Connected by the sea, attached to different nation-states, and protected by the supranational structures, the Baltic Sea islands are at the intersection of multiple levels of governance. First, the local governments and administrations of the largest islands cooperate
at the subnational level, aiming to promote common interests, exchange ideas and experiences. Second, the islands are governed by their nation-states, which in turn take part in various inter-governmental regional forums and organizations, such as the Council of the Baltic Sea States
(CBSS) and the Nordic-Baltic Eight
(NB8), among others. Third, the nation-states along with their islands are also members of the supranational organizations – notably the European Union
(EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO), with the exception of Finland and Sweden with their islands of Åland, Öland and Gotland.
In recent years, heightened security concerns in the Baltic Sea Region highlighted the significance of this multi-layered governance system. The looming threat of a military attack by Russia, its increased assertiveness and provocations (especially airspace and maritime border incursions) also exposed the system’s deficiencies. Confronted with a potential danger, that in its worst scenario could have devastating consequences in the region and beyond, the concerned states started hypothesizing as to how exactly such scenario would play out. Often these mock scenarios involved the Baltic Sea islands as the primary targets of the Russian strikes. In fact, Russia itself reportedly simulated military encroachment on Bornholm in 2014, as well as Åland and Gotland in 2015. Indeed, the three islands occupy strategically important locations in the Baltic Sea, which makes them a convenient military target.
One issue that these imitation games raise is whether NATO would be able (or even willing) to provide an adequate response to Russia’s aggression in the Baltic region. The legal ambiguities of the Washington Treaty’s Article 5 aside, there is also another major problem. In a 2015 report on the Baltic Sea region’s security, Edward Lucas concludes that the Baltic region is too fragmented to properly react to Russia’s threat: the Nordic-Baltic region’s states are not in the same defense alliance (in the absence of Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO), they do not ‘coordinate fully (or in some cases at all) their threat assessments, military plans, purchasing or exercises’. Lucas suggests that one has to start looking at the region ‘not in terms of countries, but in terms of links and nodes,’ otherwise both the region and NATO would likely be revealed as powerless.
Lucas’s conclusion reflects the view in academic scholarship that the traditional state-centered security governance is anachronistic. Tânia Felício argues that today security threats often cross the borders and different kinds of networks (of both state and non-state actors) are emerging in response to such threats. As a result, political landscape is transforming and states no longer play the pivotal role as protagonists in the security system. She follows Barry Buzan’s and Ole Wæver’s Regional Security Complex Theory and proposes taking a less state-centered approach to security and governance. Felício introduces the concept of Multilevel Security Governance, which shifts the focus from ‘government’ to ‘governance’ and referrs to a network of different state and non-state actors operating on different levels of security: subnational, transnational, regional and global.
In the light of the current security threats in the Baltic Sea area, it is necessary to rethink how the multilevel network of security governance in the region could be made more efficient. Would the bottom-up regionalism at the subnational level, such as the Baltic Sea islands (but also cities, border regions etc.), facilitate building public acceptance for regionalization at the higher levels? Would this contribute to creating a common approach to security issues and the culture of mutual trust, something that Edward Lucas indicated as one of the fundamental causes for the Baltic Sea region’s lack of unity? Finally, could the fragmentation at the supranational security level be at least partially fixed by tightening cooperation at the lower levels – transnational and subnational?
Transnational Nordic-Baltic defense cooperation has increased in the last decade and especially since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Already in 2009, the Baltic Sea countries established the Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS) to exchange the surveillance information, while strengthening common understanding on security issues in the Baltic Sea area. In September 2015, the Nordic and Baltic foreign ministers issued a joint statement on regional security, signifying the consensus on security issues in the Baltic Sea region. A couple of months later, defense ministers of NB8 committed to increase cooperation in cyber security, joint military exercises and operations, as well as in procurement of weaponry and military equipment.
Security and defense cooperation among the nation-states of the Baltic Sea region naturally affects the Baltic islands. However, subnational cooperation of the Baltic islands also has the potential to complement the transnational and even higher levels of cooperation. In fact, SUCBAS acknowledged the significance of the Baltic Sea islands partnership (the so-called B7) in 2013 and recognized their role in the region as “the real contributors to the maritime culture around the Baltic Sea.” The islands, being vulnerable targets of potential foreign invasion, are also likely to face peculiar challenges in the event of a conflict. In his extensive study on the Baltic islands and their identity formation, Janne Holmen asserts the following: in history the geographic factors of the islands determined that their experience of war often differed from that of the mainland (for instance, they were easier to occupy and were subjected to greater influxes or exoduses of refugees).
Just as security is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, its governance is as complex. Admittedly, the state-centric view in defense and security matters is arguably still more relevant than in less sensitive political, economic and social areas. The Baltic and Nordic states have already demonstrated some commitment to work together in strengthening the region on the transnational level. NATO still remains the main security guarantor in the Baltic Sea region with the strongest capabilities to deter and respond to a military threat. Nevertheless, each level of governance possesses specific resources, knowledge and experience. This could be shared trans-nationally at that same level, as well as with the higher levels of governance, thus enhancing both vertical and horizontal partnerships across this multi-layered network of security governance.
Author: Agne Cepinskyte is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center on Island Security.
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