Protecting the Eastern Flank: NATO and Security in the Nordic-Baltic and Black Sea Region

Despite the end of the Cold War twenty-five years ago, Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea led NATO to once again focus collective defense arrangements towards the “eastern flank”. In recent months, concerns arose in the region north of the flank, consisting of the Nordic States, primarily NATO member Norway and non-NATO members Finland and Sweden, and the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

One such instance included the NATO interception of Russian bombers and combat aircraft, an Il-22 bomber, tailed by two Su-27 fighters, above the Baltic Sea February 14 and 16. According to the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, which hosts the multinational NATO police mission of jets that assist in preventing incursions into the country’s airspace, Russian jets were approaching allied airspace. The flights appeared to be a round trip from mainland Russia to its enclave of Kaliningrad and back, a connection that proves to be tense as it passes close to allied airspace. These Russian “patrol flights”, involving unannounced forays around and towards European airspace with transponders off, increased in number since 2014.

Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, the three Baltic States, share an interesting and complicated history with the Russian Federation. After the 1772-1795 Partitions of Poland, the territories that later became the Baltic States were incorporated into the Russian and Habsburg Empires and the Kingdom of Prussia. After the First World War, the countries gained their independence but were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and installed with pro-Soviet governments. It wasn’t until September of 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the independence of the three countries was recognized. In 2004, the Baltic States became NATO members and are members of the European Union and the Eurozone.

”These countries are inherently vulnerable to military and non-military attack. Their economies are liable to Russian pressure. Estonia and Latvia are also potentially subject to Russian interference because of their ethnic make-up,” Edward Lucas, Senior Vice-President at the Center for European Policy Analysis and Senior Editor of The Economist, said in a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting yesterday about U.S. policy towards the Baltic states. “’Russia does not believe that its neighbors should be fully sovereign, with the right to make independent decisions about their geopolitical future. The Kremlin does not want to reconquer these ex-colonies; that would be prohibitively costly. But it does want to constrain them.”

Norway, the only Nordic member of NATO to share a border with Russia, confirmed at the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw that the country would provide 10 million kroner (approximately $1.2 million) to support the organization’s initiatives for defense and stability in the eastern part of the alliance.

“The unstable situation to the south and east represents a long-term challenge to Europe’s security. It is important that this challenge is met not only by strengthening our own defence and deterrence capability; we must also enable our partners to take responsibility for their own security,” said Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende.

Finland and Sweden, the other two Nordic states with defense concerns, are not NATO members and thus not covered by NATO’s collective defense clause. However, the two countries are two of NATO’s most active partners in monitoring and contributing to security and stability in the Baltic region, including coordinating training exercises. Amid the Baltic security concerns, the Swedish government reintroduced military conscription, selecting from approximately 13,000 young people born in 1999 to undergo military assessment. 4,000 men and women will be called up for military service from 1 January 2018. A Swedish government report includes reasons for boosting military capabilities such as “the deteriorating security situation in Europe, particularly in light of the Russian aggression against Ukraine” and creating a critical deeper cooperative defense measure with Finland.

Such concerns of stability and security in the eastern flank prompted NATO Allies to implement the 2016 Warsaw Summit decisions to establish NATO’s forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland and to develop a tailored forward presence in the Baltic and Black Sea region. In order to enhance this presence, NATO organized four multinational battalion-size battlegroups to operate in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, on a rotational basis. These battalion-size battlegroups, in addition to initiative to increase presence in the air and at sea,  are to be led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States respectively that reflect NATO’s transatlantic bond and focus of “an attack on one Ally would be considered an attack on the whole Alliance.”

The United States- led battalion to be situated in Poland will be deployed at the start of April. The battalion will consist of more than 1, 100 soldiers: approximately 900 U.S. soldiers, 150 British personnel, and 120 Romanian troops. 120 British troops, the first of the British-led battalion, arrived in Estonia in mid-March with the remaining 680 British troops and additional French troops arriving in April. Danish troops are to arrive in 2018.

“The military potential that the Russian Federation has built up here at the border is completely irrational in my view because there is zero threat emanating from these countries,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said. “No one expects a real military confrontation to happen here, but what there is, and what has been reported in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, are attempts at massive disinformation and influence campaigns.”

In his testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Lucas warned that should the United States and the West ”over-focus on the tactical military difficulties we face in the Baltic region, we risk neglecting the revolution in our strategic thinking needed to prepare our countries and our armed forces for the task ahead. Our job is not the military defense of the Baltic states on the spot. It is the defense of all NATO allies through deterrence.”

”In particular, I believe that the Baltic states are the keystones of the European security order. If they fall victim to Russian pressure, be it military, economic or political, then the rules-based system which the United States has established and defended in Europe for more than six decades is over,” Lucas said.

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