On Preventing Potential Future Conflict in the Baltic Sea
Tower Foreign Policy Institute
29 August 2019
Rusty Stephens, CAPT, USN (Ret)
Following thirty years of European euphoria since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the Baltic Sea Area has gained new importance for NATO and the West. This is due to Russia’s new aggressiveness toward Europe and the United States, primarily fueled by its desire to regain ‘great nation status’ following the Cold War. It is thus most arguably important to understand the current maritime situation in the Baltic Sea Area and what NATO needs to do about it in order to ensure ongoing peace and security in the Area and across Europe.
A resurgent Russia is engaged in an across-the-board military build-up, which is threatening European interests in the Baltic Sea. Russia’s maritime capacity, aggressive intentions, and ongoing presence in the Baltic Sea Area constitute a threat to peace, sovereignty, territorial integrity, economic prosperity, human rights, and the rule of law in Europe. Russia is also disregarding its obligations to establish a secure and lasting peace throughout Europe.
NATO unfortunately has not been doing enough until recently to counter these threats. To fully rectify its past inaction, NATO needs to rapidly gain the capacity to prevail in the Baltics without overreliance on the U.S. Navy. Doing so would prevent Russia from further pressuring, undermining, or gaining control of the governments, the peoples, or the economies of any of the countries of Europe, especially NATO member countries.
The Importance of the Baltic Sea Area to Europe and the West
The Baltic Sea constituted a significant highway for trade and defense for its surrounding nations from the Middle Ages until the 1500s. The area is still significant today because rising tensions with Russia and her increasingly aggressive actions create the need for external allies to come to the aid of the eight Baltic Sea States when needed.
The current aggressive posture of Russia creates a threat to the Scandinavian, Baltic, Northern, and Eastern European countries. The location of the Russian province of Kaliningrad, which is situated among the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and geographically disconnected from the rest of Russia, creates a local and immediate danger to these countries (such as Russia has done with Ukraine) through possible coercion, military conflict, or invasion and therefore creates a threat to the rest of Europe. Since seven of these countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the U.S. and particularly the U.S. Navy are engaged and committed to their defense.
The Baltic Sea itself is additionally important to the global economy currently because it provides sea access to Sweden, Finland, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Russian province of Kaliningrad – where significant Russian naval and other military forces are located. Ensuring free access by sea for trade, travel, and defense is consequently critical for the protection of these nations’ peoples, economies, and borders. This means it is imperative that NATO and the U.S. will both need to be present when needed in the event of future peace and security issues. Coupled with Russia’s recent annexing of Crimea, with its seaport of Sevastopol, and its occupation of the eastern portion of Ukraine, control of the Baltic Sea would maximize Russia’s otherwise limited ability to squeeze or control Northern and Eastern Europe.
Baltics Area Threat from Russia and Russian Partners
Russia’s Baltic Sea presence, along with its numerous land-based anti-ship missiles, provides one of the few ways Russia’s reduced-in-size Navy can actually threaten Europe directly short of mounting an armed invasion, cutting off energy supplies, or conducting cyber-attacks.
Recent Russian naval exercises, including some with China,, demonstrate capability and intent and constitute a constant threat to Europe and NATO. While political rhetoric and other evidence indicate that Russia does not intend to conquer the Baltic countries, Russia’s current posture is one of increasingly aggressive presence and periodic demonstrations of its sea and land power (primarily warships, air presence, and anti-ship missiles). In addition, Russia’s cyber, information, and economic attacks (e.g., threatening energy supplies) create concern in the surrounding nations.
NATO/U.S. Maritime Response: Policy and Actions
NATO’s approach to the Baltic Sea area is dynamic and growing in strength. In addition to the commitment of NATO in their charter to come to the defense of any member nation, The latest annual NATO Parliamentary Assembly (November 2018) highlighted NATO’s intent to “reinforce deterrence on NATO’s eastern borders by improving strategic infrastructure, developing early warning systems and maintaining high readiness forces; to work with the private sector to safeguard elections from foreign interference; and to consider targeted sanctions in response to Russian hybrid attacks.”
In addition, NATO spokesperson, Oana Lungescu, has stated that “The Baltic Sea is of vital strategic importance for the Alliance. Clearly the security environment in the region has deteriorated after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.”
The recent NATO move into the Baltic Sea, Poland, and the Baltic countries strengthen the defense of the area and sends the right message to Russia. In addition to its maritime capacity, NATO recently conducted Noble Jump 19 in Western Poland. This large exercise consisted of German, Dutch, and Norwegian troops and a thousand vehicles which assessed these different units’ operating effectiveness together against their common threat
In achieving these security goals, the fact is that European NATO members must continue to build up their forces, including maritime forces, to the level at which in any Baltic Area conflict, the U.S. Navy simply functions as a supportive, not primary, partner. Living for the past thirty years in the post-cold war euphoria has made such a goal difficult to accept for many Europeans and their governments. This state of affairs needs to change. The increasing diversity, magnitude, and continuous presence of current and emerging global threats not only stretches the U.S. Navy more thinly, it makes U.S. priorities more difficult to achieve, and thus increases the general vulnerability of Europe.
At present, NATO overall is doing well with being aware of the threat to the Baltic Sea area, conducting active planning and coordination among the NATO navies and other forces, maintaining access in this backyard of northern Europe, and seeking to further develop their capabilities and operational skills by working together in an increasing number of exercises.
But challenges remain. Interoperability with each other remains a challenging NATO maritime goal, as at-sea warfare is an increasingly complicated and rapidly evolving enterprise. Navies that are not continually modernizing and training (which regrettably currently includes several NATO member navies) tend to fall behind and at times must be left out of the fight. The emerging situation accordingly requires an increased capacity levels, presence, operational skills, teamwork, and strong will.
Therefore, NATO member nations need to invest more heavily in maritime defense capabilities and training, while at the same time focusing those dollars on developing air, sea, and undersea ships and aircraft, equipment, training, and tactics appropriate for the new post-Cold War threats. These capabilities and training range from attack and intelligence drones, unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, a new generation of anti-ship and anti-air missiles, and new tactics and operations to thwart Russian hybrid warfare (such as the “little green men” who attacked Ukraine).
However, the disparity of current naval capabilities across NATO makes comprehensive training difficult. The more capable NATO becomes as a whole and can operate fully together, especially in communications and command and control, the better the U.S. Navy can contribute what only it can deliver: open ocean surveillance, deterrence, and countering the broader array of Russian threats across the span of the world’s oceans. In today’s world, Europe can be threatened from the Atlantic, and increasingly the Arctic Ocean, the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and in the near future, space. A strong NATO maritime force – rightly deployed – will anchor the northern flank of Europe against the very real aggressive posture of Russia.
In this new era of Russian hybrid war and Chinese deceit and pressure, NATO maritime presence, capabilities, and strong intent provide an ever-present counterbalance in the Baltic Sea, thus protecting the otherwise vulnerable nations in the region.
Trump Administration Policy and Action
The Trump Administration is strongly investing in the Baltics Area. In 2017, the United States signed Defense Cooperation Agreements with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which despite making up the northeastern bulwark of Europe are the most vulnerable nations in the region. These foundational agreements establish the framework for stronger partnership and security cooperation between the United States and these NATO Allies. Coupled with the non-NATO navies of Sweden and Finland, the available naval order of battle in the Baltic Sea is approaching sufficiency but must continue to grow in size and capabilities to continue to match Russian growth and to deter Russia from gaining control of the Baltic Sea Area.
The most recent U.S. State Department Fact Sheet on the Baltics explains how in the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the Trump Administration is increasing security cooperation activities and addressing Baltic-wide security gaps. Military education and training have enhanced territorial defense capabilities and promoted a greater degree of interoperability with the United States and NATO. Since 2015, the United States’ military financial and services contribution to the Baltic States has reached $1.037 billion.
The Trump policy toward the Baltics is illustrated in his remarks at his White House press conference involving the Presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on April 3, 2018. At that time, President Trump affirmed “to the world” America’s deep and lasting friendship with the Baltic nations. He praised their contributions to defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He affirmed the growing economic cooperation, including collaboration in science, medicine, and technology, including a U.S.–Baltic Business Summit, increased bilateral trade, and cooperation on energy security. This is a strong, public, assertive commitment to important allies in the northern flank of Europe.
Each of the heads of state expressed appreciation and strong commitment to the growing ties with the United States as “partners, allies, and trustful allies,” “the United States commitment to deterrence policy and the military assistance provided to (their) forces,” and expressed confidence that “the reforms of NATO will be more effective due to United States leadership.” In a possible dig at the European Union, Trump’s “unpredictability” was even praised as providing “leverage” and “pressure” on our “rivals” (i.e., Russia) so they can see that “we can make a decision.” They affirmed the Trump approach and the summit as “a reaffirment (sic) of our shared commitment to fundamental values, our long-lasting friendship, and the steadfast partnership… for nearly a century.” They praised “real friendship, real cooperation” in trade and defense matters and expressed support for Trump’s efforts to make trade with the European Union “useful and equally fair to all sides.” They proclaimed, “This we will support as allies of the United States.”14
NATO’s Actions in the Baltic Sea Area Need to Increase
In conclusion, the Baltics Sea Area has recently become increasingly important to the security of Europe due to its providing trade access and the defense area of operations for eight Western nations. NATO is seeing the rise of a resurgent Russia engaged in an across-the-board military build-up, which is impacting the balance of power in the Baltics. Russia has shown a willingness to take increased risks while disregarding its obligations to establish a secure and lasting peace throughout Europe.15
NATO is finally responding to this latest Russian buildup and increased pressure in the Baltic Sea Area. The Trump administration is providing additional strong support through Defense Cooperation Agreements and over $1 billion in military education and training, which will have lasting effects. The Helsinki Final Act signed in 1975 by 35 nations in Eastern and Western Europe (including Russia) with an ongoing process of several review meetings, have established obligations concerning sovereignty, territorial integrity, economic cooperation, human rights, and the rule of law in wider Europe. At the end of the Cold War, these obligations enabled the establishment of new relationships between NATO countries and the former Warsaw Pact countries.16 Russia’s current behavior erodes that previous stability. In order to restore consistency to the Baltics Sea Area and forestall any further Russian encroachment, NATO must continue to grow its forces, train to a high level of proficiency, and provide unassailable deterrence to the Russian threat.
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