Islands: At the Forefront of Baltic Security in the 21st Century – Derek Bolton

In recent years, foreign policy experts have been reminded of the strategic importance of the Baltic Sea region. Faced with a severe deterioration in NATO-Russia relations, the NBP9 states – the Nordic Five (i.e., Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), the Baltic Three (i.e., Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), and Poland – have been forced to reconsider their political, economic, and strategic relations with other states around the world. Those with the most at stake in Russian relations with the West are responding to this development, including the United States, Russia, and the European Union. But, their efforts have been largely shrouded from public view.

Part of the problem is that the major stakeholders have little incentive to be transparent about their policy approaches. Over the last year, the rise of Daesh (i.e., ISIS) has displaced public interest in Russian intervention in Eastern Europe and the Caucus. And, the recent attacks in Paris have only added fuel to the fire.

Nevertheless, the Baltic Three have publicly warned world leaders against overlooking the shift in Russia’s relations with its neighbors. As Estonian President Thomas Hendrik Ilves noted, they do so at their collective peril, “I would say that I think we all concerned about this sort of falling behind or some kind of development in which we stop paying attention to Crimea, or we even forgive the annexation because of the newer threats. We cannot allow that to happen.”

Of course, the Baltic Three are not alone. Victoria Nuland, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the State Department Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs recently stated, “Even as we focus on ISIL, we must not forget that barely two years ago, almost one million Ukrainians …demand that their government give them what we have: human dignity, democracy, clean government, justice… Now we have to help Ukraine see it through. We must maintain pressure on Russia and its separatist proxies to complete the unfinished commitments of Minsk.” And, the Ministers of Defense from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland signed on to a joint op-ed on Nordic defense cooperation that was published in the Oslo daily Aftenposten in August. In that post, they argued,

“The Russian aggression against the Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea are violations of international law and other international agreements. Russia’s conduct represents the gravest challenge to European security. As a consequence, the security situation in the Nordic countries’ adjacent areas has become significantly worsened during the past year…. we must be prepared to face possible crises or incidents”

It is important to note that such calls from world leaders do not only stem from concerns about further Russian intervention in Ukraine. Consider the Aftenposten OpEd. It portrays Ukraine as a potential indicator for Russian aggression in other states, including those on the Baltic Sea. And, this is stoking debate over Russian relations among foreign policy experts across the region. For example, Wilhelm Unge of Säpo recently claimed, “Russia is the biggest intelligence agent in Sweden … they are interested in really everything — political, economic, technical and military information… It is one of the few countries that has the very broad intelligence interest in Sweden.”

Of course, Baltic Sea residents have quite a few reasons to be concerned. For example there was the incursion into the waters off Stockholm by a foreign submarine, widely believed to be Russian. And, some claim that Eston Kohver, a convicted Estonian spy in Russia, was in fact kidnapped on Estonian soil. Although he was swapped for convicted Russian spy Aleksei Dressen, that prisoner exchange did little to allay fears in Tallinn.

Moreover, Finland and Sweden have repeatedly complained of Russian fighter jet incursions into their airspace. For Finland, anxiety over these incursions are heightened by military drills along its border and the assertion of former Putin assistant Andrei Illarionov that the Russian President would, in an ideal world, like to reclaim Finland. Although regional experts largely agree that military intervention is unlikely, many in Helsinki continue to fret land purchases along their border with Russia, and close to military installations, by Russian citizens.

Whether or not these concerns are founded remains open to debate. But, they are fueling major shifts in the Nordic defense posture. In the event of a crisis, Nordic defense initiatives will need to focus on the islands of the Baltic Sea region. This was made evident during widely reported Russian war games that appeared to simulate the invasion of Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In these war games, the islands of Gotland, Åland and Bornholm seemed to feature prominently. And, analysts have concluded, “If carried out successfully, control of those territories would make it all but impossible for NATO allies to reinforce the Baltic states.”

To help explain why, let us turn to Ari Shapiro. In an early 2015 piece with Keir Giles of Chatham House, he noted, “Northern Europe is a complicated chess board and Gotland is a crucial square. Just to the east of this island are the Baltic states – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania… the United States and the Baltics are NATO members. That military alliance says an attack on one member is an attack on all. But Sweden is not part of NATO, which means the island of Gotland isn’t either. And whoever controls Gotland has the Baltics in their crosshairs.”

While Shapiro puts the emphasis on Gotland, Åland is of equally strategic importance. As Kimie Hara writes, “The islands’ proximity to the Swedish mainland creates an obvious danger for Sweden from a military bases in the hands of a hostile power. The Islands hold the key to control of the Gulf of Bothnia, and their demilitarization and neutralization has significance for the security of not only Sweden, but also the region.”

It is perhaps not surprising then that we have already seen a shift in defence strategy across the region. For his part, Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö has called for a reappraisal of defense policy vis-à-vis Åland, claiming that Russia still does not recognize the region’s neutral status. Meanwhile, Sweden has begun to station troops on Gotland and recruiting home-guard volunteers after a 10-year hiatus. This has been coupled with further investment in naval capabilities that will be stationed out of Gotland. There are even discussions between the Nordic states of jointly purchasing a missile defense system on the island.

As Baltic islands continue to grow in importance and play a greater feature in foreign affairs and Nordic defense, it will be in the national interests of the major stakeholders in Russian relations with the West to engage local communities across the Baltic Sea. This includes investing in subnational initiatives led by subnational organizations that target sub-national identities. Fostering regional integration and ensuring voices in the Baltic Sea region are not only understood, but also represented, in foreign policy is more important now than arguably any time during the Cold War.

Derek Bolton is the Managing Director of the Baltic Islands Society. He is also a Young Leader at Pacific Forum CSIS and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center on Island Security. Prior to pursing a PhD at the University of Bath, he served as a Research Associate at Global Co Lab Network, where he worked to foster greater international cooperation on Science and Technology (S&T) between Americans and Europeans.

Commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: mariano-mantel via Flickr CC

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