent sinking of a Russian naval tug with supplies and ammunition on board vindicates this strategy.
We have had the chance to see that the Russian Navy has learnt a lot in the past 10 to 15 years. However, judging by its capabilities in electronic warfare, we might have also overestimated its progress. It is simply incredible to watch the mistakes the Russians have been making, as well as the technological problems they have not been able to solve. They are not nearly as good as many anticipated.
In case of a general war between NATO and Russia, NATO would, of course, have to defend its members in the Black Sea Region and this would also mean deploying naval forces. Whether aircraft would operate from carriers deployed in the Mediterranean or directly off Russian shores remains to be seen.
TL: While we do not know how the war will end, we are likely heading towards a lengthy period of raised tensions between the West and Russia. Where does the Baltic region fit into this picture?
ME: The Baltic Sea is once again the first line of defence. It is here where we can decide to stop the Russians. And for Russia, the Baltic region is even more important than during the Cold War, because it has lost the naval bases it had then. Now, it has Baltiysk, which can hardly be called a naval base but is relevant for the Russian Aerospace Forces. Otherwise, there is only Kronstadt. It would use these two and, of course, Murmansk, its main base in the Arctic, to attack Western lines of communication. It has no other options. This is why – at least as far as I can see – it has been reinforcing its naval assets here in the Baltic region and in the north. Russia had neglected the Baltic Fleet for many years, at least partially because it could not get modern engines from Ukraine. But now it is building up its naval capabilities – we should not underestimate this. The West must be vigilant and start reinforcing its own capabilities in this region.
TL: What sort of naval operations, then, should the West prepare to carry out in the Baltic region?
ME: Some naval officers argue that a war between Russia and NATO would inevitably be a nuclear war. The best maritime contribution in this scenario would be a carrier in the North Sea, from which aircraft armed with tactical nuclear weapons could carry out strike missions.
But if we assume that we can avoid crossing the nuclear threshold, it is wise to maintain a strong naval force in this region to defend against Russia – my recommendation would be to reinforce naval forces, including with aircraft. This would include deploying submarines to the Baltic Sea again. During the Cold War, small German submarines were an excellent deterrent as the Russians found it difficult to detect them. The same applied to the NATO aircraft patrolling the coastline in international waters.
A reinforced presence would send a strong message to Russia: we can fight you, and we can hit you. We need to make clear that we are just as serious about defending ourselves in the future as Ukraine is today.
TL: Most of these capabilities, though, are beyond the reach of the three Baltic states. What should their role be?
ME: Under the concept of burden sharing, such navies should concentrate upon the capabilities they do possess, such as minelaying and minesweeping. The rest is too complicated and too expensive. But Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland should be ready to pay more and to accept a greater share of burden for the common defence.
TL: This requires cooperation, inside and outside NATO. Do the Baltic navies cooperate enough?
ME: They do (though there is always room for improvement). There is a regular conference of all the Baltic Navy Commanders. I hope that the frequency of such events will increase, with more focus on planning for crises. The better prepared you are, the better you can react if something happens.
TL: What will be the strategic impact of Finland and Sweden’s – probably fairly swift – accession to NATO?
ME: Sweden has a very capable navy, as well as a strong army and air force. The same applies to Finland. They have always without a doubt, been Western-oriented. However, we simply did not know how they would have responded in a conflict. Now it seems that they have recognised their own vulnerabilities and chosen to join a community that is ready to defend, together, the values it shares. Their prospective membership has changed the game – something that Putin obviously did not expect.
TL: As well as preparing for warfighting, the Baltic Sea navies have a vital role in countering Russia’s maritime hybrid warfare.
ME: Indeed, the hybrid element presents a grave danger. The Baltic countries have probably suffered from hybrid warfare much more than my own country. We are all still learning how to respond. But at the same time, we have always had hybrid tools – the form has changed, but the intentions have remained the same. Naval assets have often been used for political ends.
In the 1980s [during BaltOps ‘85], the battleship USS Iowa entered the Baltic Sea and fired live ammunition off Gdańsk to signal to the Russians that they ought to be careful. There are many more examples like this in recent history. Germany exploited its submarines in the Cold War for hybrid purposes, trying to provoke some Russian reaction in the Baltic Sea.
TL: Let us conclude with a couple of questions about Germany. In the maritime sense, Germany has been both an Atlantic and a Baltic power. How has the balance shifted between these priorities over the years? What is Germany’s priority today?
ME: To be honest, the Germans have regarded themselves mainly as a land power. The navy has never had a very good reputation in Germany, because many people, especially in the army, blamed it for both the outbreak of and the defeat in the two world wars.
It was only in the 1950s and 60s, that German naval officers grudgingly accepted that they had to operate in the Baltic Sea. They always believed themselves to be a blue water navy and were extremely disappointed when NATO decided to assign the northern flank’s defence to them.
But this changed after the end of the Cold War, when Germany remained in the Baltic Sea with its corvettes, really just for symbolic reasons. Showing the flag. Hardly anyone anticipated that we might again find ourselves with a real hot war in eastern Europe. So, we have to adapt once again, and quickly. People in the Baltic region have expectations of Germany as the bigger partner in this game, and we cannot afford – for political, military, economic, and cultural reasons – to disappoint them. It starts with showing the flag: my son serves in the German Navy, and his frigate went to Klaipėda when the war broke out. Whatever could float, we sent to the Baltic Sea, just to tell the Russians, “Here we are”.
But at the end of the day, it is NATO that decides where our ships go. Germany made clear after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine that we would deploy our Navy to the Baltic Sea, or to the northern flank, or to wherever NATO deems necessary.
TL: You mentioned the expectations of partners. One of the things that seems to be missing in the maritime domain in the Baltic region is leadership. Is Germany ready to step up in this role?
ME: I fully agree that leadership is absolutely necessary. In this respect, Germany should decide – together with the other nations in the Baltic region – whether it should assume this role. It should definitely be a common decision, because in the current environment, we must send a clear message that whoever the leader is, we stand together and act together.
Germany has the biggest navy, and – since Sweden and Finland have not joined NATO yet – it should probably be Germany. But many Germans still have some apprehension about taking leadership roles. Germany has matured in the past thirty years, but for well-known historical reasons, Germans tend to be a little shy about volunteering.
TL: Finally, Germany has already made more radical changes to its defence and security policy than anybody else, apart perhaps from Sweden and Finland, in its response to the Ukraine war – the Zeitenwende. Is this course sustainable?
ME: I think it is, although many Germans continue to struggle with it. We never expected that something like this war would happen again in Europe, especially in central Europe. Yet, this is the reality today, and we have to face it, which requires adjusting both our mindsets and our strategies.
The German Chancellor recently announced that Germany would send modern missile launchers – similar to the ones the Americans have been sending – to Ukraine, as well as other material support to defend against Russian artillery. We have obviously already taken a giant leap, given our strong reservations in this regard.
But we are yet to fully accept that our polices will have to change dramatically in many respects: starting from strengthening the army, the navy, and the air force and ending with re-orienting our economy to entirely new energy suppliers, cutting off Russian supplies. The sooner the better. But at the same time, the argument that we should avoid weakening ourselves has some validity. For instance, the German economy is still the strongest economy in Europe. Should we go into depression and eventually lose our ability to support our neighbours economically? Nobody would win – we must continue to seek a balance.
And militarily we need to find a balance too. NATO must never become part of this war – this would bring total destruction. But we need to show some courage and do whatever is possible. I am resolutely against any kind of compromises and any kind of appeasement. We must clearly say to Putin that he has crossed a line and that he will now pay the full price for violating European values – values which Russia itself accepted in 1990, and voluntarily committed to in treaties. It will take Russia a very long time to become a member of the civilised world again.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).