A National Security Perspective for Northern European and Baltic Countries

Increasing conflict and tension between the European Union and Russia, as well as NATO and Russia, yet again raises the question of national security for the Baltic States and the broader Baltic region in the event of Russian military aggression. The planning and execution of “Zapad 2013” and “Zapad 2017” military exercises bring to a sharp focus the real potential for Russian military action in the Baltic States and the concentration by Russia on establishing military control of the Baltic Sea.

The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 as well as the ongoing military conflict following the incursion into Ukraine by Russia in 2013, are clear examples of the preparedness of Russia to embark on acts of military aggression against her neighbouring countries. Reliance on Article 5 of the NATO Pact and the stationing of NATO troops in the Baltic region do not by themselves guarantee the protection of this region from military conflict. Article 5 of the NATO Pact can only be acted upon in the event of military attack, which, taking into account the speed of modern warfare, would effectively mean the destruction of the economies and infrastructure of the Baltic States. It is, therefore, necessary to establish a broader joint regional deterrent policy to effectively minimise the possibility of such military conflict.

A cornerstone of an effective deterrent policy would be for all Baltic region countries to commit to a position of solidarity in relation to international matters of economics, politics and, most importantly, military action. This would negate any attempts by an unfriendly foreign power, in pursuit of their political and military objectives, to leverage influence on these countries individually by targeting current policy diversities.

We should acknowledge the reality that the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea are nations of similar mind, with shared core values and a belief in the basic principles of nationhood. In relation to military matters, however, Finland and Sweden have elected to adopt a position of neutrality which, historically, has served these countries well. Sadly, looking at the reality of modern warfare technology, a position of neutrality is no longer tenable. For Finland to hope that they could defend their borders in a way similar to their valiant efforts in the Second World War is a naïve illusion. Sweden should also be aware that, should an armed conflict commence, Russia’s priority would be to gain control of the Baltic Sea, closely followed by their phone call to the Swedish Prime Minister, requesting permission to use Swedish airports for Russian airplanes. Naturally, neutral Sweden will have no choice but to accede to such a request. We must all be under no illusion that any military conflict in this region will be aggressive and on an enormous scale, involving considerable military resources. To maintain neutrality in these circumstances would be a practical impossibility.

We must turn our attention, therefore, to finding the most effective political solution for armed conflict deterrence in the Baltic region. All countries in the Baltic region must form a joint position on this matter, and have the fortitude to fully implement and adhere to the agreed solution.

Military cooperation between Sweden and Finland, or their individual cooperation with NATO will simply not suffice. It might be enough in times of peace, and is certainly effective in joint international operations, such as Afghanistan, but falls short in the current climate. To create an effective, unified armed conflict deterrent condition in the Baltic region, it is essential for each country to agree to joint military defence planning and the establishment of a central military command. In practical terms, this would require all of these countries to be members of NATO. Full military cooperation cannot be achieved if any country is only partially committed to a joint defence organisation. The lack of such commitment could lead to confusion and negative consequences in the instance of a military conflict.

The commonly presented argument against Sweden and Finland joining NATO has always been: how would Russia react to such a development? The answer is clear: of course they would react negatively! But, this initial reaction, despite being, no doubt, quick and emotional, would fade in the longer term.

Russia is well aware that NATO has no reason whatsoever to invade or threaten Russia. NATO is a joint defence organisation and that is precisely why it has been so effective over the past seventy years. In all of this time there has not been a single instance where NATO has instigated territorial or military claims against Russia. The establishment of a direct, unbroken border between NATO and Russia, together with the ensuing NATO-Russia cooperation would usher in a new era of security in Europe.

Why is this the ideal time to have this discussion?

Firstly, with his widespread dissemination of “fake news”, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin has lost a great deal of credibility in Europe, most likely forever. Secondly, Russia’s relationships with both the EU and NATO are at their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and cannot be damaged any further, despite taking a critical stance towards Russia. Thirdly, the most recent ZAPAD military exercises have now been completed and no further large scale military exercises with attendant demonstrations of military strength are planned for the Baltic border region for the next three years. Fourthly, Russian foreign policy is currently focused on the Near East and Arab States as their main priority, as they quickly attempt to fill the void in regional influence that is being left by President Trump of the United States of America. For Russia, their politics with Europe has currently slid down to second place.

This is undoubtedly the time for Europe to consolidate its position both economically and militarily. A time where the only possible barrier to European political and economic development and military integration is the indecision or inertia of Europe itself. The political leaders of Europe must embrace this vision for the future, must show their citizens the importance of this direction and convince them that this is the right roadmap to deliver lasting peace and security throughout Europe. If this can be achieved, then the continent of Europe will enter a new dimension of global competitive advantage and assured security. Europe must understand, that this development model represents the gold standard for our modern world and will become a template for other regions to follow. It takes courage to move beyond the inertia of our own naïve self-satisfaction that Europe has already achieved all that it needs to and that bold change is no longer required. As innovative Europeans, we must look to the future and eagerly take on the challenges of globalisation.       

Published 12 January 2018

Author Valdis Zatlers