Trans-Atlantic Defense Policy in a Baltic and Nordic Context

Robert Clark | January 15, 2018

‘This is our continent and we will keep on working to help keep it safe’.

Ex-U.K. defense secretary Sir Michael Fallon 

Since the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of the Crimea, the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) have understandably felt the inherent vulnerability that comes with maintaining borders with Russia. Arguing for ethnic Russian minorities’ rights as a pretext for the invasion of Ukraine has left the Baltic states, themselves with ethnic Russian minorities, in a state of uncertainty.

Undergirding their defense, however, is their membership of NATO and the collective security which this brings them under Article 5 of the charter – an attack against one member state shall be considered an attack against all.

The Nordic states of Sweden and Finland, themselves partners, though not formally members of NATO, have also recently felt Russian political and, in some instances, military pressure. The Swedish military conducted large scale training exercises with NATO partners in 2017 in an attempt to demonstrate to Moscow that it is able to defend its borders. Finland too is currently drawing up plans for a joint military exercise with the U.S. and NATO members, and a ‘NATO-Finland defense partnership’ was celebrated by U.S. defense secretary James Mattis on a visit to the region in November 2017.

To understand the current United Kingdom (U.K.) defense policy in the Baltic and Nordic states, one must first appreciate the historical and geopolitical aspects. Britain has long-viewed the Baltic Sea as a key maritime trading route to which it has a substantial national interest in maintaining. In addition to this, concerning the geopolitics of mainland Europe, it has been in the U.K.’s interest to ensure that France, the low countries and northern Europe do not become dominated by a hegemonic European power, as it is from this part of Europe that an invasion of the U.K. would be initiated from. Norway for instance was considered vital to U.K. defense during the Second World War.

Currently, the U.K. defense policy regarding the Baltics and the Nordic states is one of bilateral defense agreement through NATO, and one of increased collaboration through the non-NATO members Sweden and Finland. In autumn 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May visited British troops in Estonia with French President Macron and their Estonian counterparts in a display of solidarity against Russia. That Sweden and Finland are non-NATO members need not be a for cause concern; a historical precedent has evolved in which Sweden especially, and Finland increasingly, enjoy a special working partnership with NATO. This was demonstrated by the July 2017 announcement that both states would join the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force, seen amongst some as a possible step toward NATO membership in the future. In all but the circumstance of not holding a membership card the two states are considered NATO partners, underscored by a long-standing understanding between the U.K. and Sweden that during the Cold War, if antagonised by Soviet aggression, there would be assistance and collective defense by one another.

The lack of NATO membership for Sweden and Finland raises further issues. In the face of recent aggressive overtones by Moscow, the idea that it is a rather positive notion that neither of these countries bind the rest of NATO to an article 5 mutual defense pact holds not only popular political opinion, but practical foreign policy considerations also. In fact, that all the Baltic states themselves are members of NATO is an indication of Putin’s failed foreign policy agenda, rather than the strength of Europe’s.

Interestingly, as members of the European Union (E.U.), yet not NATO, there is the potential for future incompatibility between the U.K. and Sweden and Finland. However, this can be mitigated when considering that Finland publicly acknowledges it is in its own interest that the U.K. take an increasing role in the wider Baltic region against the common threat perception – Russia. An increased partnership between the E.U. (post-Brexit) and NATO has been suggested as a possible strength allowing for greater collective ownership in the future, an agreement for a comprehensive approach to security in the region. This is highlighted by the four pillars on which Finland’s defense policy rest:

1.    Critical (national) defense against external state aggression.

2.    Bilateral relationships between the E.U. and NATO.

3.    Further cooperation with NATO.

4.    Development of the E.U. common defense treaty, as underscored by the Lisbon Treaty.

The bilateral security relationships between E.U. and NATO were expanded upon by the wish for Finland to maintain and develop further transatlantic relations with the U.S. and Canada, and allow for further military training exercises between the E.U. and NATO states in order to develop a European common strategic level.

The U.K. military commitment to the wider Baltic region plays a critical role in underscoring U.K.’s strategic aims in the region. Deploying over 800 troops, including heavy armour and ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) capability, the U.K. has a sizeable contribution toward the collective defense of the Baltics. There are 200 Danes deploying from 2018 and there are 200 French, as well as Germans, Poles and Americans.

Despite the troop count too low to stop an armoured advance from Moscow, the point of the military commitment is two-fold: First, it acts as a trip-wire to external state aggression. It is assessed as highly improbable that Putin (or any other Russian leader, for that matter) would risk the eventuality of a nuclear showdown by advancing Russian forces into these countries, potentially resulting in confrontation with U.K. forces. It is simply another form of deterrence. Lithuania, especially, sees the deployment of 1,000 Bundeswehr troops as an extremely reassuring act of Article-5 reassurance towards the Baltic states by the dominant NATO powers. The second point of the troop levels in the region is to develop the capabilities of the Baltic states themselves. They are not deployed in a vacuum; there are military forces already there, and by training them further they will be more effective going forward.

When considering the nature of the common threat perception further, the issue of Russian energy dependency by the majority of European states, especially the Baltics, Poland, Germany and the U.K. must be analysed further. By Europe wishing to diversify its energy sources in the medium- to long-term future, what implication will this have on the wider security situation within Europe?

Currently, the security check provided by the economic and energy ties between the E.U. and Russia act as a further means against any military escalation. This will not always be the case however, and is likely to prove more of a security issue in the future, and one which the U.K. needs to prepare for.

This leaves the future of U.K. defense policy in the wider Baltic and Nordic region in a robust position, though there are two areas for future discussion. First, there is an unwillingness in political discourse to discuss further the nuclear threat posed by Moscow, and what that means regarding Article 5 membership and the eventuality of a nuclear showdown which Putin would almost certainly threaten, should an incursion into the region occur. This is negligence of the highest order to not develop this into a coherent understanding at the strategic level, with the risk of escalation significant.

The final point to note regarding the future of U.K. defense policy in the Baltic and Nordic region is to consider the very real physical threat from hybrid warfare, especially through the means of cyberwarfare, already conducted by Moscow against E.U. and NATO members including, allegedly, the U.S., U.K., Finland, Sweden and Estonia. The U.K. recently announced the large scale financial commitment to improving its offensive cyberwarfare and security programs, but the E.U. and NATO have some way to go to collaborate against this increasingly dangerous security threat.

Finland is currently leading the way in this field, this year launching the Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki. The centre is aimed at countering Russian hybrid warfare – a mix of economic measures, propaganda, cyber-attacks, and covert military action. Widely acknowledged as an advanced power in its hybrid warfare capability, Russian capacity in this area must be matched by NATO’s and, crucially, the U.K.’s, in order to maintain the future defense of the Baltic and Nordic region against this rising threat. 

Image: British prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron inspect NATO troops at a forward operating base in Estonia, September 2017.

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