This report is the final part of CEPA’s report on Baltic Sea Security Close to the Wind.
This study aims to forge a focused, forward-looking transatlantic security agenda for the Baltic Sea region. An interim report, published in August 2021, offered an audit and assessment of security challenges, highlighting gaps in the alliance’s defense and deterrence in the Baltic Sea region based on dozens of interviews with current and former political and military decision-makers and experts, as well as policy workshops, existing literature, and original survey data. It concluded that challenges to Baltic Sea regional security result from:
- Differing threat assessments, chiefly at the political level
- Gaps in intelligence collection, sharing, and fusion
- Lack of trust among some regional countries
- Divergent economic interests
- Differences and shortcomings in air and maritime strategies
- Limitations on military mobility
- Inadequate Air and Missile Defense (AMD)
- Multiple non-synchronized command structures
- Lack of realistic “hard” exercises
- Fragmented security cooperation
- Overreliance on the United States as the linchpin of regional security
Since that part of this study was published, efforts to improve national and collective security have continued. But the strategic context has changed too, notably with Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and the associated diplomatic and propaganda offensives. This final report explores how to address the shortcomings in light of these changes. It offers suggestions to maximize regional and collective defense efforts. It makes specific recommendations for the United States, NATO, and regional players as follows.
Strengthen Political Cohesion and Resilience
- Enhance political cohesion by developing a common threat assessment for the Baltic Sea region. This is an important means to building trust across the region, which is strong between some countries but much weaker among others. The classified version of such an assessment would form a useful basis for military planning, exercises, and budgeting.
- Aim for total (comprehensive) defense to increase economic, social, and political resilience of regional nations. This should be based on whole-of-government and whole-of-society responses to the full spectrum of national security threats. National efforts should be interoperable and coordinated with other countries in the region.
- Credibly depict the adaptation of the region’s deterrence and defense posture in the new NATO Strategic Concept and the European Union’s (EU’s) Strategic Compass. These organizations’ members should seize the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and continued commitment to increasing preparedness to react in case of crisis or conflict, especially in common areas.
- Improve the scope, tempo, and depth of exercises in the Baltic Sea region. To increase their internal and external credibility, exercises should focus on difficult scenarios with surprise and disruption, escalation and decision-making, and technology at the forefront. They should test reinforcement to the region from across the Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s (SACEUR’s) Area of Responsibility (AOR), highlighting and resolving regulatory and physical constraints.
Boost Capabilities and Security Assistance
- Increase contributions to AMD in the Baltic states, particularly from alliance countries with a stake in regional security, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Lack of AMD is the region’s single biggest military weakness. By enhancing regional AMD, all of Europe will be safer.
- Transform Baltic Air Policing (essentially a peacetime deployment) to Baltic Air Defense. This will signal to Russian decision-makers that their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities do not automatically give them dominance over the Baltic states in the event of a crisis. The pretense that air policing alone is adequate is outdated and harmful.
- Improve intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in the region. The aim should be an “unblinking eye” than can identify what Kremlin forces are doing, long before a crisis actually develops. Regional countries should leverage more unmanned and autonomous surveillance capabilities in the air and maritime domains.
- Overhaul the rules, classifications, clearances, and procedures around data transfer and processing to ensure seamless information sharing, which is required to better enable ISR capabilities. NATO intelligence-sharing rules do not fit the specifics of the Baltic Sea region, where non-NATO Finland and Sweden are in practice more trusted than some countries that are formally members of NATO.
- Maintain and provide more predictable, sustainable, and durable long-term US security assistance to the Baltic states and surrounding countries to help realize the abovementioned The Baltic Security Initiative (BSI) is an important mechanism to not only enhance regional capabilities, but as a bulwark against Russian military and political aggression targeting the Baltic states. It should be enhanced, not reduced, wherever possible. The United States should also consider adapting security assistance programs to contain more multiyear funding and to help develop specific, force-multiplying capabilities to create sustained impact in the region.
Streamline Command Structures, Improve Planning, and Enhance Readiness
- Accelerate the alliance’s speed of decision-making by streamlining command structures related to the region. Current arrangements are unnecessarily complex and reflect political rather than military priorities. The alliance should consider establishing an embryonic regional maritime headquarters to ensure that NATO and its partners can ensure sea control in event of a crisis or conflict and granting SACEUR more authority to act.
- Adapt the alliance’s reinforcement plans, flowing from NATO’s new Concept for Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA). A key element will be updating current Graduated Response Plans (GRPs) with more tailored regional plans and dedicated forces.
- Increase the alliance’s speed of assembly through enhanced readiness, in addition to improved plans. The Baltic Sea region is an ideal test bed for NATO to practice the “four 30s” (4×30) readiness initiative. NATO should address gaps in its readiness efforts by setting benchmarks and exercising mobilization within 12, 24, and 72-hour timeframes to build upon national efforts, including Estonia’s Okas 2021 snap exercises.
Leverage Regional Frameworks
- Provide an explicit political framework to the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force from participating nations, which is an important tool for enhancing regional security. Such a framework would benefit from a clear statement of its regional objectives and decision-making processes, as well as a vision for its future development.
- Utilize the EU’s Eastern Partnership program (EaP) to benefit regional security. Despite its grave conceptual flaws, the EaP remains of great importance for the security of the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions.
- Leverage the Three Seas Initiative as a project of importance to regional security and collective economic prosperity. It would benefit from including Ukrainian, Moldovan, and potentially Georgian connectivity needs. The initiative should adopt a broader focus that includes countries on the north and west of the Baltic Sea.
Balance the China Challenge
- Develop ally and partner capabilities and plans to enable a realistic and flexible US military contribution to regional security, especially given the growing US focus on the Indo-Pacific. Regional allies and partners should be realistic about the military contribution that can be expected from the United States, despite its enduring commitment to Euro-Atlantic security, in the event of a simultaneous crisis in the Indo-Pacific region with China.
- Increase contributions from regional countries to US geopolitical competition with China. The countries of the region that are still part of the Chinese-led 17+1 framework should follow Lithuania’s lead by minimizing their involvement in this project and, ideally, withdrawing altogether, and its bold diplomatic stance on Taiwan. The Nordic and Baltic countries, along with Poland and Germany, are well placed to call out Chinese political interference, as they are sophisticated democracies and strongly committed to human rights.
THE STRATEGIC CONTEXT
The Baltic Sea region is part of a wider landscape, ranging from the Arctic to the Black Sea, in which the United States and its allies are in an existential struggle against determined adversaries: a destructive Russian Federation and a rising China. Although it is hard to identify a period in recent history when national efforts and security ties were stronger in the Baltic Sea region, the West’s response to heightened geopolitical competition in the region has been fragmented and incomplete and remains inadequate given Russia’s local military advantage. At stake is not only the security of the countries concerned but also Europe’s peace and stability, and NATO’s credibility.
Recent events have only heightened this urgency. Russia has issued unprecedented demands for the withdrawal of external NATO forces from the territory of all post-1997 new members, accompanied by legally binding guarantees that no new members — including, implicitly, Finland and Sweden — be admitted. Russia has dismissed European and EU requests to be involved in any negotiations, saying it wishes only to deal with the US administration. These demands have been backed by unprecedented concentrations of Russian forces on the Russian-Ukrainian and Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Sporadic (and lethal) exchanges of fire continue on the conflict line with the Russian-backed separatist territories of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Even without an escalation of military hostilities, the Russian diplomatic and information offensive has heightened divisions in the West and focused attention on the Baltic Sea region. Germany refused permission for Estonia to supply GDR-era howitzers to Ukraine. This was in sharp contrast to the explicit authorization given by the US administration for the supply of US-made weapons from the Baltic states to Ukraine. British military supplies being airlifted to Ukraine had to divert around German airspace. Confidence in Germany’s role as a security partner was further weakened by its government’s offer of limited nonlethal aid to Ukraine, including helmets and the part-financing of a field hospital.
Given Germany’s importance for the security of the Nordic-Baltic region, this approach is troubling. It has attracted explicit criticism from, among others, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks, who described Germany’s relationship with Russia as “immoral and hypocritical.” 1
Russia’s approach has also framed the international security debate in a way that harms the Baltic Sea region’s security interests. Western countries appear more willing to negotiate with each other about how to appease Russian demands, than to stand up to them. Transgressive behavior is normalized. Cancelling Nord Stream 2 or revising the regulatory framework in which it operates are now seen as measures to be taken in reaction to further Russian attacks on Ukraine, rather than as steps desirable in themselves for European energy security.
Even before the recent Russian move, the strategic context was worsening. Though the Zapad-21 military exercise in September 2021 passed off without immediate incident, Kremlin pressure against regional allies has intensified. The Kremlin gave tacit support to Belarus’s use of weaponized migration to attack the Polish and Lithuanian borders, accompanied by military threats and extortion. The potency of this tactic contrasts sharply with the response of Western decision-makers, which was coordinated but limited to sanctions.
These events come against a background of abundant concerns about political cohesion and effectiveness across the West: Discussions about a new NATO Strategic Concept (to be launched in 2022) have prompted fears of a watered-down document, in effect a political declaration. Instead, it should be a framework for improved defense and deterrence that gives clear guidance to SACEUR and military planners, enables initiative, and drives interoperability. NATO-EU ties remain far short of their potential. In light of geopolitical and regional dynamics, coordination of the next Strategic Concept with the EU’s pending Strategic Compass, due in March 2022, is essential.
Yet regional cooperation among allies and partners in the Baltic Sea remains a success story. Despite political strains with the EU, Poland remains firmly anchored in Western military and security decision-making. Polish-Lithuanian military cooperation is exemplary, lately featuring the exchange of radar surveillance data and other capabilities. France and Sweden signed a bilateral defense cooperation agreement in September 2021. With the potential exception of the French-led European Intervention Initiative (EI2), French policy in the region had previously been low-key. Nordic defense ties continue to consolidate, mostly privately, with a new agreement between Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. 2 Sweden and Finland struck a defense procurement agreement in September. In early November, NATO’s secretary general for the first time addressed the Nordic Council, a powerful signal that integration between regional security structures is deepening.
At a national level, the picture also continues to brighten. Defense spending is rising in every country of the region (though the future of German defense policy, particularly regarding nuclear weapons, remains unclear). Estonia’s defense spending will rise to a regional record of 2.31% of GDP in 2022; Poland will be at 2.2%, putting several regional players above NATO’s 2% of GDP defense spending benchmark. 3 Major procurement news includes Poland’s planned acquisition of the Narew short-range air defense system and proposed purchase of 250 M1A2 Abrams SEPv3 tanks (including recovery vehicles, an important step toward greater readiness). With US support, Poland could potentially become the European hub for logistics and maintenance of US Army M1 tanks, underlining its role as a key continental European ally. Troop levels will increase to 250,000 soldiers, of which 200,000 are active duty and 50,000 territorial defense forces. 4 Estonia will purchase coastal batteries. The stand-out decision in regional defense is Finland’s choice in December 2021 of the superior 64 Lockheed F-35 fighter aircraft to replace its fleet of F/A-18 Hornets. 5
Threat assessments continue to converge, though differences remain. Robust public statements are made in Poland and Finland (where a new defense report contained a characteristically robust assessment of both dangers and capabilities). 6 At the other end of the spectrum, Denmark remains more circumspect in calling out the Russian threat.
In short, after years in which the strategic environment for the Baltic Sea region was becoming more volatile and threatening, it is now shifting sharply against the West thanks to Russia’s escalation of tensions over Ukraine and the Kremlin’s explicit demands for the demilitarization of NATO’s eastern members, and a ban on NATO membership for Ukraine as well as Sweden and Finland. In the face of Russian and Belarusian provocations, the region remains, however, rich, stable, and well-integrated into other security structures. Its defenses are strengthening. Other regions of Europe — the Western Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, for example — would gladly trade places.
SUMMARY OF GAPS AND SHORTFALLS
The interim report in this study highlighted numerous failings in regional and national security. These included:
- Differing threat assessments, chiefly at the political level: Strategic thinking about the region is piecemeal. Few have articulated a clear picture of a desired end state for regional security, and a common threat assessment is lacking.
- Gaps in intelligence collection, sharing, and fusion: Some NATO members have the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to gain a full military picture of the air, surface, and sub-surface domains. Others do not. From the multinational perspective these capabilities are fragile, fragmented, and spasmodic in all domains.
- Lack of trust among some regional countries: A CEPA survey of regional security experts shows the greatest level of perceived trust between Finland and Sweden and the lowest between Poland and Sweden, with significant variation among other regional players.
- Divergent economic interests: National defense spending is rising, but fragmented acquisition programs, domestic political considerations, and bureaucratic friction mean that the region’s huge collective defense budget often fails to deliver the results it could and should.
- Differences and shortcomings in air and maritime strategies: Since the end of the Cold War, military emphasis has understandably been on land-based defense and deterrence, given the threat of a fait accompli or limited land incursion. The main aviation element is the Baltic Air Policing mission, although the visiting aircraft are essentially a symbolic presence. The maritime picture is no better.
- Limitations on military mobility: NATO’s chief concern and greatest weakness has been and continues to be the availability of capable land forces on the European continent that can rapidly support and reinforce allies in the east in a crisis.
- Inadequate Air and Missile Defense (AMD): The most important weapons systems — such as AMD — are unaffordable for the countries that most need them.
- Multiple non-synchronized command structures: NATO’s command and force structures reflect historical and political priorities. The operational and strategic roles of the different headquarters involved in the Baltic Sea region are unclear.
- Lack of realistic “hard” exercises: Large NATO exercises are carefully scripted, with orders, terrain, and participants worked out months, even years, in advance. This is a formula for defeat.
- Fragmented security cooperation: There are limitations to regional security formats, so the Baltic countries remain dependent on outside help to defend and deter. But there are also limitations to what can be expected from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
- Overreliance on the United States as the linchpin of regional security: In many cases, there is an assumption, stated or unstated, that the United States will fill imbalances in the conventional force posture with the nuclear guarantee and multinational land-based, “trip wire” enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) forces. As strategic attention in Washington shifts to the Indo-Pacific region, it would be unrealistic for European allies to expect that under future administrations business will necessarily continue as usual.
Two untested underlying assumptions are baked into regional security thinking. One is that military exigency will overcome political obstacles: if a severe crisis occurs, this will galvanize political leaders to quickly reach a decision and act. The other is that the United States will function as the ultimate backstop for regional defense gaps. These assumptions are not necessarily wrong. But as things stand, they are flimsy.
The Baltic Sea region also lacks a central framing concept, in the form of a shared regional threat assessment that informs a common operating picture and presents a coherent and credible defense plan to Russia. This fragments not only effectiveness but also deterrence. To address these gaps, this report offers the following recommendations for enhancing regional security.
Strengthen Political Cohesion and Resilience
Enhance political cohesion by developing a common threat assessment for the Baltic Sea region. The first step to greater political cohesion and resilience is to work toward a deeper common threat assessment. This is an important means to building trust across the region, which is strong between some countries (notably Sweden and Finland, and Poland and Lithuania) but much weaker among others. Building trust should be an explicit goal of national decision-makers with an extensive program of exchanges, joint training, and information sharing to create the personal and institutional ties that underpin a common strategic culture. A common threat assessment should involve pooled bottom-up analyses of Russia’s intentions and capabilities, coupled with high-level intelligence inputs from countries outside the region. An unclassified version should be published on an annual basis, endorsed by at a minimum the four Nordic and three Baltic countries and Poland. It would be helpful if other countries, notably Germany but also the Netherlands, France, the UK, and the United States, would endorse the assessment too. Undoubtedly, national threat assessments vary because of geography and history. Political considerations play a role too: Poland and the Baltic states’ national interest is to maximize the foreign military presence on their territories. Other countries cherish their flexibility. Nonetheless, the search for common ground will in itself be useful.
The classified version of such an assessment would form a useful basis for military planning, exercises, and budgeting. This would not be a substitute for NATO and other allied efforts in this respect. But it would have a quality of focus and authority by virtue of the expertise and proximity of the countries endorsing it. It would also be free to state blunt truths that are often lost in the thickets of Brussels politicking.
Aim for total (comprehensive) defense to increase economic, social, and political resilience of regional nations. As in Finland, this should be based on whole-of-government and whole-of-society responses to the full spectrum of national security threats.Activities should include extensive training and integration of officials and populations, strategic communication and institutional redesign, strengthening public engagement, boosting shared values, promoting societal cohesion, and enhancing national and regional identity. Such efforts on a national level should be interoperable and coordinated with other countries in the region.
Credibly depict the adaptation of the region’s deterrence and defense posture in the new NATO Strategic Concept and the European Union’s (EU’s) Strategic Compass. These organizations’ members should seize the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and continued commitment to increasing preparedness to react in case of crisis or conflict. The Strategic Concept and Strategic Compass could kickstart the implementation of a new approach to security involving the integration of military and nonmilitary defense and deterrence, a hard-headed assessment of threats, and a long-term plan for remedying long-standing weaknesses. Attempts to water down the new Strategic Concept, or to diminish its military element in favor of a more broadly acceptable political declaration, are dangerous and should be resisted. The Strategic Concept should be coordinated and synchronized with the parallel iteration of the EU’s new Strategic Compass, especially in common areas (such as cyber defense of critical infrastructure, regulations and procedures needed for military mobility under peacetime conditions, national resilience through nonmilitary means, and increased focus on innovation as demonstrated by NATO’s Defense Innovation Accelerator, the EU’s Innovation Fund, and the US Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit).
Improve the scope, tempo, and depth of exercises in the Baltic Sea region. Exercises should not be showcase events to demonstrate success, but to examine the causes of failure and improve capabilities. The overall goal should be credibility, internal and external: to show that the countries of the region are willing and able to defend themselves. This involves not only pure military capabilities but also psychological resilience, and deep integration of security policy in the wider society.
Key features of realistic exercises include:
- Surprise: Russian aggression could be sudden. The ability to mobilize a substantial part of fulltime and reserve forces in a short space of time, in an orderly and effective manner, in difficult conditions (including rapid response to hybrid warfare, such as cyberattacks), sends powerful messages to domestic and foreign audiences. Regional allies could follow this example by amending restrictions to legalize snap exercises and more frequently execute them.
- Disruption: Real war is no respecter of commuters’ schedules and property rights. Exercises involving “free play” will involve damage to crops, roads, buildings, and other infrastructure. They may make major roads impassable, sometimes at short notice, or involve the commandeering of facilities. Public messaging in advance of this, and adequate compensation afterwards, is an essential part of national security. NATO undertook such operations during the Cold War notably in what was then West Germany. It can do so again.
- Realistic scenarios: Exercise planners should factor in distractions and disruption, such as US commitments in the Indo-Pacific region, divisions that hamper EU and NATO decision-making, and other unexpected problems. As emphasized in transatlantic debates around NATO Allied Command Transformation’s (ACT’s) Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC), the alliance should utilize more outside “mavericks” to add the dynamic and unpredictable elements that make exercise scenarios truly testing. This also means regularly testing reinforcement to the Baltic Sea region from across the Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s (SACEUR) Area of Responsibility (AOR) and not limiting exercises to the region only.
- Scope: War does not take place in one domain only. Air and Missile Defense (AMD) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, including their interoperability, should be routinely and aggressively exercised — to the “point of failure” in realistic simulated combat scenarios. Russian non-kinetic tactics, such as information operations, economic pressure, and cyberattacks, will feature in any real-world conflict. Allied leaders’ decision-making and the psychological resilience of societies (or lack of it) around these subthreshold threats significantly impact defense and deterrence. Exercises will test, socialize, and normalize the assumptions and thresholds involved.
- Duration: Russia’s geographic location and stocks in the region give it a potential short-term local advantage in the early phase of an armed conflict. Western countries’ greater size and technological edge give them a longer-term advantage, though this depends on adequate stocks of smart munitions and effective reinforcement capabilities. Exercises need to test these parameters.
- Escalation: The military response to Russian aggression is only part of the picture. National decision-makers must also rehearse their individual and collective approach to the escalation ladder: for example, the (threatened or actual) test detonation of a small nuclear warhead by the Kremlin, particularly in a contest over the Baltic states. 7 This is particularly important given Russia’s aggressive nuclear posture, renewed speculation about US nuclear policy, and the change of government in Berlin to include parties opposed to nuclear weapons on German soil. Exercising escalation should also account for the spectrum of the Kremlin’s so-called hybrid tactics, which include influence operations, cyberattacks, and enabling new technologies which could undermine or delay the West’s crisis response. The migrant crisis prompted by Belarus, for example, was a real-world test of Western decision-makers’ ability to handle gray-zone escalation. Lessons can be learned from it.
- Flexibility: Russia can choose how it attacks, but it cannot determine how the West will respond. Dynamic and unpredictable ways of countering aggression highlight the breadth and depth of alliance capabilities. The acquisition of F-35s and new naval capabilities (such as Danish frigates) extend the range of responses.
- Technology: Artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled decision support tools and synthetic environments may be more cost-effective and faster. They allow decision-makers and planners to test more radical courses of action, to train to failure out of the public gaze, and to pursue different iterations. They also allow national leaders to explore the context and outcomes of strategic dilemmas.
- After action reviews (AARs) should be shared widely among allies, and with the public in unclassified formats.
Variations in national capabilities, readiness, budgets, doctrines, and risk appetites present difficulties for multinational exercises in the region. Willingness and ability to participate will vary. But even small steps are better than none, particularly when combined with a coordinated approach to messaging. Some aspects of exercises must remain in the classified realm, but more openness would be helpful. The demonstrated willingness to accept costs and make hard choices is an important element in national and regional defense.
Ultimately, exercises are a guide to better decision-making. They guide the deployment of financial and other resources. They also focus decision-makers’ minds on necessary political sacrifices. Before embarking on these hard choices, we need to know what they are. Subject to the lessons learned from exercises, we also recommend the following steps to enhance capabilities in the Baltic Sea region.
Boost Capabilities and Security Assistance
Increase contributions to AMD in the Baltic states, particularly from alliance countries with a stake in regional security such as the UK, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Lack of AMD is the region’s single biggest military weakness. In the event of a crisis, the only US Patriot battalion deployed in Europe will be needed to defend Ramstein (the main US air base in Germany). Polish and Swedish Patriot missiles will be needed in those countries. The Baltic states are the most militarily exposed countries in Europe and also lack the defense budgets to buy these capabilities themselves on a sufficient scale. By enhancing regional AMD, and building on US security assistance efforts so far, all of Europe will be safer as a result.
Transform Baltic Air Policing (essentially a peacetime deployment) to Baltic Air Defense. This will signal to Russian decision-makers that their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities do not automatically give them dominance over the Baltic states in the event of a crisis. This will not happen overnight and serious questions about command and control (C2) will need to be resolved. The balance between the onshore and naval capabilities required and their permanent or persistent presence in the Baltic states can be graduated according to the threat environment. So too is the role of potential deep strikes on the territory of Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. But the pretense that air policing alone is adequate is outdated and harmful.
Improve ISR capabilities in the region. The aim should be an “unblinking eye” that can identify what Kremlin forces are doing, long before a crisis actually develops. This contributes to the speed of recognition that is vital in gray-zone or hybrid war situations. To help achieve this, regional countries should leverage more unmanned and autonomous surveillance capabilities in the air and maritime domains. As part of regional burden sharing, richer countries (such as Sweden) should pay for new intelligence-gathering capabilities that may be deployed, as required, in the airspace, waters, and territory of the Baltic states.
Overhaul the rules, classifications, clearances, and procedures around data transfer and processing to ensure seamless information sharing required to better enable ISR capabilities. The region is not necessarily short of ISR assets. The bigger problem, which has both political and technical underpinnings, is interpreting and sharing the inputs they collect. Within the alliance, procedures and rules are complicated and conservative enough to make intelligence sharing difficult. Moreover, NATO intelligence-sharing rules do not fit the specifics of the Baltic Sea region, where non-NATO Finland and Sweden are in practice more trusted than some countries that are formally members of NATO. Short of NATO accession for Sweden and Finland, the goal should be maximizing information flows with these countries. Regional nations should begin improving these processes within the highly trusted framework of Nordic cooperation before extending further and should ultimately aim to increase information-sharing between the Nordic and Baltic states, particularly for the region’s maritime and air domains. Relatedly, national-level intelligence services should maintain their vital ability to speak truth to power. These agencies should not be in the business of courting public popularity or pleasing their political masters. They must be empowered to share more information with allies and partners in the region.
Maintain and provide more predictable, sustainable, and durable long-term US security assistance to the Baltic states and surrounding countries to help realize the abovementioned capabilities. The Baltic Security Initiative (BSI) is an important mechanism for enhancing regional defense and deterrence and demonstrating unwavering US commitment to Baltic Sea regional security. It should be expanded, not reduced, wherever possible. Politically, BSI funding, which is approved by Congress, sends a strong signal that the United States and the American people support the region and furthers US strategic interests, including NATO’s integrity, the defense of democratic values, and the US economy. Militarily, it also provides a powerful top-down deterrent to Russia in one of the alliance’s most vulnerable regions. 8 BSI offers US security assistance funding to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that is multiplied by national contributions to create critically needed, interoperable capabilities, which are essential to the Baltic states because, despite spending more than 2% of GDP on defense, they still depend on allies’ support to close capability gaps. However, because the resources for security assistance are assessed and adjusted on an annual basis as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), by the time money is appropriated, the timeline to utilize BSI funding each year shrinks to around nine months. This makes it difficult for recipient countries to deliver meaningful projects and impedes longer-term planning. The United States should consider adapting such assistance programs to contain more predictable and consistent multiyear funding, which would create sustained impact in the region. 9 It should also consider security assistance as a means to support specific force-multiplying capabilities, including recent joint efforts to develop indirect fires, air defenses, situation awareness, ammunition stockpiles, and special forces.
Streamline Command Structures, Improve Planning, and Enhance Readiness
Accelerate the alliance’s speed of decision-making by streamlining command structures related to the region. The current arrangements are unnecessarily complex and reflect political rather than military priorities. Weaknesses, including staffing and equipment at the Multinational Division-North (MND-N) forward divisional headquarters in Ādaži, Latvia, should be addressed urgently. The alliance must be sure to integrate the newly established US V Corps Headquarters (Forward) in Poznan, Poland, and the newly established US 56th Artillery Command in Wiesbaden, Germany, into existing and future plans as well as exercises.
The alliance should consider establishing an embryonic regional maritime headquarters to ensure that NATO and its partners can guarantee sea control in event of a crisis or conflict. Sweden and Finland’s non-NATO status and the relative weakness of the Baltic states’ navies could pose challenges to this initiative. But a decision in principle, with early attention to better information collection and sharing, will pave the way for the resolution of other difficulties.
NATO must also ensure its new Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC), in Ulm, Germany, is properly integrated into the NATO command structure. This headquarters (functional, not battlespace-owning) will be responsible for the enablement of SACEUR’s AOR and its rapid reinforcement. JSEC needs to accelerate improvements to readiness and capability and engage in rigorous exercising to ensure that it achieves its full potential and that its role within NATO is fully realized and understood.
Adapt the alliance’s reinforcement plans, flowing from NATO’s new Concept for Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA). A key element will be updating current Graduated Response Plans (GRPs) with more tailored regional plans and dedicated forces, which has started through NATO’s new warfighting concept. As part of this, the headquarters mentioned above must command at least some explicitly assigned forces while also maintaining NATO’s flexibility to respond to Russian aggression with the means and in the location that it chooses. It is too risky to rely on national decision-makers to provide the troops and equipment needed only when a crisis is already breaking. SACEUR needs more authority to act, specifically to move high readiness forces, such as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and NATO Response Force (NRF), and their capabilities rapidly across borders.
Other important elements of NATO’s plans should include improving stocks, military mobility, resilience to cyberattacks, strategic communications, and crisis decision-making. Denmark’s role as a staging post for UK and US forces, with the implications for air defense and logistics, deserves particular attention.
Increase the alliance’s speed of assembly through enhanced readiness, in addition to improved plans. The Baltic Sea region is an ideal test bed for NATO to practice the “four 30s” (4×30) readiness initiative — a commitment to have 30 mechanized battalions, 30 naval ships, and 30 air squadrons ready for employment by NATO within 30 days of activation — and realize its commitment to developing larger formations at higher readiness. Seen from Russia, the immediate deployment of the VJTF in the run-up to a crisis, followed by the NRF and then the 4×30 from member states would be a daunting and credible response.
NATO should address gaps in its readiness efforts by setting benchmarks for mobilization within 12, 24 and 72-hour time frames and rehearsing national and regional abilities to meet them with realistic and imaginative exercises. High readiness is costly in human, physical, and financial terms. Low readiness may prove even more expensive in the event of a crisis.
Leverage Regional Frameworks
Provide an explicit political framework to the British-led JEF from participating nations, which is an important tool for enhancing regional security. Such a framework would benefit from a clear statement of its regional objectives and decision-making processes, as well as a vision for its future development. It should be seen as a complement to, not a substitute for, NATO and US efforts in the region, as well as the French-led European Intervention Initiative (EI2). Unambiguous backing from the United States would underline this. Germany and Poland should be encouraged to cooperate with the JEF and, if possible, join it.
As part of this, the JEF should offer a role to France, either of full membership or some other mutually beneficial association. The security of the Baltic Sea region would be greatly enhanced by the closer involvement of continental Europe’s most advanced military power. Given Franco-British sensitivities, aggravated by ongoing Brexit-related trade and migration squabbles, this is a potentially demanding and time-consuming diplomatic goal. However, it is vital to remove any impression that the security of Northern Europe is a “British” project. Ensuring French involvement in military procurement projects in the region could help pave the way for deeper political buy-in. So too could giving French military units a prominent role in regional exercises. Paying particular attention to timely and courteous invitations to French decision-makers when regional security meetings are being planned would also be beneficial.
Utilize the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program to benefit regional security. Despite its grave conceptual flaws, the EaP remains of great importance for the security of the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions. Constraining the lawless behavior of the regime in Minsk, promoting economic and other ties with Ukraine, helping the pro-Western government in Moldova, and preventing democratic backsliding in Georgia will all have wider regional security benefits. The Baltic states’ expertise in dealing with EaP programs and countries is not fully utilized.
Leverage the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) as a project of importance to regional security and collective economic prosperity. For all its commendable aims of improving connectivity between the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas, 3SI has fallen far short of its potential. It lacks a clear legal and organizational basis, financial clout, public profile, outside support, and a sense of momentum. It would benefit from an explicit inclusion of Ukrainian, Moldovan, and potentially Georgian connectivity needs, from telecoms to transportation to digital infrastructure. The initiative should adopt a broader focus that includes countries to the north and west of the Baltic Sea, since their development, modernity, and prosperity impacts the security of the wider region.
Balance the China Challenge
Develop ally and partner capabilities and plans to enable a realistic and flexible US military contribution to regional security, especially given the growing US focus on the Indo-Pacific. The United States remains the principal security partner and guarantor for the region. However, regional allies and partners should be realistic about the military contribution that can be expected from the United States in the event of a simultaneous crisis in the Indo-Pacific region with China, and whether the military footprint of other countries (notably the UK and France) can complement or substitute for any shortfall. Areas for improvement include AMD, crisis reinforcement, and key enablers like long-range fires, communications, and ISR. The more such capabilities and plans are worked out, the less the danger of a Russian miscalculation based on the misperception of weakness.
Critically, allies and partners should develop and assess responses to these scenarios in a dynamic, not a static, framework. Russia (and China) have repeatedly shown the ability to surprise their rivals and adversaries. They will undoubtedly do so again. The alliance needs to close and reverse the “evolution gap” in tactics and capabilities that has emerged over the past decades. The Baltic Sea region could be where the West turns the tide.
Increase contributions from regional countries to US geopolitical competition with China. The countries of the region that are still part of the Chinese-led 17+1 framework should follow Lithuania’s lead: they should minimize their involvement in this project and, ideally, withdraw altogether. Poland, in particular, should dispel impressions that it puts commercial relations with mainland China over regional security. These impressions were underlined by Polish President Andrzej Duda’s acceptance of an invitation to the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Furthermore, it is important that Lithuania’s bold diplomatic stance on Taiwan should not lead to that country being isolated. Other countries in the region should consider what they can do to boost relations — political, cultural, and economic — with the self-governing island democracy. This does not require a disavowal of the “One-China” policy. But the more countries that are prepared to stand up to Beijing’s attempts to impose vetoes on the outside world’s political discourse, the less effective those vetoes become.
As sophisticated democracies with strong commitments to human rights, the Nordic and Baltic countries, along with Poland and Germany, are well placed to call out Chinese political interference. The more they do this, the more likely other countries are to follow their lead. The case of the kidnapped Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai is just one of the issues that would benefit from political and diplomatic support at a regional level.
However, solidarity cuts both ways. Some countries in the region did not feel that they had been fully consulted when the new Lithuanian government decided to sharpen its China policy. When dealing with the world’s largest country, it is better to advance slowly on a broad front than rapidly on a narrow one. Careful attention to consultation with allies, and to the messaging and sequencing of policy initiatives, pays dividends.
A serious engagement with China policy is not only morally justified but also strategically smart. US decision-makers’ attention is limited, as are military and other resources. Countries that show their willingness to help the United States’ strategic agenda with China are in effect buying themselves useful political and military insurance.
The relative strength of the Baltic Sea region compared to other areas facing potential Russian aggression is no reason for complacency. The biggest contribution to regional security must come from the biggest countries — Germany, Poland, and, above all, the United States. However, smaller countries also have considerable scope to contribute by improving their security cooperation.
The new NATO Strategic Concept (and its EU counterpart) are potentially the most important in both organizations’ histories. They could kickstart a new approach to security involving the integration of military and nonmilitary defense and deterrence, a hard-headed assessment of threats, and a long-term plan for remedying long-standing weaknesses. The danger is that this opportunity is squandered amid political wrangling and semantic debates. Russia will notice this and act accordingly.
Boosting the Minilaterals
While the Zapad exercise in Russia and Belarus stole the headlines in September 2021, the 10-day Joint Protector 21 command-post exercise in Älvdalen, Sweden, tested multilateral operational command-post cooperation in a fictional “gray zone” scenario short of outright war. The 500-plus participants came from the 10 countries of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF): Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
JEF is not a military alliance. It is a force — “a coalition of the do-ers” in the words of British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace — which can act independently, with allies or as part of a United Nations or NATO operation. Operational since 2018, its main mandate is Northern Europe and its capabilities range from humanitarian assistance to high-end conflict.
Nor is JEF a rival to NATO. The alliance’s 2014 summit envisioned “groups of Allies coming together to work multinationally for the joint development of forces and capabilities required by the Alliance, facilitated by a framework nation.” In the JEF’s case, the framework nation is the UK. It exemplifies the new role increasingly played by “minilaterals” — agile, informal coalitions of like-minded allies.
The JEF plugs an important gap. It has an agility lacking in NATO and European Union (EU) decision-making, which is constrained by the need to gain consensus among 30 countries (NATO) or 27 (the EU). It can be deployed in the crucial “gray zone” before armed conflict has actually begun, thus acting as a deterrent to further escalation. The combination of diplomatic, media, and other activity involved in such deployments is eased by high levels of political trust.
JEF members have advanced military capabilities and are also among Europe’s foremost countries in countering hybrid threats. The Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats advised and participated in Joint Protector 21 in September 2021.
The JEF offers the United States benefits: burden sharing, expertise, and better interoperability. It would benefit from US encouragement in developing its subthreshold capabilities, honing its approach to escalation (including the involvement of high-level decision-makers), and coordinating its activities with the NATO Response Force. Enhanced high-level meetings, exercises, training, and staff officer postings will help achieve these goals. 10
We acknowledge debts of gratitude to our CEPA colleagues, retired Col. Ray Wojcik, Dalia Bankauskaitė, Lauren Speranza, and retired Adm. James G. Foggo III. We also thank our peer reviewers throughout the course of this project, including Robert Nurick.
Our research draws on dozens of interviews conducted in 2021 with government officials, politicians, military officers, former senior decision-makers, analysts, and other interested parties. This report benefitted from exceptional research by FOI (the Swedish Defence Research Agency), the Center for Naval Analyses, and RAND Corporation. 11 It also benefitted from other work by CEPA, including “The Coming Storm,” “Securing the Suwałki Corridor,” “One Flank, One Threat, One Presence,” and “The Military Mobility Project.” 12
This project was conducted with the generous support of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and the Ministry of Defense of Estonia. CEPA thanks both of these partners for their continued support of this critical research.
- Richard Milne, “Latvia slams Germany’s ‘immoral’ relationship with Russia and China,” Financial Times January 28, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/25b54dd3-bfed-4768-bc21-96acedc2c24a.
- Simon Johnson, “Sweden to deepen military ties with Norway, Denmark, Swedish TV reports,” Reuters, September 23, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/sweden-deepen-military-ties-with-norway-denmark-swedish-tv-reports-2021-09-23/.
- “Defense budget to increase by €103 million,” ERR, September 23, 2021, https://news.err.ee/1608347801/defense-budget-to-increase-by-103-million and “Poland to spend 2.5 percent of its GDP on defence from 2026,” The first NEWS, November 15, 2021, https://www.thefirstnews.com/article/poland-to-spend-25-percent-of-its-gdp-on-defence-from-2026-26014.
- “Poland unveils new defence law to counter hybrid threats and ‘Russia’s imperial ambitions,’” Notes from Poland, October 26, 2021, https://notesfrompoland.com/2021/10/26/poland-unveils-new-defence-law-to-counter-hybrid-threats-and-russias-imperial-ambitions/.
- Essi Lehto and Mike Stone, “Finland orders 64 Lockheed F-35 fighter jets for $9.4 bln,” Reuters, December 10, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/lockheed-f-35-jet-wins-finnish-fighter-competition-source-2021-12-10/.
- Finland’s Ministry of Defence, “The Government’s Defence Report 2021,” September 10, 2021, https://www.defmin.fi/en/themes/defence_policy_reports#a30a172d.
- Hal Brands, “How Russia could force a nuclear war in the Baltics,” Bloomberg Opinion, November 7, 2019, https://www.aei.org/op-eds/how-russia-could-force-a-nuclear-war-in-the-baltics/.
- LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, and Peter B. Doran, “Securing the Suwałki Corridor: Strategy, Statecraft, Deterrence, and Defense,” CEPA, July 9, 2018, https://cepa.org/securing-the-suwalki-corridor/.
- One such model for Congress to consider in this spirit is the Ukraine Security Partnership Act of 2021.
- Some of these ideas are outlined in more detail here in Sean Monaghan, “The Joint Expeditionary Force: Toward a Stronger and More Capable European Defense?,” CSIS, October 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/joint-expeditionary-force-toward-stronger-and-more-capable-european-defense.
- “Defence efforts in Northern Europe should focus on the near term,” Swedish Defense Research Agency, March 11, 2021, https://www.foi.se/en/foi/news-and-pressroom/news/2021-03-11-defence-efforts-in-northern-europe-should-focus-on-the-near-term.html; Konrad Muzyka, “Russian Forces in the Western Military District,” Center for Naval Analysis, 2020, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IOP-2020-U-028759-Final.pdf; and Scott Boston, Michael Johnson, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and Yvonne K. Crane, “Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe: Implications for Countering Russian Local Superiority,” RAND Corporation, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2402.html.
- Edward Lucas, “The Coming Storm: Baltic Sea Security Report,” CEPA, June 2015, https://cepa.org/cepa_files/2015-CEPA-report-The_Coming_Storm.pdf; LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, and Peter B. Doran, “Securing the Suwałki Corridor: Strategy, Statecraft, Deterrence, and Defense,” CEPA, July 9, 2018, https://cepa.org/securing-the-suwalki-corridor/; LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, COL (Ret.) Ray Wojcik, and Carsten Schmiedl, “One Flank, One Threat, One Presence: A Strategy for NATO’s Eastern Flank,” CEPA, May 26, 2020, https://cepa.org/one-flank-one-threat-one-presence/; and LTG (Ret.) Heinrich Brauss, LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, and Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French, “The CEPA Military Mobility Project: Moving Mountains for Europe’s Defense,” CEPA, March 3, 2021, https://cepa.org/the-cepa-military-mobility-project-moving-mountains-for-europes-defense/.