Is conflict inevitable when core regions overlap?

With the expansions of NATO and the EU infringing on what Russia would consider its strategic depth— Nordic and Balkan nations— the West would be wise to expect a pushback.
missiles russia nordic baltic
A Russian small anti-submarine ship fires missiles during a military parade marking Russian Navy Day in the town of Baltiysk, in the Kaliningrad Region. Credit: Vitaly Nevar/TASS/Alamy Live News
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This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Geopolitics of the Nordic-Baltic region’ in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.

There are a number of ways to consider Nordic-Baltic geopolitics, many of which would require an account of what each country has been up to since the end of the Cold War, as cooperation within the region began to strengthen. For the sake of an overview, however, I propose to discuss two broad geopolitical shifts: one that has already occurred and another that has begun to take place.

First, I would like to offer a diversion – and perhaps an innovation – with a joke about geopolitics.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, Nicholas Spykman and Aleksandr Dugin (Putin’s spiritual adviser) walk into a bar. Each orders a drink and the bartender pours out a bourbon, a Dutch gin and a vodka. After a few awkward moments, they decide to play a board game. Spykman proposes Monopoly, thinking that Dugin might appreciate the freewheeling market economy it simulates. But Dugin rejects it, arguing that the power of the resource utilities (water, electricity, gas) is wildly undervalued in the game. Fancying his superior knowledge of the world, Mahan proposes Trivial Pursuit. Spykman is game, but Dugin again rejects the suggestion. ‘The entire premise is false,’ he spits, and downs his vodka. ‘There is no such thing as a single correct answer or true fact!’ Then Dugin pulls out the last game on the shelf: Risk. Mahan and Spykman nod and Dugin bursts out: ‘This makes me happy, comrades, for I was already worried that no one in the West knew how to play this game anymore!’

It may indeed be true that few in the West appreciate the fundamentals of Risk anymore, but it is notable that Western powers are once again studying geopolitics as the principle means of understanding the world around them.

Yet, despite the reference in my joke to thinkers in the pantheon of geopolitics, what follows will resolutely not focus on geopolitics as history or theory. What I share with geopolitical study is a love of maps. Maps tell you more than you might expect when you start studying them from different directions and at different times. Today, electronic maps further complicate the picture, changing rapidly as they respond to political developments and altering to accommodate the perspective of the user. For example, in a part of Google maps, the borders of Ukraine-Crimea- Russia are not where you might expect them to be. The makers of electronic maps can and do present different versions of a region, depending, for example, on the provenance of a subscriber’s smartphone: Russia or Ukraine, India or Pakistan. Thus they present different realities to different users – and, in the process, they alter geopolitics.

The Nordic-Baltic region is a vivid example of a meeting place of competing geographical perceptions. More significantly, it is a region where two core geographic areas now overlap. To see the overlap, you only need to look at the map which shows the regions proposed by Russia for inclusion in its ballistic missile defence system. Nearly all of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were included, as well as half of Sweden and considerable parts of Norway and Poland.

Sweden, Russia, Germany and some other ‘guests’ have historically competed for geographic and economic control over this territory, but what makes the current situation unique is how and why the geopolitical situation in the Nordic-Baltic region has twice changed during the past 25 years, changes wrought primarily by politics and advances in technology.

The story begins nearly a quarter of a century ago, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War. Soon thereafter, Sweden and Finland decided they would seek membership of what would become the EU and, in 1995, both joined. Four years later, the first stage of Nato enlargement included Poland. But while these two enlargements symbolised dramatic change, they did not at the time mean that two core geopolitical areas had overlapped.

In 2004, however, with the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the EU and Nato, the direction of geopolitical change in the Nordic-Baltic region was clear to everyone. The ever-deepening cooperation of Finland and Sweden with Nato and the considerably strengthened security commitments in the EU Lisbon Treaty of 2009 cemented this change. Within a decade, the geopolitics of the Nordic-Baltic region had been altered to an extent not seen since the end of the First World War, or the Kalmar Union, or perhaps even Russia’s first proper entry into the region in the first decades of the 18th century.

What the expansion of Western economic, security and value-based institutions did was to make the Baltic Sea into a de facto mare nostrum of the European Union – and, indeed, a mare Nato. While Finland and Sweden are not members, it is incorrect to say that they are ‘outside’ Nato. To get an idea of the depth of cooperation between Nato, Sweden and Finland, one only has to look at the organisation’s most recent crisis management exercise, in which Sweden quickly mobilised its entire military and gave Nato permission to use its airspace. For all intents and purposes, the geopolitical transformation of the Nordic-Baltic region is – from a Western point of view – largely complete.

This transformation has ensured that two core areas have not only come into contact; they now overlap. Traditional geopolitics suggests that conflict should be expected in such a situation. I will return to this. First, it is necessary to see what this expansion of the EU and Nato has wrought strategically, and briefly to describe the technological changes that have laid the ground for Russia’s attempts to recalibrate geopolitical balance in the region.

For the first decade of this transformative post-Soviet period, Russia was unable to prevent the incursion into what it sees as its geopolitical space. It is only now that Russia has begun to employ a full spectrum of tools to seek to counter this transformation and to reshape the geopolitics of the region. And it is important to recognise that, from Russia’s perspective, it is not just the independence of former Soviet states and the expansion of democratic values which represent a threat. From a purely military perspective, Russia has lost strategic depth.

If that loss of depth was originally caused by politics, Russian attempts to regain strategic purchase in the Nordic-Baltic region have been founded first on economic manoeuvres and subsequently on advances in technology. After an initial period of acquiescence in the 1990s, Russia began more actively to use energy as a tool and, arguably, as a weapon. This evolved into an increasingly coherent form of geo-economic thinking (which my colleague Michael Wigell writes about elsewhere in this volume). By the late-2000s, the Russian leadership was becoming more adept at harnessing its geo-economic toolbox, tailoring policies to the perceived weaknesses of particular states. This improved Russia’s ability, at least on the margins, to influence the politics of countries it considered to lie within its historical sphere of interest. More significantly still, such geo-economic tooling came to be viewed by Russia as integral to its approach to conflict.

Such an economic approach could not make up for the physical loss of strategic depth, which rendered two key sites in Russia’s core area – St. Petersburg and the Kola Peninsula – vulnerable to potential attack. Whether fear of a Nato attack on these areas could be considered rational is questionable, considering how difficult it is for alliance members to agree on any particular issue. Nevertheless, Russia’s response to this perceived threat has been twofold.

First, Russia has applied pressure to ensure that both Sweden and Finland remain outside Nato. This continues to bear fruit in Finland, where support for, or opposition to, Nato membership has remained the same for the past two decades. In Sweden, on the other hand, support for Nato membership has increased to record heights. Russia’s attempts to stop the first wave of geopolitical transformation from reaching its logical conclusion may, therefore, be considered a partial success.

The second part of the Russian response to threats, whether real or imaginary, is an effort to reduce the loss of strategic depth through the use of technologically advanced military systems. In the West, security specialists describe it as an ‘anti-access area denial’ (A2AD) bubble around the Kaliningrad enclave; or perhaps, a military outpost, that due to its strategic importance has been transformed into an A2AD bastion. The core of this bastion is formed by Russia’s advanced air defence, anti-ship and ballistic missile systems.

What is generally lost in the discussion – but which is obviously important from a Nordic-Baltic perspective – is that, for Russia, keeping and defending Kaliningrad is important in itself because, for the first time since the early 1700s (with the exception of 1918–39), Russia does not control part of the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. This was an essential connector for Russia historically and remains, today, the key transit point for its energy exports.

Although Kaliningrad is important in itself, it forms only part of the story of the two overlapping core areas. What the Kaliningrad A2AD bastion does is to allow Russia to regain the strategic depth it perceives it needs for the defence of its truly strategic core area, which includes St Petersburg and the Kola peninsula – the location of the ballistic missile submarines that form its second strike nuclear capability.

A second layer of this core defence is located just inside Russian borders, which – for about 1300km – also happens to be the border between Finland and Russia. This is the location for the best integrated air defence systems in the world, with ever increasing missile ranges and emerging MiMo-radar networks (multiple input, multiple output). Ultimately, from a Nordic-Baltic perspective, these multiple layers are intended to create the militarily dominating geographic spaces that Russia thinks it has lost politically.

An inevitable query emerges: is there a third stage in this process, one in which Russia, de facto if not de jure, seeks to roll back the geopolitical transformation of the Nordic-Baltic region? To put it another way, and to return to my original question, since two core areas now overlap, is conflict unavoidable?

Last year’s Engelsberg seminar took ‘war’ as its theme and, as the last speaker, I concluded that we may see an unwelcome guest return to the Nordic-Baltic region in the form of war. However, while Russia increasingly exerts military influence over its more southerly borders, this brutish approach has been supplanted in the Nordic-Baltic space by the use of fear, implicit use of force and the attempted non-physical control of geopolitical and geo-economic spaces. An example has been the use of ‘refugees’ as pawns. During a three-month period in early 2015, Russian authorities showed that they can, at will, send streams of people – many of whom had officially resided in Russia for several years – across the Finnish-Russian border. When an agreement was proposed, Russia ensured that this would prevent other EU or Nordic citizens from crossing the two northernmost border-points, while enabling Russians and Belorussians to cross. In a clever move, Russia gained a bilateral agreement with Finland that restricted the rights of other EU citizens – opening up the possibility of further splitting the EU – while also indicating to EU and Finnish authorities that considerably larger ‘refugee’ flows could be expected if Russia’s interests were not satisfied.

The lesson we can take from traditional geopolitics is that when two core areas overlap we can expect conflict. But that still tells us very little about the form that conflict will take. We can, however, find some pointers in Russia’s 2015 National Security Strategy, in which its authors consider how states can ‘utilise economic methods and instruments of financial, trade, investment and technological policy to resolve their own geopolitical tasks’. It should be noted that such strategic resources, in Russia’s case, include military measures that fall just short of war, such as the use of military exercises and harassment to demonstrate dominance in the region.

In a paper co-authored with my colleague Katri Pynnöniemi, ‘Security in the Baltic Sea region: activation of risk potential’ published in June 2016, we described the paradox of Russia’s ‘full-spectrum approach’, which seeks fulfillment of the state’s geopolitical and geostrategic interests. Russia itself views such measures as a means of neutralising threats to its vital interests and preventing escalation of conflict. Yet the use of these methods actually has the effect of escalating conflict.

It seems likely that Russia is ready to intensify the use of all such economic, diplomatic, info-technological and military tools to roll back the implications of the geopolitical changes that have occurred in the Nordic-Baltic region over the past two decades.

Charly Salonius-Pasternak

Charly Salonius-Pasternak is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki, where his primary areas of research are foreign, security and defence policy. He has been a commentator for TV and radio in several countries, and was previously an international affairs adviser to the Plans and Policy Unit of Defence Command, Finnish Defence Forces, and a visiting lecturer at Tufts University, Boston.

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