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Geopolitics

Trying To Gauge Russian Ambitions? Look How Nervous Its Nordic Neighbors Are

The eyes of the world are on the Russian-Ukrainian border as Putin threatens an invasion. However, the more vital stage of the Kremlin’s military ambitions is the Baltic Sea, where the likes of bordering countries like Finland and Sweden are mobilizing troops as Moscow tries to undermine the allegiance of the EU and former Soviet states.

A military from the Swedish Armed Forces

A military from the Swedish Armed Forces

Carl-Johan Karlsson

While tensions between the U.S and Russia mount with the Kremlin gathering troops at the border of Ukraine, countries farther north are preparing for the worst.

In Sweden, Dagens Nyheter reports that the country of 10 million people deployed armored vehicles and 100 soldiers to patrol streets on the island of Gotland on Friday in response to Russian landing ships sailing into the Baltic Sea. Even if the Swedish Armed Forces announced soon after that the ships were leaving, serious questions about Russia's military ambitions remain.

Russian presence in the regional waters is not uncommon, but it was the increase from one to six Russian landing ships over a three-week period that prompted Sweden’s move to beef up military presence in the eastern archipelago. According to Swedish Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist, the move was meant to “demonstrate that we are not naive and that Sweden will not be caught off guard should something happen.”

Keep an eye of the Baltic Sea

While the Russian muscle-flexing has made headlines in the Nordic press, it has garnered scarce attention internationally as all eyes have been turned to the 100,000 Russian soldiers amassing near the Ukrainian border.

And yet, the main stage of Russia’s military ambitions — to create a multipolar world in which NATO is unable to dictate terms — is not Ukraine, but the Baltic Sea.

The balance could be at risk

Throughout the Cold War, the Baltic Sea region was essentially a military no-man’s land on the periphery of the main axis of confrontation in central Europe. It was that geo-strategic inconsequence that allowed for a Nordic Balance to emerge, formed by neutral Finland and Sweden as well as special status NATO-members Norway and Denmark — neither country allowed nuclear weapons or foreign troops to be permanently stationed on their territory.

But following the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, the sea that separates Russia from the West has rather become a microcosm of pan-European relations — bringing together some of the world’s most developed countries and those still struggling to recover from Communist rule.

Moscow's plans for Eurasia

It is that unity that Putin seeks to undermine. By becoming the dominant power in Eurasia, the Kremlin seeks to exert influence over its neighbors and to bargain with the world's top countries on equal footing. That’s especially true with regards to the three Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, whose independence and active role in NATO and the EU are seen as threats to Russia’s security and autonomy.

And so today, as an increasingly pressured Sweden and Finland sit between the Baltic states and the West, the question is what road the northern neighbors will take should Russia’s saber-rattling turn into open conflict. After all, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are isolated from fully fledged NATO members, it would be problematic for the alliance to respond to an incident in the Baltic region without the acquiescence of Finland and Sweden.

\u200bBattalion from the Norrbotten Regiment, designation I 19.

Battalion from the Norrbotten Regiment, designation I 19.

Jesper Sundström/Försvarsmakten/Facebook

Pro-NATO voices rise in Scandinavia

So far, the two countries have managed to walk a line of deepening cooperation with NATO without formally joining the alliance — thus avoiding overly aggravating Moscow. However, as Putin has now demanded written commitments that NATO will never again enlarge, the balance could be at risk.

While Russia’s foreign ministry recently stated that Finland and Sweden joining Nato “would have serious military and political consequences," Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin has answered that the country reserves the option of seeking NATO membership at any time:

“Let it be stated once again: Finland’s room to maneuver and freedom of choice also includes the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide,” Niinisto said.

Sweden will not be caught off-guard

Sweden too responded, with the country’s supreme military commander Micael Bydén saying that acceding to Russian demands would mean the end of the country’s security strategy, Dagens Nyheter reports.

Russia’s attempt to shut the door on the countries’ freedom of choice also went down badly with the domestic population: In Finland, a number of Green Party politicians have expressed support for alliance membership, joining the long-standing pro-NATO wing within the center-right party; while in Sweden, an opinion poll published by broadcaster TV4 on Monday shows that 35% of Swedes are now in favor of NATO membership, while 31% are undecided and 33% against. That represents a big leap from 2018, where the same poll showed that 48% were against joining the alliance.

Finland and Sweden prepare for the worst, hope for the best

Should the pro-NATO voices become a majority, it will put both governments in an awkward position between responding to the demands of the people while realizing that such a move could potentially trigger large-scale global conflict.

Meanwhile, it’s a fact that Finland and Sweden would lack commensurate answers to an eastern attack. Sweden has bolstered its defenses following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and even reintroduced mandatory military service in 2017. Still, the country’s 25,000 military personnel — roughly equal to that of Finland — is a far cry from its peak capabilities during the Cold War in the mid-1960s, when Swedish troops numbered some 800,000.

As such, while Finland and Sweden are wise to prepare for the worst, what they — and indeed the world — should hope for is that diplomacy can once again find a pathway to a peaceful de-escalation.

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