Stakeholders and nations near the Baltic Sea need to evolve their security framework, relationships, capabilities, and training as “the relative strength of the Baltic Sea region compared to other areas facing potential Russian aggression is no reason for complacency,” a recent report cautioned.
“The Baltic Sea region is part of a wider landscape, ranging from the Arctic to the Black Sea, in which the United States and its allies are in an existential struggle against determined adversaries: a destructive Russian Federation and a rising China,” states the Center for European Policy Analysis report Close to the Wind: Recommendations for Baltic Sea Regional Security. “Although it is hard to identify a period in recent history when national efforts and security ties were stronger in the Baltic Sea region, the West’s response to heightened geopolitical competition in the region has been fragmented and incomplete and remains inadequate given Russia’s local military advantage. At stake is not only the security of the countries concerned but also Europe’s peace and stability, and NATO’s credibility.”
Gaps and shortfalls in Baltic Sea security include differing threat assessments, gaps in intelligence collection and sharing, lack of trust among some of the countries in the region, differing air and maritime strategies, overreliance on the United States in the event of a crisis, and exercises that are scripted well in advance instead of reflecting realities in the region.
The report recommends that nations “enhance political cohesion by developing a common threat assessment for the Baltic Sea region,” focus on a comprehensive defense strategy “to increase economic, social, and political resilience of regional nations,” and “credibly depict the adaptation of the region’s deterrence and defense posture in the new NATO Strategic Concept and the European Union’s (EU’s) Strategic Compass.”
Importantly, the report stresses that maritime, land, and air exercises in the region must improve in “scope, tempo, and depth,” with “difficult scenarios with surprise and disruption, escalation and decision-making, and technology at the forefront.”
Naval Striking Forces and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) led the two-week 50th annual Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) exercise last June. The U.S. 6th Fleet said afterward that the 2021 exercise “demonstrated NATO’s ability to ensure freedom of navigation in the Danish Straits, and continues to develop the integration of air and maritime warfare, while conducting the full spectrum of naval warfare” while the exercise expanded “to a multi-domain battlespace including air power, cyber, and space.”
The CEPA report recommends increasing contributions to air and missile defense in the region — “the region’s single biggest military weakness” — and transforming Baltic Air Policing to Baltic Air Defense to “signal to Russian decision-makers that their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities do not automatically give them dominance over the Baltic states in the event of a crisis.”
Information sharing and long-term security assistance should be improved along with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. “The aim should be an ‘unblinking eye’ that can identify what Kremlin forces are doing, long before a crisis actually develops,” the report said. “Regional countries should leverage more unmanned and autonomous surveillance capabilities in the air and maritime domains.”
Command structures in the region should be streamlined to allow for more rapid decision-making, and “the alliance should consider establishing an embryonic regional maritime headquarters to ensure that NATO and its partners can guarantee sea control in event of a crisis or conflict,” said the report. “Sweden and Finland’s non-NATO status and the relative weakness of the Baltic states’ navies could pose challenges to this initiative. But a decision in principle, with early attention to better information collection and sharing, will pave the way for the resolution of other difficulties.”
“The Baltic Sea region is an ideal test bed for NATO to practice the ‘four 30s’ (4×30) readiness initiative,” the report added. “NATO should address gaps in its readiness efforts by setting benchmarks and exercising mobilization within 12, 24, and 72-hour timeframes to build upon national efforts, including Estonia’s Okas 2021 snap exercises.”
The report recommends leveraging regional frameworks, including the EU’s Eastern Partnership program that “despite its grave conceptual flaws… remains of great importance for the security of the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions.”
“Leverage the Three Seas Initiative as a project of importance to regional security and collective economic prosperity,” the report continues. “It would benefit from including Ukrainian, Moldovan, and potentially Georgian connectivity needs. The initiative should adopt a broader focus that includes countries on the north and west of the Baltic Sea.”
This should be balanced with the growing U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific and the challenge of China. “Regional allies and partners should be realistic about the military contribution that can be expected from the United States, despite its enduring commitment to Euro-Atlantic security, in the event of a simultaneous crisis in the Indo-Pacific region with China,” the report states.