September 9, 2021
The Kremlin aims to be the dominant power in Eurasia, using Russia’s size to exert strong influence over its neighbors and to bargain with big countries on an equal basis.
This chapter is part of CEPA's report on Baltic Sea Security Close to the Wind.
The Russian regime’s foremost interest is its own hold on power. All policy, internal and external, stems from this overriding goal. The Kremlin sees the West, the European Union (EU), and NATO as threats to this stability, and as potential instigators of “color revolutions” that will exploit Russia’s ethnic, religious, political, and other fissures.
The long-term goal is, therefore, a polycentric or multipolar world in which multilateral, rules-based organizations are unable to dictate terms to Russia. Instead, the Kremlin aims to be the dominant power in Eurasia, using Russia’s size to exert strong influence over its neighbors and over small countries, and to bargain with big countries on an equal basis. The ideal relationship for Russia with a neighbor is broadly what it currently enjoys with Belarus, or what in Russian literature is described as “Finlandization,” meaning the privileged post-war relationship that the Soviet Union enjoyed with neutral Finland (Finns regard this era differently, and regard the term “Finlandization” as insulting and inaccurate).
Contrary to many Western assumptions, a stable security environment in Russia’s neighborhood is, therefore, not necessarily the Kremlin’s preferred outcome. It may be in Russia’s national security interest to destabilize neighboring countries to:
- Prevent a perceived threat.
- Create a bargaining position.
- Reap domestic political dividends.
These factors may overlap, as they did in the attack on Ukraine in 2014. One aim was to prevent that country from adopting a Western-oriented foreign policy: Ukraine’s membership of the EU or NATO would have been a permanent setback to Russia’s neo-Soviet foreign policy. Separately, the seizure of Crimea, depicted as a historically Russian territory, was highly popular with domestic opinion. Moreover, the ongoing war in Ukraine gives Russia a semi-permanent seat in European security discussions, and exploits underlying differences between France and Germany on one side, and the United States and other European countries on the other. The war in Syria brought limited practical gains, but restored Russia’s role as a geopolitical actor in the Middle East. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan similarly strengthened Russia’s position as the security arbiter in the Caucasus.
Russia has other interests too. They include gaining and securing:
- Export markets in advanced countries, especially for energy and other natural resources and, some countries, especially in the Middle East, for arms sales.
- Stable transit routes (unimpeded access to road, rail, harbors, and sea lanes).
- Advanced technology and investment.
An important Russian goal in the post-1991 era in the Baltic Sea region has been to secure a strong economic relationship with Germany, exemplified by the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines: one of these is completed, the other nearly so. This priority predicates a harmonious relationship with not only Germany but other EU and NATO countries. A countervailing factor is to keep other countries as far as possible in a security gray zone: either out of NATO altogether, or with weak ties to the United States, or in NATO but without the corresponding plans, deployments, and bases that could present a serious military obstacle to Russian power.
In particular, Russia dislikes the presence of outside NATO forces in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and in Poland. It regards this as a breach of undertakings given during the expansion of NATO, and previously during the unification of Germany. This interpretation of history is not widely shared in the countries concerned. Even inside Russia, the sincerity of this belief is open to question. The narrative of encirclement by hostile and duplicitous outsiders plays an important role in the Putin regime’s self-legitimization. Like Prince Potemkin’s village, if it does not exist in reality, it can be invented.
Photo: KALININGRAD REGION, RUSSIA – AUGUST 11, 2021: Servicemen on BTR-80 amphibious armored personnel carriers take part in an amphibious landing exercise held by naval infantry units of the Russian Baltic and Northern Fleets, at the Khmelyovka training ground; over 70 items of military hardware and more than 500 naval infantry officers are taking part in the drill. Credit: Vitaly Nevar/TASS.
A further factor is psychological and relates specifically to the Baltic states. These are seen as historic territories of the Russian empire, who:
- Temporarily enjoyed independence in the interwar period.
- Collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.
- Developed economically thanks to their status as Soviet republics.
- Were granted independence as an act of magnanimity by the Soviet Union in its death throes.
The Baltic states’ own approach to history centers on their occupation and annexation by the USSR. From their standpoint — overwhelmingly endorsed by other democracies — independence was not gained in 1991 but regained. The Baltic states maintained de jure statehood even during the era of de facto occupation.
From this seemingly arcane historical dispute stem numerous contested issues which have wider regional security implications. Russia regards the Estonian and Latvian language and citizenship laws as discrimination against ethnic minorities; it finds it hypocritical that these purported abuses arouse little or no protest from the self-proclaimed guardians of international human rights standards. (From the Baltic point of view, it is lawful and reasonable to expect Soviet-era migrants who settled in occupied territories to make some effort to accommodate the linguistic and other preferences of these now-independent countries.) Russia also notes that Lithuania regained its capital, Vilnius, and its main port, Klaipėda, only thanks to Soviet rule.1 Russia does not aim to annex the Baltic states, but it still sporadically questions the legal basis for their independence, demonstrated in 2015 by the decision of the Moscow prosecutor’s office to review the legality of the 1991 decision to “grant” the three countries their independence.
Russia also believes that the Baltic states instrumentalize past grievances, real and imagined, in order to arouse sympathy in the United States and elsewhere. Russian decision-makers find it hard to appreciate that the Baltic states are genuinely treated as allies by big Western countries. They doubt the sincerity of the Baltic elites in distancing themselves from communism.
Russia considers the Baltic states’ role in NATO and EU decision-making as an inherent threat to its security. It particularly resented, for example, Lithuania’s efforts in designing, promoting, and implementing the EU’s Third Energy Package which seriously affected Russia’s corrupt, politicized, and exploitative natural gas export model.
Among practical Russian goals in the region, and particularly in the Baltic states, are:
- Preventing increased NATO presence (infrastructure and deployment), and NATO membership or closer ties for Finland and Sweden.
- Maintaining and developing control and ownership of critical infrastructure (especially in the energy and transit industries).
- Countering the local historical narrative that depicts the Soviet and Nazi occupiers as equally reprehensible.
The more important strategic goal, however, is to use the Baltic states — and by extension the Baltic Sea region — as a means of exerting geopolitical leverage by weakening and subverting decision-making and credibility of multilateral rules and organizations.2 In pursuit of this objective, Russia uses sophisticated and varied means, overt and covert, to attempt to hamper the Baltic states’ decision-making, corrode internal cohesion, alienate Western allies and partners, and increase anti-Western sentiment in the three countries. As the next section outlines, Russia has extensive capabilities in this respect, both military and nonmilitary, to which the countries of the Baltic Sea region, individually and collectively, so far lack commensurate answers.
In Another Life: Cooperating with the Kremlin
It is possible to imagine better relations. Russia has settled its territorial disputes with Norway, and to some extent allayed historical grievances with Poland. It maintains excellent trade relations with Finland. But for the Baltic states to accept Russia as a sincerely “post-imperial” neighbor would require a level of trust that is wholly lacking and for now unforeseeable. It would involve an irreversible shift in Russia to a democratic political system, and a wholesale reorientation of Russian security and defense policy.
However, even in the current highly constrained environment it is possible to minimize friction and the risk of accidental conflict. Arms control negotiations were possible with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War; they should not be impossible with Russia now, whether on ballistic missile defense, short-range nuclear weapons, or other issues. So too are mil-mil (military-to-military) communications such as hotlines, agreements on the use of transponders by military aircraft in civilian airspace, advance notification and monitoring of exercises, and procedures to avoid unsafe maneuvers in the air and sea.
The Kremlin's Means and Tactics
Russian decision-makers have an extensive arsenal of military and nonmilitary measures to deploy against the countries of the Baltic Sea region, with varying degrees of associated cost and risk. The spectrum has developed in size and sophistication since 1991. It ranges from the threatened and actual use of nuclear weapons in a military conflict at one extreme, through to the offer of beneficial energy, trade, transit, and investment relationships to favored countries at the other.
It should be stated at the outset that warnings from Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, and other leaders to their Western counterparts were repeatedly ignored, to the detriment of all concerned.3 Decision-makers in the countries of the “old West” over the past 30 years have habitually underestimated the threat from Russia and overestimated the chances of mutually beneficial cooperation. The experience and insights of countries whose approach has been vindicated by the course of events now merit special attention.
The central feature of Russia’s approach to the Baltic Sea region is ambiguity. The Kremlin does not articulate a clear strategy toward the region, or approach it as a whole. It targets individual countries, often balancing aggressive behavior with charm offensives elsewhere. However, over the past 30 years clear features are visible.
The most long-standing of these are economic sanctions such as import curbs and restrictions on exports and transit, particularly interference with natural gas, oil, and electricity supplies. A Swedish study as early as 2006 highlighted 50 instances of coercive Russian energy policy directed against ex-Soviet neighbors, of which more than half took place before 1999, under the supposedly benign rule of Boris Yeltsin.4 In the Baltic Sea region these are chiefly directed against Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They include cutoffs of oil supplies to the export terminal in Ventspils, Latvia, in 2003 and to the Polish-owned Orlen Lietuva (formerly Mažeikių Nafta) oil refinery in Lithuania in 2006, and the sanctions on transit trade through Estonia after the “Bronze Soldier” incident of 2007. Russia banned Polish meat exports in 2007, a measure it reversed under EU pressure. In 2014, Russia banned Polish fruit and vegetable imports amid the crisis caused by its attack on Ukraine.5
None of these economic measures has been debilitating. Russia’s room for maneuver is partly constrained by the need to keep natural gas and electricity flowing to the Kaliningrad exclave. More importantly, the application of economic sanctions, and even the threat of them, has prompted extensive measures toward resilience and diversification. In sharp contrast to the picture 30 years ago, none of the countries in the Baltic Sea region has strategically vulnerable economic ties with Russia, reflecting the country’s presence on the sidelines of the global economy. Foreign trade with Russia is typically below 10% of imports and exports, whereas regional trade ties are far more important. Germany, for example, conducts nearly three times more foreign trade with Poland than it does with Russia.6 For Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, Russia is not top in the five partners for exports or imports. The country with the highest foreign trade with Russia is Lithuania (14% of imports and exports).
Photo: A picture illustration shows U.S. Dollar and Russian Ruble banknotes in Sarajevo, March 9, 2015. Credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
Grid Unlocked: Achieving Baltic Energy Independence
When they regained independence in 1991, the Baltic states were wholly dependent on Russian gas, electricity,7 and crude oil supplies. That picture has been transformed, beginning with Lithuania’s Būtingė oil-import terminal, which came into operation in 1999. The Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan (BEMIP), developed in 2008, aims to make the Baltic states’ electricity and natural gas markets fully integrated with the EU, ending their energy isolation. Key features of regional energy security include:
- Two high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) Estlink submarine power cables linking Estonia and Finland.
- The NordBalt (also known as SwedLit) power cable between Lithuania and Sweden.
- The LitPol and planned Harmony (undersea) cables between Lithuania and Poland.
- Lithuania’s floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal at Klaipėda.
- A gas interconnector between Estonia and Finland.
- The Gas Interconnection Poland-Lithuania (GIPL) pipeline due to come into operation in late 2021.
The final stage in ensuring energy security will come with the completion in 2025 of a €1.6 billion ($1.94 billion) EU synchronization project, which will disconnect the Baltic states from the Russian and Belarusian electricity grid and link them to the network used by their Western European neighbors. The €5.8 billion ($7.09 billion) Rail Baltica project, due for completion in 2026, is another potential game changer, creating a modern passenger and freight railroad link between Warsaw and Tallinn; an extension to Helsinki is under consideration.
Poland has also suffered from Russia’s coercive energy policy, paying considerably more than Western customers for its natural gas under a long-term contract dating to 1996. Following an arbitration court victory, Gazprom, Russia’s main gas company, returned a $1.5 billion overpayment. The contract expires in 2022 after which Poland plans to import its gas by pipeline from Norway, or from the United States via its new LNG terminal at Świnoujście.
The other country potentially vulnerable to coercive Russian energy policy is Finland, which has no fossil fuel reserves and imports around 44% of its energy needs, mostly from Russia. However, Finland has also benefited from the Baltic states’ improved energy connectivity. It now imports natural gas from Estonia, cutting its dependence on costlier direct exports from Russia.8 It can also import electricity from Estonia (as well as from Sweden via previously existing interconnectors).
Russia also conducts extensive information operations in the Baltic Sea region, although the impact of these efforts is unclear. These typically reflect a mixture of domestic and local targets and priorities. The main elements are those identified by the British analyst Ben Nimmo as the “four Ds”: dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay.9 The specific regional application of these tactics include belittling national security concerns (and characterizing them as costly and reckless), smearing the countries in the region for their supposed Nazi collaboration in the past, social decay and economic failure, distracting attention from Russian subversion, and projecting an impression of indefensibility.
Poland, the largest country in the Baltic Sea region, is a major target for Russian information operations. These include narratives:
- Blaming Poland for straining east-west relations.
- Denigrating NATO and the alliance with the United States.
- Depicting Polish and Lithuanian energy policies as wasteful and counterproductive.
- Exploiting the covid-19 pandemic with myths and hoaxes, including anti-vaccine propaganda and links to 5G technology.
- Falsifying history, including blaming Poland for the outbreak of World War II, shifting blame for the wartime massacres of captured Polish officers at Katyń and elsewhere from the Soviet perpetrators to Germany, and justifying other aspects of Soviet wartime and post-war behavior.
- Portraying sanctions on Russia over Ukraine as pointless and costly.
- Ridiculing the armed forces and doom-mongering over military exercises.
- Scaremongering about governments’ ability to manage crises.
- Smearing Poland as a current and historical hotbed of antisemitism and Russophobia.
- Suggesting that Polish irredentism is the hidden force behind the pro-democracy protests in Belarus.
- Undermining ties with neighboring countries (notably Germany and Ukraine).10
Photo: A protester holds a flag during a picket of Kremlin-loyal youth organisations in front of the Estonian embassy in Moscow May 3, 2007. The poster on the left shows the statue of a Red Army soldier, whose relocation in Tallinn has sparked recent tensions between Russian and its ex-Soviet neighbour. Credit: REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov
Another vector of attack is directed against the Nordic states, framing them as declining, morally rotten societies that have abandoned traditional Christian values, and that have been fatally weakened by immigration from non-European countries.11 Examples include attacks on the Finnish and Norwegian child welfare agencies, which have on occasion placed the children of dysfunctional Russian parents into foster care or adoption.12
These information operations may relate to one country but be targeted at another. Scares and smears about child welfare or migrant crimes in the Nordic countries may have little effect on local public opinion, but be more effective elsewhere: they could chill pro-Western sentiments among socially conservative opinion in the Baltic states, for example, incite anti-Western sentiment in Russia, or fuel culture wars in the United States. An invented story about Norway as a hotbed of pedophilia, for example, was recycled in Latvia — but was widely scorned.13
Individuals who present a threat to Russia can be harassed. One example is the Swedish academic Martin Kragh, who was subjected to sustained intimidation for his research into Russian influence operations.14 Another is the Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro, who was the first Western journalist to investigate the “troll factory” in St. Petersburg. In 2014, she was the subject of many invented and misleading stories, her private medical information was leaked online, she was the victim of cruel pranks, and was ultimately forced to leave Finland for her own safety.15 The Finnish authorities have taken steps to prevent such an episode happening again. They note the difficulty that small countries have in getting international social media platforms to take seriously information attacks in languages other than English.
As the only countries in the region that were directly controlled by the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as successful democracies, threaten the Russian narrative that a controlled political system works better than Western-style liberalism. Russian propaganda, therefore, depicts their independence as economically and demographically disastrous. This undermines the foundational message of the post-1991 West, that free markets, democracy, and Euroatlantic geopolitical orientation are the basis of prosperity, security, and happiness. The three countries are supposedly not only failures but friendless, marginal to Western concerns, neo-Nazis, scaremongers, and puppets of the U.S. arms industry and other hidden interests. Similar Russian information attacks have blamed Finland for purported war crimes during its wars with the Soviet Union in 1939-1940 and 1941-1944.16
A related and particularly sophisticated narrative is to deride the idea that Russia poses any kind of threat. The presence of NATO and other allied forces in the region, and other defense cooperation efforts (such as Swedish and Finnish bilateral ties, and agreements with the United States) are portrayed as warmongering provocation. Since NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) forces were deployed in the Baltic states, Russia has spread rumors and hoaxes about their activities, such as the false claim that German soldiers in Lithuania had raped a local woman, as well as attempting to demoralize foreign forces with covert, targeted attacks against individuals, particularly using personal mobile phones.17 Furthermore, military bluff and intimidation create perceptions of indefensibility and highlight the danger of nuclear escalation.
Photo: RYAZAN, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 17, 2020: A live TV broadcast of the 16th annual end-of-year news conference by Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a home appliances store. Credit: Alexander Ryumin/TASS
Audiences for these operations include Russian domestic opinion, which should be discouraged from noticing that post-Soviet life is better elsewhere; opinion in the Baltic states, which can be demoralized; and opinion in the rest of the EU and NATO, which should be made to question the merits and practicability of defending the Baltic states.
This highlights perhaps the single most important aspect of information operations: they should not be seen in isolation, but as part of wider influence operations that use political, economic, legal, and other tools to exacerbate ethnic, cultural, demographic, diplomatic, linguistic, regional, and other divisions. Russia’s diaspora policy, for example, involves both information operations aimed at increasing alienation and resentment among Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia, financial support for anti-systemic groups and individuals, diplomatic pressure on the two countries in international organizations, and clandestine subversive operations.
An example of “combined operations” in the hybrid or active measures sphere was the attack on Estonia in 2007.18 Prompted by the hasty removal of a controversial Soviet war memorial from central Tallinn to a military cemetery, this involved:
- A disinformation blitz claiming falsely that the Estonian authorities had destroyed the statue as part of systematic persecution of the Russian minority.
- A major distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on computer networks. This disabled, briefly, banking and other public services and the mobile phone network, and cut the country off from the global internet making it hard for media outlets and the authorities to get their message across.
- Kremlin-sponsored youth groups rioting in the streets of Tallinn and besieging the Estonian embassy in Moscow.
- Economic sanctions on transit and energy supplies.
- Russian politicians and officials, and those of allied countries, applied intense diplomatic pressure on Estonia, with demands including the dismissal of the prime minister and government.
Russian active measures since our previous report include kidnapping (the abduction of the Estonian security officer Eston Kohver on the Estonian border in September 2014) and corruption of the financial system (the laundering of large sums of money through the Estonian branch of Danske Bank).
The Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian security services publish annual reports about their counterintelligence and other activities in dealing with these threats.19 Other countries’ state agencies tend to be more reticent. This does not necessarily mean that less is going on. National counter-hybrid capabilities in Finland are strong, notable in Norway, and are improving in Sweden. The European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki provides analytical capability and training, as do NATO’s Hybrid Analysis Branch and the EU’s Hybrid Fusion Cell. But multilateral efforts at NATO, EU, Nordic, or Baltic levels to deal with subthreshold threats have yet to match the scale of the threat.
Photo: Russian Baltic Sea Fleet Naval Parade in Saint Petersburg. Credit: Kremlin.ru
Military intimidation is another element in Russia’s arsenal, and not confined to the Baltic states. As well as military exercises (discussed in detail below) they feature military aircraft that do not transmit a transponder code indicating their position and altitude, file a flight plan, or communicate with air traffic controllers, posing a potential risk to civilian airliners.20 Estonia counted 228 Russian violations of international aviation norms in and near its airspace in 2020 alone.21 Russian planes and ships also conduct unsafe maneuvers in the air and at sea, and intrusions into airspace and territorial waters, as the following (non-exhaustive) list illustrates, in chronological order.
- In 2015, the Finnish navy dropped depth charges in waters near Helsinki as a warning to a suspected Russian submarine.
- Russia has repeatedly violated Finnish airspace, including an incident in October 2016 seemingly timed to coincide with the signing of a defense agreement with the United States.22 This episode also featured an intrusion into Estonian airspace.
- In April of the same year, two Russian warplanes flew simulated attack passes near a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea.23
- In 2018, Russia conducted dummy attacks on military installations in northern Norway.24
- In September 2019, Estonia said a Russian Su-34 Fullback combat jet flew into its airspace.
- In August 2020, a Russian Su-27 Flanker jet committed a significant violation of Danish territory — the airspace of the island of Bornholm — after intercepting a B-52 bomber over the Baltic Sea. (On the same day, another Flanker performed an unsafe maneuver very close to a B-52 flying over the Black Sea).25
- In September 2020, on the day after Sweden signed a trilateral defense pact with Norway and Finland, Russian naval vessels intruded into Sweden’s territorial waters near Gothenburg.26
These non-combat military operations may at first sight seem counterproductive. The repeated intimidation of non-NATO Finland and Sweden (including the March 2013 dummy attack on strategic targets in southern Sweden) has pushed both countries closer to the alliance, and to the United States. They heighten public awareness of the threat, help rebuild security cultures, and provide useful training opportunities. Yet from the Kremlin’s point of view they are low-risk and effective. They highlight the costs and risks involved in confronting Russia and underline one of the main priorities of Russian strategy: that the country cannot be ignored. Inside Russia, they chime with deeply held perceptions of a decadent and divided West that can muster only the pretense of defense, but not its substance.
This “hybrid war” or “active measures” toolbox for now offers Russia the most promising combination of risk and reward. It provides opportunities to apply ambiguous, asymmetric, and selective pressure on countries in the region. But it is in the military dimension that NATO and the Baltic states are at the greatest inherent disadvantage. By virtue of its topography, the region offers Russia a tempting geostrategic prize. If by military bluff, intimidation, or actual attack it can show that NATO and U.S. security guarantees are empty, Russia can upend the post-1991 security order in Europe in a matter of hours.
Photo: Servicemen of a separate motor rifle brigade of Russia's Northern Fleet are seen by Aleut all-terrain vehicles during a training exercise held as part of preparations for an Arctic expedition near the village of Pechenga. Aleut is an amphibious all-terrain vehicle that can be used at the temperature down to -50°C (-58°F). Credit: Lev Fedoseyev/TASS
The Wider Context
The threat from the Russian Federation to the United States and its allies goes far beyond the Baltic Sea region. In the Arctic, Russia has been rapidly reestablishing its military presence, intensifying air patrols, modernizing and deploying air and coastal defense capabilities, developing military infrastructure, and reopening Soviet-era military bases.27 Any conflict in the Baltic Sea region will involve the Arctic: the Northern Fleet, based in Russia’s northern ports, will be the main instrument to prevent NATO reinforcements crossing the Atlantic. A dangerous aspect of this is that two-thirds of Russia’s maritime nuclear strike capacity is hosted on the Kola Peninsula, less than 120 km (75 miles) from the Norwegian border. These facilities and capabilities are crucial to Russia’s continued status as a global nuclear superpower. Their preservation is, therefore, a vital strategic interest for the Kremlin. Security crises in the Baltic Sea region, particularly involving potential NATO strikes inside Russia and related tensions in the Arctic region, may be interpreted by Kremlin decision-makers chiefly through this lens, with potential escalatory consequences.28 Well-considered decision-making and messaging regarding these sensitivities are, therefore, particularly important.
NATO’s southeastern flank is in many ways a greater worry. Political developments in Turkey threaten alliance cohesion. The Kremlin-backed Syrian regime’s war against its own people, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia’s war in Ukraine are all on the alliance’s borders. The Russian-backed separatist enclave in Transnistria destabilizes Moldova. CEPA’s “One Flank” report gives more details of Black Sea security concerns.29 NATO countries also face threats and difficulties in the Middle East and North Africa. For many countries’ decision-makers, the Baltic Sea region’s security seemingly merits little attention.
We do not underestimate any of these problems and we appreciate that many countries who play a role in the Baltic Sea region have grave worries and pressing priorities elsewhere.
However, the problems and dilemmas posed by Russia in the region (and by the region to Russia) have a specific character that gives its security outsized and strategic significance. It is to the military dimension of this threat that we now turn.
The China Factor
The People’s Republic of China adds an extra dimension to the international security picture for the countries of the Baltic Sea region. The biggest concern is Arctic issues. China’s presence in the Baltic Sea region itself, especially contrasted to other parts of Europe, is limited. Though Sweden is one of the top European destinations for Chinese investment (notably the auto manufacturer Volvo, bought by Zhejiang Geely) examples of strategically significant Chinese investment and trade ties in the region are scant.
Indeed, several countries have played notable roles in resisting Chinese influence operations. Lithuania led a revolt against the 17+1 regional framework for CEE countries — it has pulled out of the 17+1 framework and Estonia has reduced its participation to a minimum. Sweden has been the target of abusive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy on repeated occasions over its human rights stance. In 2018, Finland blocked an attempted Chinese acquisition of a regional airport on national security grounds. Estonia was among the first EU countries to issue a bilateral declaration with the U.S. government blocking the Chinese telecom giant Huawei from taking part in the rollout of 5G networks. Latvia and Lithuania soon followed suit.30 The Nordic and Baltic countries issued a joint nine-member statement in May 2020 decrying human rights abuses in Xinjiang (the Chinese name for East Turkestan).
The U.S.-led Three Seas Initiative, which includes the Baltic states, Poland, and other countries, aims to improve connectivity in the region between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas, rivalling China’s infrastructure projects promoted under the Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s strongest ties in the region are with Belarus (see below), where it has high-profile investments and supplies surveillance technology and other help to the autocratic regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. However, this relationship lacks depth. As a CEPA report in March 2021 explained, though some Eastern European countries may find it useful to highlight their relationship with decision-makers in Beijing, this does not mean that the attention is reciprocated.31
The Chinese navy conducted a high-profile visit to the Baltic Sea in 2017.32 But the main feature of this was joint exercises with the Russian Baltic Fleet, underlining the Sino-Russian security relationship. China is also expected to take part, for the first time, in the Russian-led Zapad exercise this year. In the event of a diplomatic or military confrontation with the West, the Kremlin could certainly count on some level of at least passive Chinese support. The most important influence of China in the Baltic Sea region, however, is the potential effect of a crisis in the Indo-Pacific region on U.S. resources and attention. A serious conflict over Taiwan, for example, could create a window of opportunity for the Kremlin to test NATO’s resolve in defending the Baltic states.
The Military Threat
Russia’s military capabilities and plans, coupled with the changing nature of warfare and the disadvantageous topography of the Baltic states, shape the strategic outlook for the Baltic Sea region.
The Bigger Picture – The Strategic Context
The United States and its allies are in the process of a contentious, protracted, and belated effort to assess and respond to the threats from Russia and China, amid disruptive economic, technological, and public health challenges.
- Vilnius (Wilno) was under Polish rule for almost all the interwar period. Klaipėda (Memel) was seized by Nazi Germany in 1939, and restored to Soviet-occupied Lithuania after 1945.
- Mark Galeotti, “The Baltic States as Targets and Levers: The Role of the Region in Russian Strategy,” George C. Marshall Center, April 2019, https://www.marshallcenter.org/en/publications/security-insights/baltic-states-targets-and-levers-role-region-russian-strategy-0.
- For example in this speech by the then Estonian president, Lennart Meri, in Hamburg in 1994: “Address by H.E. Lennart Meri, President of the Republic of Estonia, at a Matthiae-Supper in Hamburg on February 25, 1994,” Speeches of the President of the Republic 1992-2001, https://vp1992-2001.president.ee/eng/k6ned/K6ne.asp?ID=9401.
- Robert L. Larsson, “Russia’s Energy Policy: Security Dimensions and Russia’s Reliability as an Energy Supplier,” Swedish Defense Research Agency, March 2006, https://www.foi.se/rest-api/report/FOI-R--1934--SE.
- “Russia bans Polish fruit and veg amid sanctions war,” BBC News, August 1, 2014, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28603140.
- “Außenhandel: Ranking of Germany's trading partners in foreign trade,” Destatis, 2021, https://www.destatis.de/EN/Themes/Economy/Foreign-Trade/Tables/order-rank-germany-trading-partners.pdf?__blob=publicationFile.
- “Baltics step closer to plugging into EU power grid, ending dependence on Russia,” EURACTIV, May 14, 2021, https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/baltics-step-closer-to-plugging-into-eu-power-grid-ending-dependence-on-russia/.
- Andrius Sytas, “CORRECTED-Gazprom loses ground in Finland to LNG from the Baltic States,” Reuters, December 22, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/nordic-power-finland-idUSL8N2J232A.
- Sean Corp, “Combatting Disinformation with The Four D’s,” University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation, July 2021, https://ai.umich.edu/blog/spotting-fake-news-ben-nimmo-disinformation-misinformation-fake-news-teach-out/.
- “Disinformation against Poland in 2020 – special services’ view,” Government of Poland, 2020, https://www.gov.pl/web/sluzby-specjalne/disinformation-against-poland-in-2020--special-services-view.
- Edward Deverell, “Destruct, direct and suppress: Sputnik narratives on the Nordic countries,” The Journal of International Communication, Vol. 27, 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13216597.2020.1817122.
- Miroslava Pavlíková and Miroslav Mareš, “‘Barnevernet Steals Children’: An Analysis of Russian Information Warfare Narratives in the Czech Disinformation Media,” Masaryk University, 2020, https://kirj.ee/wp-content/plugins/kirj/pub/Trames-4-2020-589-605_20201119121405.pdf.
- Inga Spriņģe, “Russia and Family Values: Myth#2: Norvegians — Paedophiles,” Re: Baltica, January 10, 2016, https://en.rebaltica.lv/2016/01/myth-2-norvegians-paedophiles/.
- Patrik Oksanen, “How The Kremlin Silences Critics: The Swedish Case,” Up North: The Northern European, March 12, 2019, https://upnorth.eu/how-the-kremlin-silences-critics-the-swedish-case/.
- “Jessikka Aro: How pro-Russian trolls tried to destroy me,” BBC Trending, October 6, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-41499789.
- “Russia launches ‘genocide’ probe into Karelian WW2 camps,” YLE, April 21, 2020, https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/russia_launches_genocide_probe_into_karelian_ww2_camps/11315786.
- “NATO increasingly sees its soldiers’ phones as a liability: The Russians love eavesdropping on them,” The Economist, May 22, 2021, https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/05/22/nato-increasingly-sees-its-soldiers-phones-as-a-liability.
- Ivo Juurvee and Anna-Mariita Mattiisen, “The Bronze Soldier Crisis of 2007: Revisiting an Early Case of Hybrid Conflict,” ICDS, August 21, 2020, https://icds.ee/en/the-bronze-soldier-crisis-of-2007/.
- Bartosz Franszka, “Baltic States Versus Russian Hybrid Threats,” The Warsaw Institute Review, qr. 1, no. 16, 2021, https://warsawinstitute.org/baltic-states-versus-russian-hybrid-threats/.
- “NATO jets intercept Russian warplanes during unusual level of air activity,” NATO, March 29, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_182897.htm and “NATO intercepts hundreds of Russian military jets in 2020,” NATO, December 28, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_180551.htm.
- “Ministry: Over 200 Russian international aviation violations in 2020,” ERR, December 29, 2020, https://news.err.ee/1222309/ministry-over-200-russian-international-aviation-violations-in-2020.
- Joseph Trevitchick, “Russian Su-27 Flew Into Danish Territory After Intercepting B-52 Bomber Over The Baltic Sea,” The Drive, August 31, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/36083/russian-su-27-flew-into-danish-territory-after-intercepting-b-52-bomber-over-the-baltic-sea.
- “Finland suspects Russian aircraft violated airspace,” Reuters, December 5, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-finland-russia-idUSKBN1DZ16S and “2 Russian aircraft suspected of violating Finland’s airspace,” AP News, July 28, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/russia-finland-europe-air-force-helsinki-903880c2582b72e8ba64f8e2c997d4ee.
- Thomas Nilsen, “Russian bombers simulated an attack against this radar on Norway’s Barents Sea coast,” The Barents Observer, 2018, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2018/03/russian-bombers-simulated-attack-against-radar-norways-barents-sea-coast.
- “Russian Fighter Jet Violates NATO Airspace Over Bornholm Island,” NATO, August 31, 2020, https://ac.nato.int/archive/2020/russian-fighter-jet-violates-nato-airspace-over-bornholm-island.
- Oliver Moody, “Sweden accuses Russian warships of violating waters,” The Times, September 23, 2020, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sweden-accuses-russian-warships-of-violating-waters-gt696d0n5.
- Thomas Grove, “Russian Military Seeks to Outmuscle U.S. in Arctic,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-military-seeks-to-outmuscle-u-s-in-arctic-11621935002.
- Agne Cepinskyte and Michael Paul, “Arctic Security Environment in Flux: Mitigating Geopolitical Competition through a Military-Security Dialogue,” The Arctic Institute, February 11, 2011, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/arctic-security-environment-flux-mitigating-geopolitical-competition-military-security-dialogue/; Postler, “A (2019) Contextualizing Russia’s Arctic Militarization,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, February 18, 2019, https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2019/02/18/contextualizing-russias-arctic-militarization/; and Sukhankin, S, “Russia’s Push for Militarization of Arctic Continues,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 15(93), June 18, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/russias-push-for-militarization-of-the-arctic-continues.
- Authored by 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/. See also LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, COL (Ret.) Ray Wojcik, and Carsten Schmiedl, “NATO Needs a Coherent Approach to Defending its Eastern Flank,” War on the Rocks, June 12, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/06/nato-needs-a-coherent-approach-to-defending-its-eastern-flank/.
- “United States-Estonia Joint Declaration on 5G Security,” U.S. Embassy in Estonia, November 1, 2019, https://ee.usembassy.gov/joint-declaration-on-5g/ and “United States – Republic of Lithuania Memorandum of Understanding on 5G Security,” U.S. Department of State, September 17, 2020, https://2017-2021.state.gov/united-states-republic-of-lithuania-memorandum-of-understanding-on-5g-security/index.html.
- Bobo Lo and Edward Lucas, “Partnership Without Substance: Sino-Russian Relations in Central and Eastern Europe,” CEPA, March 2021, https://cepa.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Russia-China-Partnership-5.7.21.pdf.
- “China in Baltic navy drill with Russia,” BBC News, July 21, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-40682442.