By Karlis Neretnieks, MG (Ret), Chairman Dept I
Today we see rapidly increasing Russian capabilities to mount large scale, complex, military operations in its neighbourhood, coordinated with operations in other areas. It would be a mistake to see this just a problem for the Baltic States. It has implications for most of Russia´s neighbours, and also for other parties interested in the security and stability in the Baltic Sea region.
What do I mean by implications for others than the Baltic States? Besides obvious conclusions for countries as Sweden and Finland, also their territories are now within reach for Russian military operations, we also have to look at what it might mean for NATO and the EU when it comes to supporting its members in the Baltic Sea region and how it can affect the cohesion of the organisations.
US and NATO in Europe
The US refocusing towards Asia and moving assets out of Europe combined with reductions in its military spending means that immediately available forces to handle a crisis in Europe will be scarce. The need to move assets from continental USA to Europe in case of a crisis, or a conflict, will increase.
We should also have this in mind when we look at the different activities that took place during the Russian exercise ZAPAD 2013. Although the activities in and around the Baltic Sea look scary the most significant part of the exercise might have been the actions undertaken by the Russian Northern Fleet in conjunction with the exercise. Is it again preparing for its old role of hindering US reinforcements reaching Europe, especially Northern Europe?
Apart from the US decreasing capabilities in Europe the budget cuts affecting the German and British armed forces will also have a serious impact on what NATO can deliver when it comes to fighting power. Taken together these developments make NATO´s deterrence less credible – there will be few assets available for serious crisis management, not to speak of an armed conflict, in Northern Europe.
This is to some extent offset by Poland´s increased capabilities and France´s renewed interest in the region. Also the NATO exercise “Steadfast Jazz” could be seen as an encouraging sign. But that doesn´t change the overall picture – it will become more difficult for NATO to support the Baltic States.
The Nordic- Baltic region
Considering the vulnerability of the Baltic States and the increased importance of early support, especially from the US, it is crucial that everything possible is done to avoid creating weaknesses anywhere in the Baltic Sea region that could be utilised by a potential aggressor.
Due to geography the Nordic-Baltic region must be regarded as one area of operations. If there are obvious gaps in the in the defence structures in the region, which can be used to undermine the credibility of NATO as a security provider, that might lead to instability and increased risks.
Finland still has a credible defence, although it is facing serious economic problems that have to be solved. Norway is increasing its defence budget, acquiring very modern equipment, among other things F-35 fighters and state of the art frigates. But most importantly it is a member of NATO and has a coherent security policy based on credible national capabilities and cooperation with members of the alliance. The weak link in the region is Sweden.
A misdirected defence reform and drastically reduced defence spending has led to a situation where Sweden lacks the capability to defend even the most vital parts of its territory. Since year 2000 till today the defence budget has shrunk from 2 % of GDP to 1,1 %. The few remaining units in the armed forces have been optimized for expeditionary activities. There are some efforts made to recreate a territorial defence, but the necessary means are lacking.
Not even “the one week defence”, meaning that a small part of the country can be defended for one week, described by the Swedish CHOD a year ago will become a reality according to the long term study that was presented by the armed forces HQ on October 1st this year. It will be something less. In the same study it was also very clearly stated that Sweden will need foreign help, not just in case of war, but already in a serious crisis, as the available assets will only be capable to uphold territorial integrity for a limited time.
This affects the security of the whole region. Using Swedish territory and airspace is probably crucial when it comes to NATO´s possibilities to support the Baltic States.
If Russia could “borrow” parts of Swedish territory at a very low cost in case of a crisis or a conflict, and deploy long range weapons systems there, that would seriously reduce NATO`s possibilities to conduct operations in the whole region.
On top of that, Sweden is not a member of NATO, which means that it would be difficult to coordinate Swedish activities with those of NATO, especially if it has to be done on short notice.
If you combine the vulnerability of the Baltic States, Sweden´s unwillingness to contribute to the security of the region, the possible reemerging threat against the moving of reinforcements from the US to Northern Europe and the decreasing capabilities among NATO´s European members, the overall picture becomes quite disturbing.
This change in the “Correlation of Forces” in the Baltic Sea region is not just a problem in case of an armed conflict or a serious crisis. It is equally, perhaps even more so, important when it comes to the cohesion of EU and NATO.
If NATO loses its credibility when it comes to conducting military operations in the region it opens up for a “Finlandisation” of the Baltic States, and perhaps also other countries. They might have to bow to Russian pressure in all kinds of areas, military, economic, energy and others, if it becomes obvious that they can´t defend themselves, and that no help might be forthcoming. We shouldn´t forget that military power is primarily a political tool. It doesn´t have to be used, it is often enough to make it credible that it can be used.
In earlier times this was called gun-boat diplomacy. It is a policy tool that tends to be forgotten as an option for an opponent, when you no longer have the means to apply it yourself, or when you have problems countering it. Then it becomes convenient to pretend that the tool doesn’t exist.