Two relatively minor and unrelated events took place Wednesday [May 13] on opposite sides of the Baltic Sea. To the west, Sweden’s Liberal Party, the country’s fourth largest and a member of the governing coalition, made its most overt push yet in arguing for the long-neutral country to join NATO. To the east, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a new National Security Strategy, which will guide Russia’s efforts for the coming decade. Neither event was a surprise, and each was born of trends that have been playing out for some years. But these developments frame a potential shift in a little-thought-of region of the world: the Baltic Sea.
While the Black Sea has recently been a geopolitical focal point, and the Mediterranean Sea and the English Channel have long been considered strategic waters, the comparatively sheltered Baltic Sea soon could find itself a nexus for geopolitical conflict.
Situated south of the Gulf of Finland, most of the Baltic is ice-free year-round, which facilitates the flow of goods among Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Russia. St. Petersburg, the one part of Russia with access to the Baltic, long has been more “European” than the rest of the country. Wherever there is reliable water transport, trade comes naturally; thus, the states that border the Baltic are natural trading partners, and rather affluent ones at that.
But the sea that unites the Baltic states in trade also separates them geopolitically. The Baltic Sea has always been a barrier to conquest. Sweden’s moves to project power into the European continent via the sea have exposed its possessions in the Baltic States to conquest from Russia, which has only to cross the very flat North European Plain to reach the Eastern shores of the Baltic. Russia, meanwhile, has always been allured by its seemingly relevant access to the Baltic, only to realize that Denmark — with its control of the Kattegat and Skagerrak Straits — and whoever controlled Denmark and the North Sea beyond it have essentially turned the Baltic Sea into a land-locked lake, insofar as Russian power projection is concerned.
Denmark long has been a strategic point for controlling access to the Baltic Sea, and intra-European conflict made sustained trade in and out of the sea more challenging as alliances came and went. This made the region, despite its small size, a hotbed of competition throughout most of Europe’s history. Russo-Swedish conflicts over control of the region have been particularly notable: They treated the Baltic as a net in a geopolitical tennis match for much of the period between the 16th and 18th centuries. Sweden’s defeat in the final Russo-Swedish War in 1808-1809, which cost it Finland, quelled much of the competition, however: Sweden essentially withdrew from the contest and declared a policy of neutrality for the next 200 years. The region slowly fell under Moscow’s control as the rising power of Prussia (and later Germany) concentrated on continental expansion and naval expansion into the North Sea. During the Cold War era, the Iron Curtain that stretched from East Germany to St. Petersburg cut off access to international, or even regional, markets. But since the fall of the Iron Curtain, one entity — the European Union — has been steadily increasing its influence over nearly the entire political landscape of the Baltic Sea region.
In 2004, the Baltic states and Poland joined Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland as members of the European Union. Except for St. Petersburg and the small Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the entire Baltic Sea — including Denmark, which controls its access points — is now theoretically under one economic system for the first time since the Hanseatic League of the Middle Ages.
Enter a potential Swedish bid for NATO membership. It is not yet certain that Stockholm will seek admission to the alliance, but as one STRATFOR source in the Swedish defense establishment put it, “If we applied on Tuesday, we could be in by the end of the week.” Though a bit of an overstatement, the remark nevertheless conveys the integration and interoperability with the alliance that Sweden has already achieved. Stockholm has contributed to NATO efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and, more recently, Afghanistan. Should Sweden join NATO, Finland potentially could follow; in fact, some Swedish politicians are openly stating that Swedish accession to NATO would lead naturally to Finland following suit. Finland shares a long border and trades heavily with Russia, so its considerations for joining are different than Stockholm’s. However, in practical reality, Helsinki is already well integrated militarily with Stockholm (and NATO). Should Sweden become part of the alliance, Finland would in effect become an “associate” member by default — though actual membership is another question.
Should both Sweden and Finland join NATO, the Baltic Sea would essentially be governed by a single, unified political-military-economic system — a recipe for immense economic prosperity. Everyone wins.
Unified control over the Baltic Sea might bring some economic benefits even for St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, but it would further erode Russia’s geographic security. We have noted the profound security problem Russia faces on its periphery. The potential that Sweden could make a more formal alliance with the West is a reminder that the underlying problem of Russian national security — geography — extends across the country’s borders, and to its western periphery in particular.
But while the National Security Strategy that Medvedev announced Wednesday places plenty of emphasis on the threat posed by NATO and the United States, a more subtle threat may be afoot. As Sweden sheds its neutrality, it may rise from being an entity that both NATO and Russia work around to becoming a central power — if not the central power — of the Baltic Sea.
(STRATFOR Global Intelligence, May 14, 2009, www.stratfor.com )
Geopolitical Diary: A Shift Over the Baltic?