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Sea changes: How NATO's expansion could stabilize the Baltic region

22-5-2022 |

Exercise Hedgehog might have been planned long before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, but the huge war games taking place this month in Estonia are a prickly reminder of NATO readiness just 64km from the closest Russian base.

"Every prick counts, as always," one Estonian reserve soldier who is currently taking part in Exercise Hedgehog, told Euronews.

Some 15,000 NATO military personnel from 14 countries are involved in the exercise, one of the largest of its kind since Estonia gained independence for the second time, in 1991.

Offshore, there's a robust naval presence as well, with a US Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault vessel, a guided missile destroyer, and a landing ship.

Importantly, the Finnish and Swedish navies are also taking part -- a picture of what the changed security paradigm might look like in the Baltic Sea if and when both countries are admitted to NATO. The Finns are even throwing in some anti-ship missile live firing training from their south coast, in case anyone didn't get the message.  

There's no doubt that the governments of the three Baltic States see the intrinsic value of having Finland and Sweden as members of NATO.

"When we see that in our neighborhood also other democratic countries belong to NATO, it would mean that we could have broader joint exercises and also ... more defense cooperation," Estonia's Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets told reporters recently.

Liimets said that Estonia appreciates NATO enforcing its presence in the Baltic region, but would like the allies to move from enhancing their presence to enhancing their defense.

"It would mean that we would have a more robust presence of land forces, but also air and maritime defense," she added.

Becoming a NATO sea

The Baltic Sea will soon become a NATO sea, says Glen Grant, a defense expert at the Baltic Security Foundation in Riga.

"I see the Baltic Sea area as a common operational space, but I see the Baltic States cooperation, Nordic defense cooperation, NATO reinforcement in the Baltic States, US agreements with Finland and Sweden, all as parts of a jigsaw but missing a single operational picture and focus."

Finland and Sweden becoming part of NATO will put a few more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place but there also needs to be more operational coherence in the region, and the key players must also take the Baltic more seriously, Grant adds.

"NATO thinks about deterrence with extra troops and about reinforcement or regaining ground - after the event. Mind, I suggest that it has no proper military policy for anywhere. Who pulls the regional strings to respond coherently in the early stages of a crisis is not at all clear," says Grant, a former British military officer and Defence Attaché at the British Embassies in Helsinki and Riga.

Looking at the whole Baltic region security picture

Martin Hurt sees NATO membership for the Nordic neighbors as helping to complete the overall security picture of the region -- on land, at sea and in the air.

"Today if we look at NATO's operation planning, we cannot rely on Sweden and Finland. In our planning, they do not exist because we cannot count on using their airspace, water and land. We have to plan with what we can trust, which is our own allies," he tells Euronews.

"It would make a huge impact if especially Sweden, but also Finland, would join."

Working with the Russians

So if the Baltic Sea becomes a de facto NATO sea, as Glen Grant says, does that squeeze the Russians with their fleets in St. Petersburg and the Kaliningrad exclave?

In military terms, there might not be much -- or any -- cooperation, but there is still regular contact in the region with Russia when it comes to maritime security and safety too.

"Of course, we have to be able to contact our neighbors in case of emergency and so far of course they are willing to make the cooperation based on maritime agreements," says Commander Mikko Simola, Head of Maritime Safety at the Finnish Border Guard Headquarters.

So could Russia cut off this type of essential Baltic Sea contacts if they feel threatened by NATO's increased presence in the Baltic Sea? Commander Simola says he thinks this is unlikely, especially since Russia is a party to international agreements on maritime search and rescue, as well as bilateral Finnish-Russian agreements.  

"I don't personally see a direct connection with joining NATO for that, " says Simola, emphasizing that the core tasks of The Finnish Border Guard, border security, maritime safety and security as well as national defense will remain as they are.

"The neighboring regions need to cooperate if there is a need to save lives."