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Renewed: 21.10.2013, 10:50

19 December 2012 10:47

Security and defence in the Baltic Sea region: What to expect?

An article by Brigadier General Riho Terras, Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces published in University of Turu, Finland magazine Baltic Rim Economies. Edtion 6, December 19, 2012

Kalevipoeg, a giant hero and a protagonist of the Estonian national epic, caused the first security incident between the neighbouring Estonia and Finland. He was a man of thick skull and disputable social skills according to the modern standards. He went to hunt down the kidnappers of his mother, met a Finnish blacksmith named Ilmarine who prepared him a new sword. While celebrating the fresh blade, Kalevipoeg killed the blacksmiths’ son. Fortunately enough the concept of statehood was somewhat blurry these days so no war broke out. The retaliation though was very personal by the Finnish artisan as he cursed the very sword he had created and the Estonian giant lost his feet eventually. The relations between the neighbours have not always been as bright as they seem today.

 

Positive effects of the EU and NATO enlargement

The two decades that have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Warsaw Pact have witnessed a smooth and steady westernisation of the security and defence sphere around the Baltic Sea (with one exception remaining, obviously). The positive effects of the EU and NATO enlargement processes cannot be overestimated both in terms of greater coherence in security and defence as well as stronger basis for the economic growth and intertwinement. The region has often been described as the one with the greatest growth potential in Europe, and sure there is every reason to believe in it. But wait, is that all? No frictions, no conflicting interests, no (hidden) ambitions? Let’s face some facts and try to draw some conclusions.

 

From Kurile Islands to Baltic states

The Baltic states are still quite a rare area in NATO with no balance of conventional arms across the Narva river in Estonian case. Russia has become visibly and worryingly active at its borders. There are more than 300 military instalments spread throughout the borders with the Baltic neighbours.  Should we be alarmed or are we simply witnessing Russia filling the gaps that were left by somewhat disorganised, sloppy and western-forced pull-out from its Soviet era borders in 1990’s. Russia has historically been severely allergic against any changes and dynamics concerning the border regions and thus often very defensive in behaviour. It should not be a surprise that the security concerns listed in the top of the agenda for Russian policy and strategy makers are the Kurile Islands in the east and the Baltic states in the west.

 

Number of regional initiatives

How should this influence the security thinking in the Baltic Sea region? First and foremost the region should be seen in the broader context, both geo-politically and in terms of the changes in economy and demographics that have led many nations to question the need and reduce the money and manpower necessary for security and defence. The Baltic Sea region is not unique in that sense. Since the understanding of Asia’s increasing role hit almost a decade ago, the US’s pivot towards the Asia-Pacific has been heavily debated by the Europeans, primarily. Americans seem to have much pragmatic view on the issue and are reserved in their explanations, denying the sudden loss of interest against Europe. The US interest in the Baltic Sea region is of utmost importance. How to maintain it? Co-operation and common understanding among the states in the region is the primary option.

There are number of regional initiatives (NORDEFCO, BALTDEFCOL and other Baltic Military projects) that may as well serve as good selling arguments. When the like-minded states in the region are able to pool their resources and give meaningful contributions where and when it’s necessary, there is a chance we are still seen as someone punching above his or her weight. In addition the UK’s initiative on the Northern Group may add another dimension to the Baltic Sea region co-operation. Signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the Enhancement of Defence Co-operation between UK and Norway earlier this year may be seen as the first step in that path.

 

Baltic Defence College as a regional hub

It’s not a secret that countries like Finland and Sweden have contributed remarkably in NATO-led operations in the Balkans and in Afghanistan more recently. This is a strong argument for closer co-operation among the Baltic Sea region states both NATO/non-EU and non-NATO in military operations. Without any particular wish to cause allergic reactions, there is a stronger strategic interest towards the states that can form so called Coalitions of Willing when there’s a clear demand.

The Baltic Sea region has the potential to attract interest. Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia is surely one of the examples that deserve closer attention. Established by the three Baltic states with strong involvement from Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway it has become the only modern English language based multinational military educational institution in the region. And there is a wish to broaden the focus so that not only the Baltic states could benefit from its educational outcome but the Nordic countries and other regional players as well.

 

Finally, one can’t discuss the security and defence affairs in the region without emphasising the prominent role of Poland. For the countries east of the Baltic sea, Poland has become a real and reliable partner and advocate in voicing and explaining security concerns. And it’s not only words that matter, Poland is one of the very few countries in Europe to maintain the level of defence expenditures close to the 2% of GDP and to possess real military power. It is vital to envisage deeper involvement of Poland in the regional initiatives in order to gain more visibility and credibility. Let the numbers do the talking – Nordic/Baltic countries all together have a population of 32 million, Poland a population of 38,5 million people.

Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, 717 1900, mil[at]mil.ee, Juhkentali 58, EE15007, Tallinn, Estonia.

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