The Baltic Sea region has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last 30 years from an area of potential competition and instability in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union to a place of robust stability, deep Euro-Atlantic integration, and economic dynamism. Countries that were previously divided by the Iron Curtain now cooperate on a large scale.
The Warsaw summit in 2016 demonstrated NATO’s determination to defend its members that border Russia. This historic pivot toward eastern and northern Europe brought rotational battalion combat groups to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Altogether, around 4,000 troops have been deployed across the region. This move sent a robust signal of NATO’s unity and firm stance on defending its eastern flank to Russia. By moving from assurance to tangible deterrence with boots on the ground, the alliance with its Enhanced Forward Presence has effectively ended the military separation between “old” and “new” members, or between “less” and “more” secure members.
At the same time, Sweden and Finland remain crucial partners for NATO. While not members, they have also taken increased steps toward countering a Russian threat and supporting the existing security infrastructure in the Baltic Sea region.
However, is the current security architecture enough to protect the region? Why is it crucial for countries like Poland and Sweden to pursue ongoing dialogue and partnership with the United States? At the end of 2018, the German Marshall Fund of the United States organized in Warsaw a “Trialogue for Baltic Sea Security” to tackle these questions. The meeting also focused on establishing a new platform for exchange among high-level Polish, Swedish and U.S. policymakers and experts on the objectives, implementation, and format of defense cooperation in the context of the Baltic Sea Region. The discussion showed a deep connection between the three countries in foreign and defense policies.
Common Threats and Objectives
One of the most pressing issues facing the Baltic Sea countries is NATO’s ability to mobilize and deploy forces to the region in the event of conflict. The alliance must deal with mobility and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges in a race against time to strengthen the Baltic states in the event of an invasion or a limited war. Mobility is a key issue within NATO as policymakers consider the challenges of deploying forces to the region by air, land, and sea. In a time of new hybrid warfare tactics, the speed of movement by NATO is critically important. Therefore, the infrastructure in the region must be constantly upgraded and modernized to meet interoperability standards.
As all Baltic Sea countries but one are EU members, there is a need but also an opening to work with the union. EU cohesion funds could greatly contribute to connecting the region and removing infrastructural barriers, consequently increasing military mobility. The EU has even developed an EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region to boost connectivity there. The EU can also help with easing the various legal and bureaucratic obstacles (such as putting together all rules on transporting armaments in one regulation) that have delayed NATO’s capacity for rapid mobility and deployment.
Russia’s growing A2/AD capabilities pose a very concrete operational problem for NATO. In the event of a conflict or crisis, it might be risky for the alliance to try to move aircraft and ships to the states in the Baltic Sea region. Therefore, these countries should advocate for a more permanent and larger military presence as this could be the only way to counterbalance Russia’s A2/AD challenge and strengthen deterrence.
To secure fast mobility and mobilization, the improvement of regional defense capabilities should be a priority. Poland has launched a significant rearmament program that meets NATO’s 2 percent defense-spending goal. If successfully executed, it can modernize its military and contribute significantly to NATO’s burden-sharing initiatives. Besides its importance in traditional deterrence policy toward Russia, Poland also sees its military as a way to achieve geopolitical ambitions in Europe and to ensure its special relationship with the United States. This is especially important given Poland’s location; it is ideally placed to serve as a center of gravity for strengthening NATO’s eastern flank.
Sweden in recent years has identified two pillars related to improving its security: reinforcing defense and upgrading its security concept. Like Poland, it has announced heavy investment in the military. It has also re-established a military base on the island of Gotland and reintroduced conscription. Sweden is trying to build a closer security relationship with the United States while maintaining a political dialogue within
the EU. Transatlantic relations are crucial for Sweden to secure its position with regard to NATO. Therefore, this year, it has signed with Finland and the United States a Trilateral Statement of Intent pledging to improve the national-security relationship between them. This states:
The U.S. DoD and the MODs of Finland and Sweden to intend to pursue an enhanced trilateral defense relationship. Expanded defense cooperation between the U.S. DoD and the MODs of Finland and Sweden strengthens our respective bilateral defense arrangements, as well as multilateral agreements and arrangements, such as those with the NATO, Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), and the EU.
Another significant issue is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that demonstrates an increased Russian presence in the Baltic Sea region. The pipeline that Germany and Russia agreed on will have a 1,200-kilometer route, connecting the Ust-Luga area near Saint Petersburg with Greifswald in northeastern Germany. The pipes would run across the Baltic Sea, for the most part following the route of the pre-existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline that became operational in 2011. Poland, the Baltic states and other countries in the region seem to be unified in their opposition to the project; however, they have taken no multilateral decisions or actions. Each country looks for ways to block the project without any effect, due to a lack of one common voice. Poland lobbies in Washington so the United States will push Germany to suspend the project; however, its bargaining power alone is not sufficient to influence its partners.
Nord Stream 2 is a transparent attempt by Russia to strengthen its foothold in the region. In case of any conflict there, Russia would use its navy to separate Sweden and Finland from NATO by claiming the right to protect the pipeline. Germany—the biggest advocate of the project within the EU—has ignored warnings from all other members states in the region and continues to pursue the pipeline. At this point, only political pressure from the United States could influence Germany to renounce the project.
The EU’s Struggle for a Common Security Agenda
Although Nord Stream 2 shows clearly the lack of cohesion in the EU when it comes to security matters, the union is now thinking seriously about investing in its own security by developing Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Some call the enhancement of EU security a distraction from tightening cooperation within NATO. However, any form of security cooperation within the EU is necessary, as non-NATO countries like Sweden can find a common platform of discussion on this issue with other NATO/EU members. However, PESCO in its current form—and faced with visible resistance from some EU countries—does not serve security needs well, suggesting it has a less-than-bright future. It must be more ambitious.
PESCO should open the way for security commitments to be included in national defense strategies. Additionally, the EU’s new Multiannual Financial Framework should reserve new funds for developing new security technologies and financing the operational side of PESCO. Without increased financing, PESCO will remain a declaratory fantasy. The EU should also consider inviting third countries, such as the post-Brexit United Kingdom or some of the Eastern Partnership countries like Ukraine or Georgia, to join PESCO and thus to expand the idea of pan-European security.
However, the EU’s security measures should only complement, rather than overthrow and compete with, NATO’s defense capabilities and should be treated as an EU input to burden-sharing. In a changing world order, the EU cannot afford to miss the opportunity to develop a well-functioning security agenda. A new approach is needed; however, this must be done in close cooperation with the United States The idea of transatlantic security architecture should not be abandoned, despite current turbulence in the transatlantic relationship.
The new partnership between the United States and the Nordic countries and the intensified Polish-U.S. relations, evident in the U.S.-supplied Polish rearmament projects, clearly indicates that Washington is back in the region after its pivot to Asia. Poland’s current approach to defense spending gives it political credibility as a contributing and valuable NATO member and puts it in a position to ask for renewed U.S. security guarantees. On the military side, the U.S. comeback in Europe is confirmed by the deployment of troops to Poland under the Enhanced Forward Presence. The presence of troops on the ground has moved Poland and the region to the first tier of NATO’s allies. On the political side, however, there is still much to be done to convince the United States to intensify its involvement in the region, such as acting against Nord Stream 2 or a potential permanent presence in Poland and other east
ern flank NATO members. Multilateral action could potentially address this, but Poland should not abandon its focus on bilateral relations with the United States
At the same time, the United States will continue to see China as a rival military and economic powerhouse with growing influence. As a result, the costs of deterrence in Europe will have to be shared more equally by NATO’s European members. Therefore, burden-sharing remains a focal point that must be discussed until all European allies—especially these located nearer to Russia—increase their military spending up to the 2 percent target. Additionally, countries like Poland and non-NATO Sweden should look for ways to increase the interoperability of their militaries with the rest of the alliance. For example, both are planning to purchase the U.S. Patriot missile system, but Sweden’s non-member status leaves the scope of cooperation unclear.
A trialogue between Poland, Sweden, and the United States could become a vital platform for resolving issues facing the Baltic Sea region. As the 2018 meeting in Warsaw has shown, there is readiness and interest among the three sides to talk in such a format and also to move it to a higher level of governmental meetings.
Countries like Poland and Sweden can seek greater exchanges in set-ups such as a trialogue, while at the same time continuing to engage the United States in bilateral talks to address particular areas of concern. As security pillars in the region, Poland and Sweden also bear more responsibility and should act as a bridge between the United States and the Baltic Sea region.
Despite many challenges, much has been done so far in Polish-Swedish cooperation. Swedish officers are already part of NATO’s Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, Poland, and the two countries will hold a joint military exercise in 2020. Until then there is still a need to work toward better situational awareness among Poland, Sweden, and the whole region. Swedish-Polish joint maritime cooperation would be the most natural choice; however, Poland must first decide on the partner company for the modernization of its submarine fleet.
It is increasingly necessary for NATO and the EU to develop a bigger pool of properly equipped high-readiness forces, which are crucial for credible deterrence and effective defense in the Baltic Sea region in the event of Russian military aggression. A U.S. permanent presence in Poland could change the security situation of the region and move the country into the “bubble” of anti-A2/AD capabilities.
An increased NATO presence could remove the gap in the potential defense of the Baltic Sea region. However, unity will only come when NATO members reach the 2 percent spending benchmark for defense spending. Thus, Poland should advocate among its regional partners for all to reach this goal.
Finally, civilian crisis management (which aims at reducing instability in countries suffering from various crises and preventing the spread of any chaos) should be better developed and incorporated into the military cooperation between states of the region. This would better prepare the region for any form of Russian hybrid warfare that could destabilize states and societies. Poland and Sweden have to invest more to be resistant to acts of Russian hybrid warfare. Their citizens should be educated and informed in order to recognize any attempts of Russia to destabilize their societies. A well-prepared society goes hand in hand with a well-trained and well-equipped army.