Militarily speaking, the three Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—are isolated from other NATO members. It would be extremely difficult, but not impossible, for NATO to respond to an incident in the Baltic region without the acquiescence of non-NATO Finland and Sweden. Russia knows this—and exploits this weakness to its advantage. The U.S. must plan for any contingency in the Baltic region, including one that sees Finland and Sweden refusing to acquiesce to a NATO request for support in a time of war.
Non-NATO Sweden and Finland
The countries in the Nordic region have direct and indirect roles in guaranteeing the security of the Baltic States. Historically, the Baltic States have had a very close relationship with the Nordic countries. Denmark and Norway have played an important role in developing Baltic military capabilities since the end of the Cold War, and Sweden and Finland, although not members of NATO also have a close security relationship with the Baltic States.
There is much concern about U.S. and NATO dependence on non-NATO Sweden and Finland to mount a credible defense or liberation of the Baltic States. Sweden and Finland are important allies for the U.S. and a close partner of NATO. However, neither is obligated to come to the assistance of any NATO member in the event of an armed attack. Therefore, the U.S. must plan accordingly.
While any NATO intervention in the region would be challenging without Swedish and Finnish support, this should not be overblown. The U.S. intervened and then sustained large-scale combat operations for more than a decade in Afghanistan—a landlocked Central Asian country several thousand miles away from the continental United States. The U.S. did this with questionable, and at times wavering, support from neighboring countries and with poor regional infrastructure. With the right planning and preparation the U.S. and NATO could do the same in the Baltics, even with Russia’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategy in the region and even without Sweden or Finland’s support.
Geography of the Nordic Region
The Nordic region is also home to geographical spots of strategic importance for Baltic security. History has shown that most military operations in the Baltic region require access to what is today Swedish and Finnish air, sea, and land. For example, during the Crimean War (1853–1856) and the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War (1918–1920), the Swedish fortress of Viapori (today known as Suomenlinna in Finland) and the Åland Islands played a crucial role. During both World Wars, the Skagerrak and Øresund Straits—both of which border Swedish waters and serve as a gateway to the Baltic Sea—were highly contested. During the Cold War, Denmark’s Bornholm Island was an area of contention between the Soviet Union and NATO. In the 21st century these considerations have not disappeared.
The Danish Straits consist of three channels connecting the Baltic Sea to the North Sea via the Kattegat and Skagerrak Seas. These straits are particularly important to the Baltic Sea nations as import and export routes. This is especially true for Russia, which has increasingly shipped its crude oil exports to Europe through Baltic ports. Overall, approximately 125,000 ships per year transit these straits. If the U.S. needed to intervene militarily in the Baltic States, access to the Danish Straits would be vital.
It would be naïve in the extreme to think Russia did not factor the importance of these three islands and the Danish Straits into their Baltic Sea contingency planning—and it would be just as irresponsible for the U.S. not to do the same.
Role of Kaliningrad Oblast
Another matter to consider is the role of the Kaliningrad Oblast in regional security. Kaliningrad is a small Russian exclave along the Baltic Sea (slightly larger than Connecticut), bordering both Lithuania and Poland. Kaliningrad is part of Russia’s Western Military District, and approximately 25,000 Russian soldiers and security personnel are stationed there. It is home to Russia’s Baltic fleet, which consists of around 50 vessels, including submarines. Perhaps most important for Moscow is that Kaliningrad is the heart of Russia’s A2/AD strategy.
Russia has the advanced S400 air defense system in Kaliningrad and has likely deployed Iskander missiles there. Iskander missiles can carry nuclear or conventional warheads and have a range of 250 miles, placing Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw within their reach. Russia also has facilities for storage of tactical nuclear weapons at Kaliningrad. (Whether nuclear weapons are presently there is a matter of much debate.) Russia is modernizing runways at its Chernyakhovsk and Donskoye air bases in Kaliningrad, providing Russia with nearby bases from which to fly near NATO airspace. Many of the aerial incidents that cause NATO planes from Baltic Air Policing to scramble involve Russian planes flying from or to bases in Kaliningrad.
Preparing for All Eventualities
Without a doubt, Russia’s A2/AD coverage over the Baltic Region, coupled with Finland and Sweden’s reluctance to join NATO, makes defending the three Baltic States a challenge. Even under these difficult circumstances, if correct polices are pursued, the U.S. can ensure that it can live up to its treaty obligations under NATO. The U.S. should:
Work with the Nordic countries to improve relations with the Baltics. Historically, the Baltic States have had a very close relationship with the Nordic countries. Good U.S. relations with the Nordic countries will mean closer relations with the Baltics. Although not members of NATO, Sweden and Finland have a close security relationship with the Baltic States.
Encourage Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Ultimately, the Swedish and Finnish populations will decide whether to join NATO, but the U.S. should pursue a policy that encourages NATO membership for these two Nordic countries. Until they join NATO, they will not benefit from the Alliance’s security guarantee.
Prepare contingency operations to defend the Baltics that do not include support from Finland and Sweden. The U.S. should plan and rehearse defense of the Baltic States without the cooperation of Finland and Sweden. However unlikely this might be, until Finland and Sweden become full members of NATO, it would be irresponsible for U.S. military planners not to plan for this scenario. This training should include scenarios in which Russian forces capture the Åland Islands and Gotland.
Prepare to reinforce Europe quickly. During the Cold War, the U.S. conducted an annual military exercise called Operation Reforger (Return of Forces to Germany). Operation Reforger was designed to prove that the U.S. could move conventional military forces rapidly from the U.S. to Germany in the event of a war with the Soviet Union. The U.S. should consider holding a similar exercise focused on defending the Baltic States.
Factor Kaliningrad into NATO’s Baltic region contingency planning. The U.S. needs to work with its NATO allies to develop a strategy dealing with the Russian A2/AD capabilities in Kaliningrad. In particular, this requires close cooperation and planning with Poland. No credible defense of the Baltics can be carried out without neutralizing the threat from Kaliningrad.
Sending the Right Messages
Moscow should not interpret Sweden and Finland’s non-NATO status as a green light to intervene in the Baltic States because NATO cannot come to their defense. Conversely, until they decide to become full-fledged members of NATO, Stockholm and Helsinki should not expect the Alliance to come automatically to their assistance if they are attacked by Russia, and NATO members should not give that impression. NATO needs to plan for all eventualities in the Baltics—otherwise Russia will take advantage of the situation.