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Is the Baltic Both a Geopolitical Grey Zone and NATO’s Internal Sea?

On 5 June, the annual Baltops naval exercise started at the coast of Sweden and lasted until 17 June, with the participation of military personnel from 14 NATO member states, Sweden and Finland – 7,000 sailors, pilots and marines, 75 aircraft and 45 ships.

The exercise, which has been running since 1972, is linked this year to the 500th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Navy, with a solemn ceremony starting in Stockholm with a transition to the continuation of tactical manoeuvres in the Baltic Sea and the airspace above it. Baltops 2022 ended in Kiel, Germany, also at the Baltic Sea.

On the eve of the event, from 16 May to 3 June, on the other side of the Baltic Sea, Estonia hosted Siil 2022, the country’s largest military exercise, with around 15,000 Estonian and NATO allies and partners.

As it was announced on the website of the Estonian Defence Forces, the exercise was aimed at testing combat readiness and the ability to respond to international threats. Particular emphasis was placed on testing the cyber command of the 2nd Infantry Brigade and the Strategic Communications Centre.

Another state of the Baltic Sea, Poland, hosted the Defender Europe 2022 and Swift Response multinational military exercises on 1-26 May, where, in addition to Polish troops, their counterparts from the USA, France, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, the United Kingdom (UK), etc., took part, totally 18,000 military personnel from 20 countries.

The Ministry of Defence of Poland, both in the context of the exercise and in the known geopolitical-military context, has asked the locals living in the area of the exercise not to disseminate video footage of troop movements (this year it was carried out at night), deployment locations, and military aircraft take-offs and landings.

Defender Europe is also an ongoing exercise organised by the United States Army to verify the operational compatibility of NATO allies and partners.

Officially, Warsaw announced earlier this year that Defender Europe 2022 and Swift Response, the planning of which started last year, are not directed against any specific country and are not linked to the geopolitical situation in the Baltic Sea region.

Minister of National Defence of Lithuania Arvydas Anušauskas stated at a press conference on 13 May that Lithuania expects from the NATO Summit in Madrid substantial decisions on strengthening the defence of the Eastern part of the Alliance, such as ensuring air and missile defence in the Baltic States, increasing the number of battalions deployed in the region towards the size of a brigade unit etc.

The Minister said that he had discussed the forthcoming NATO Summit with his Polish counterpart and that they both looked forward to substantive decisions on the issues discussed here and related topics and that they would pursue these objectives together. He left for the meeting of the Alliance Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Berlin on 14-15 May.

The Washington Post’s report on it highlights the divergent views of NATO member states on strengthening the security of the eastern flank of the Alliance – the Baltic Sea, as it were – in the context of aggression of Russia against Ukraine.

Poland and the Baltic countries are asking for a significant reinforcement of NATO presence in the region, while some other Alliance members, such as France and Italy, are sceptical.

As one Western European official argued to the newspaper, the sceptics further away from the Baltic region are concerned that, in the context of known military-geopolitical shifts, the North Atlantic Alliance is turning away (also financially) from other threats, such as transnational terrorism and illegal immigration via the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, primarily to Italy and Spain.

It is not entirely appropriate to concentrate only on the containment of Russia in the Baltic Sea region, since actions of Moscow here are characterised as rather chaotic and therefore, if dangerous, not yet existential.

The Washington Post countered with the following joint statements-suggestions of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia: ‘It is impossible to rule out the possibility of Moscow’s military aggression against NATO allies, when Russia can quickly regroup its forces on the eastern flank of the alliance. In that case, a short war on the eastern border of NATO would become a fait accompli.”

Eastern Europeans also recall the strategic mistakes of the West in its sluggish response to Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. They argue that the lack of attention to the Baltic States could now be another signal to Vladimir Putin that an attack on its neighbours in this region too will pass without visible consequences.

Eastern European countries are therefore demanding that NATO formally renounce its position on the “Russia-NATO pact” signed in 1997, which limits the Alliance’s ability to deploy additional troops east of Germany in exchange for the promise of Moscow to keep the peace in the Baltic region.

And most NATO members agree that the Pact of 1997is no longer in force because of predatory war of Russia in Ukraine, and because Moscow has deployed troops in Belarus near the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

In Berlin, it was agreed to continue discussions on the subject until the Alliance summit in Madrid at the end of June, and in the capital of Spain, it is planned to activate the decision of Finland and Sweden to become NATO members by signing the accession protocols if Turkey, which is still opposed, withdraws its claims.

The activation of the turn of Finland and Sweden towards NATO membership is particularly dynamic. As Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland Pokka Haavisto points out, the ratification of the membership treaty by the member countries of the Alliance can take between three months and a year.

By comparison, the last NATO entrant, North Macedonia, has so far taken 13 months to formally join NATO.

Stockholm and Helsinki are agitating for an accelerated procedure and for fear of remaining in a geopolitical “grey area”.

“Grey zone” is a term used in international relations theory to describe the space in between war and peace, where warring parties practice hostilities in military-technical, economic, diplomatic, informational and other spheres, without entering into an open military confrontation.

As Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson, who received her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, in Stockholm on 13 April, pointed out, the difference between partnership and membership (of NATO – A.S.) is absolutely clear. There is no other method of guaranteeing security than Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation treaty, which obliges the collective defence of any member that is attacked.

The North Atlantic Alliance Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg (a Scandinavian, Norwegian, by the way), is also agitating for an accelerated procedure.

In the case of Finland’s membership of NATO (which is not in doubt), the eastern border of the Alliance with Russia will be “extended” by 1,400 kilometres, while the second largest city of Russia St Petersburg will be “brought” closer to NATO by 150 kilometres.

In this connection, it should also be recalled that in the event of a military conflict, Finland, already a member of the Alliance, could mobilise almost 250,000 people. The security of the Baltic Sea, and therefore of the Baltic States, will also be strengthened by membership of Sweden, as the strategically important island of Gotland in the middle of the sea will be controlled by NATO. The Russians should also be concerned (regardless of what Vladimir Putin says in public) about the increased presence of the Alliance air and naval forces in the Gulf of Finland.

In any case, Moscow has already threatened to drop the option of a non-nuclear status for the Baltic Sea in its military doctrine, following the Helsinki and Stockholm decisions.

Elisabeth Bro of the American Enterprise Institute, a specialist in international relations and security policy in Northern Europe, believes that the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO may increase tension in the Baltic Sea region, but an open confrontation between Russia and the West is unlikely.

In an interview with Svoboda (23 April), the author of two books, also on the functioning of major powers in geopolitical grey zones, said she was surprised by the decision of the Kremlin to resort to military aggression against Ukraine, when it could have successfully exerted full pressure on its neighbour, which remains in a grey zone, through non-military means.

Let us say “only” by keeping a military group on the Ukrainian border and thus scaring away foreign investors.

Moscow – contrary to logic – opted for open military aggression. Therefore, we can expect surprises, brazen behaviour and provocations in the Baltic region as well. For example, violations of Finnish and Swedish airspace by the Russian warplanes.

Something that Moscow practices regularly in the Baltic airspace. Between 25 April and 1 May alone, NATO fighter jets carrying out air policing functions in the Baltic States flew 9 sorties to patrol the Baltic airspace border with the Russian Federation and Belarus, and to identify and escort the Russian military aircraft that had violated the rules of the air in the international airspace over the Baltic Sea.

Russian warships may take unfriendly action in the face of civilian vessels from neighbouring countries, which would be annoying and increase tensions.

And so on, but no more. According to E. Bro, Moscow is too bogged down in Ukraine to risk an “additional” military conflict.

Chairman of the Latvian Council on International Relations and a professor at Stradins University in Riga Andris Sprūds summarises that with the growing number of Alliance members in the region, the Baltic Sea is becoming a safer NATO inland sea, albeit with an unpredictable neighbour in Russia.

Security has increased with the timely (2004) accession of Poland and the Baltic States, and will increase further with the de facto membership of Finland and Sweden. It will simply be clear to everyone – including Moscow – even if it is geopolitically disappointing.

As regards the eastern Baltic States in particular, it should also be pointed out that after 2004 they have transformed from an island of security into a peninsula of security and part of the European continent. According to Andris Sprūds, this is good for everyone, including even Russia, because it has removed any question of expansionist temptations in the „grey areas“.

However, it is also a fact that heroic defence of Ukraine covers the Baltic region by distracting the attention and resources o the Kremlin.

Until the beginning of the aggression against Ukraine on 24 February, some diplomatic formula for relations with the neutral states remaining in the „grey zone“was in place, albeit in a stagnant, sabotaged state. Now, any constructive relations, any talks with Vladimir Putin, are simply impossible.

That’s why, as the American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) once pointed out, the best neighbours are those with high fences.

Arūnas Spraunius

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Autorius: Voras.online