Sweden’s Foreign Policy: Nonaligned, But Not Entirely Neutral

In late 2014, Swedish authorities spotted what many suspected was a Russian submarine lurking off Stockholm. The incident set off alarm bells among Swedes. It reminded them of a similar incident in 1981, when a nuclear-armed Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground a few kilometers outside Sweden’s main naval base.[1] Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and intervention in eastern Ukraine, the recent submarine scare served to underline the threat that a resurgent Russia could pose to Sweden.

No wonder that, despite Sweden’s long tradition of neutrality and an “alliance-free” foreign policy, Swedish leaders of almost all political stripes began to consider closer ties with NATO. That of course irked Russia. Victor Tatarintsev, the Russian ambassador to Sweden, responded with what seemed like a backhanded reassurance that Russia had “no plans to invade Sweden.” In May 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin put it more bluntly. He warned that if Sweden joined NATO, Russia would take military measures “to eliminate [the new threat].” While Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström clearly stated that her government would not seek NATO membership, Sweden has moved closer to the Alliance. NATO naturally welcomed the shift, given Sweden’s strategic importance to NATO’s defense of its Baltic member countries.

Sweden’s National Interest in the Baltic Sea

Observers have long described Sweden’s security policy as “non-participation in military alliances during peacetime and neutrality during wartime.”[2] But that does not mean that Sweden takes its security environment lightly, especially when it comes to the Baltic Sea. For centuries, its waters have been a thoroughfare for not only trade, but also power projection. Should unfriendly forces control it, they could easily threaten Sweden and even reduce its access to the wider world. Hence, Sweden has had an enduring national interest in the security of the Baltic Sea and the coast beyond.

Armed Neutrality

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union controlled the Baltic coast. Because of that, Sweden kept up its guard. It maintained a sizable standing military and nurtured a world-class defense industry. That attention to military preparedness has had a long history in Sweden where a popular nineteenth-century slogan proclaimed: “one man, one gun, one vote.”

After the Cold War, Sweden cut its defense expenditures. But the advent of an aggressive Russia across the Baltic Sea has led Sweden to rethink its military posture. In September 2017, it raised its defense budget by five percent over its already planned increase. It also recently reinstituted conscription to bring its military back to full strength. Starting in 2018, it will conscript 4,000 18-year-olds. That number will rise to 8,000 per year by 2022. Sweden still has more to do. Apart from the 60 JAS 39E fighters and two A26 diesel-electric attack submarines already on order, Sweden will need more and newer armaments for its soon-to-be larger armed forces.

Even so, Sweden has begun to strengthen its defenses on Gotland, a strategic island in the Baltic Sea. Contrary to reports in 2016 that reestablishing a permanent military presence on Gotland was unexpected, Sweden’s Defence Policy white paper—which all of Sweden’s major political parties agreed to in 2015—outlined Gotland’s rearmament as part of a broader set of security precautions that Sweden would take through 2020.[3]

New Normal for Swedish Neutrality

While it is perfectly understandable why neutral Sweden has felt the need to be better armed, what is unusual is how enthusiastically it has embraced multilateral defense cooperation. Roughly a decade ago, Sweden joined the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy and led the effort to create the EU’s 2,400-man Nordic battlegroup. Soon after, it helped to establish the Nordic Defence Cooperation, which brought together five Nordic countries, including two NATO members.

Recently, Sweden has stepped up its collaboration with NATO. It signed a host-nation agreement that allows NATO forces to train in Sweden and boosted its participation in NATO military exercises, like Baltic Operations (Baltops) and Steadfast Jazz. Sweden has gone so far as to commit a fighter squadron to fight alongside NATO’s rapid-reaction force.

Sweden is also shedding its long-time aversion to a bilateral military relationship with the United States. The number of meetings between Swedish defense ministers and U.S. secretaries of defense has noticeably risen, from an average of once every two years over the last decade to twice a year in 2016 and 2017. During Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist’s visit to the Pentagon in May 2017, he announced not only Swedish participation in NATO’s Baltops 2017 exercise in June, but also the involvement of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Sweden’s largest military exercise in 23 years. Over 20,000 troops from nine countries (seven of them NATO members) took part in the exercise, called Aurora 2017, which spanned three weeks in September and focused on the defense of Gotland.

Seeking Partnerships, Not Alliances

Swedes—ever conscious of their cherished neutrality—have long opposed their country joining multilateral defense organizations, like NATO. But fewer of them do so than before. A national poll found that a slim plurality of Swedes favored membership in NATO for the first time in 2014.[4] While opinions of the public slipped back the other way two years later, those of Swedish leaders did not. Most now believe that Sweden needs to form stronger partnerships, though not alliances, with NATO and the United States. From their perspective, the real question is how Sweden can translate those partnerships into greater security without formal defense treaties.

Such partnerships bring Sweden close to breaching its traditional neutrality and “alliance-free” foreign policy. Someday, it may be forced to choose one approach over the other. In the meantime, Swedish leaders will continue to wrestle with what it means for Sweden to be a partner, but not an alliance member—to be nonaligned, but not entirely neutral either.


[1] Milton Leitenberg, “The case of the stranded sub,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mar. 1982, pp. 10-13.

[2] “Sweden: Scene-Setter for Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s May 15 Visit to Washington,” May 4, 2007, WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks cable: 07STOCKHOLM506_a.

[3] Government Offices of Sweden, Sweden’s Defence Policy, 2016-2020, Jun. 1, 2015.

[4] Pütsep Mona and Ryen Linda, Opinioner 2016: Allmänhetens syn på samhällsskydd, beredskap, säkerhetspolitik och försvar (Karlstad, Sweden: Civil Protection and Emergency Agency, Jan. 2017), p. 75.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Sweden’s Importance to NATO’s Defense of the Baltics

Sweden is not a member of NATO. But Sweden is very important to the defense of NATO’s Baltic member countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That importance mainly stems not from what Sweden could add to NATO’s collective military strength, but from how its strategic position could help NATO overcome the operational challenges it would face if it needed to respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics.

Strategic Position in the Baltic Sea

Spanning the length of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden’s geography dominates much of the Baltic Sea, a fact that NATO has long appreciated. Early on in the Cold War, NATO recognized that Sweden could serve as a valuable location for early warning facilities to monitor the Soviet Union in peacetime and for combat aircraft to interdict Soviet lines of communications across Germany and Poland in wartime.

Sweden took on a new relevance for NATO after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004. With tiny military forces of their own and large Russian military forces on their borders, the three Baltic countries are highly vulnerable. Russia could easily sever their air and land connections to the rest of NATO and capture all three countries—a prospect that could jeopardize the very existence of NATO. Thus, NATO holds annual exercises called Baltic Operations (Baltops), in part, to practice reinforcing the Baltics by sea. But, in a conflict, Russian strike aircraft and coastal defense missile batteries based near Kaliningrad could interdict such seaborne reinforcements before they ever reached the Baltics. (See Map.)

Sitting astride of NATO’s most likely reinforcement route, Sweden could mitigate many of Russia’s military advantages. That is what makes Sweden so important to NATO. Were Sweden to allow NATO reinforcements to sail through its territorial waters, NATO could halve the distance over which its reinforcements would be exposed to Russian air and missile attacks between Denmark and Estonia. Theoretically, Stockholm could even allow NATO to safely transport its troops and supplies over land to Sweden’s east-coast ports before they embarked for an amphibious assault across the Baltic Sea.

Got Land?

Sweden also controls Gotland, an island situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is strategic because it is an ideal location from which to defend forces moving through the Baltic Sea or to project power into the Baltics. Though primarily seen today as a holiday destination, it has been prized for its strategic location for centuries. During the Cold War, Sweden stationed a reinforced armored brigade, fast attack craft, and a fighter squadron on Gotland to defend it. While all of those forces have since been deactivated or dispersed, Russia’s recent aggressive behavior prompted Sweden to reestablish a permanent military garrison on Gotland in 2016.

NATO also sees the value of Gotland. At a minimum, the island could complicate Russian anti-ship cruise missile strikes on NATO reinforcements sailing to the Baltics. But if Swedish cooperation with NATO were to increase, NATO air forces could use Gotland’s airfields to fend off Russian air and missile attacks as well as provide air support for NATO military operations in the Baltics. Gotland’s main port of Visby could even serve as a logistical hub for NATO forces fighting in the region.

On the other hand, Sweden could also help NATO by simply defending its territory from Russian incursions during a conflict between NATO and Russia. Doing so would constrain Russian freedom of action in the Baltic Sea. If nothing else, denying Russia use of Gotland would prevent it from not only making any seaborne reinforcement of the Baltics extremely difficult and thus narrowing NATO’s operational options, but also threatening the Baltic coasts of Germany and Poland behind NATO’s frontline.

Sweden in NATO?

Though not a member of NATO, Sweden is important to NATO’s defense of the Baltics.

Swedish cooperation with the Alliance would make protecting the Baltics easier and thereby strengthen NATO’s security guarantee to its member countries. That, in turn, would improve NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression in the region.

Meanwhile, some have begun to speculate whether Sweden would shed its longtime “alliance-free” foreign policy and join NATO. But Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem has dismissed such speculation. She cautioned that NATO membership “would expose Sweden to risks, both political and otherwise” which her government was not willing to bear.[1]

Still, over the last decade, Sweden has taken a more active role in Nordic and European Union defense arrangements, many of whose members are also NATO members. Moreover, Sweden has stepped up its direct military contacts with NATO and the United States. While NATO membership may be off the table for Sweden, it would appear that Sweden has come to believe that NATO’s interest in deterring Russian aggression is very much in its own national interest, too.


[1] Damien Sharkov, “Putin Vows Military Response to ‘Eliminate NATO Threat’ If Sweden Joins U.S.-Led Alliance,” Newsweek, June 2, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-vows-eliminate-nato-threat-sweden-joins-619486.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Russia’s Existential Threat to NATO in the Baltics

NATO seems more united today than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. An aggressive Russia, unbowed by Western economic sanctions after its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, has driven NATO member countries closer together. However, if given the opportunity, an aggressive Russia could also put NATO in a position that could strain its cohesion and ultimately undermine its existence. One place where that could happen is in the Baltics states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Bigger, Not Necessarily Stronger

As part of NATO’s eastward expansion after the Cold War, the Baltic countries joined the Alliance in 2004. But geographically separated from nearly all of NATO and having small militaries, the Baltics have always been vulnerable. From the start, military planners understood that NATO would have to commit substantial resources to properly defend the region from a Russian invasion.

At the time, NATO’s European governments were unconcerned. Russia, they believed, no longer posed a real threat. So, rather than make the costly outlays needed to protect the Baltic states, they cut their defense budgets. It was little surprise, then, that Europe’s conventional military forces saw their numbers and combat readiness fall. Today, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom would each be hard pressed to rapidly deploy a single combat-ready armored brigade. NATO’s reduced fighting capacity was also evident in its air campaign over Libya in 2011. After less than a month of combat, European air forces ran short of precision-guided munitions.

Moreover, given how easily Russia could sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, one might have expected NATO to have boosted its amphibious capacity in case it needed to send reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. Instead, NATO’s combined sealift capacity, excluding U.S. amphibious forces, has fallen to such a low level that it can ferry little more than two infantry brigades. Even worse, almost all of that capacity is based far from the Baltic Sea. And even if NATO could transport those brigades to the Baltics (through what might be a gauntlet of Russian air and missile strikes from Kaliningrad) it is doubtful whether they would be enough to stop a mechanized Russian invasion.

Peril of the Interregnum

Should NATO prove too unprepared to help the Baltics, Russia could achieve a quick victory. That would mean that NATO would have to mount a counteroffensive to liberate the region in order to fulfill its treaty obligations. But before it could do so, the Alliance would need time to fully mobilize its armed forces. During that interregnum, between Russia’s victory and NATO’s counteroffensive, NATO leaders would have time to contemplate what was to come.

They would have a lot to consider. Since the only land route into the Baltics runs through the 100-km wide Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor between Lithuania and Poland, NATO ground forces would have little choice but to mount a frontal attack. Massed Russian artillery could turn the gap into a killing zone. Meanwhile, Russia’s coastal defense batteries and attack helicopter battalions could inflict heavy losses on any amphibious assault.

The conflict could also escalate beyond the Baltics. As a prelude to any counteroffensive, NATO commanders would naturally want to use their air power to attrit Russian forces and logistical capacity as well as suppress Russia’s supporting artillery, air defense, and coastal defense batteries. That would require strikes against targets on not only Baltic soil, but also possibly Russian soil. Moscow could seek reciprocity. It could launch air or missile strikes on similar targets in Western Europe and the United States. Russia could even escalate to a nuclear confrontation. In effect, it could thrust upon NATO leaders the decision: “Is Tallinn worth Berlin?”

Ultimately, the near certainty of high casualties, the uncertainty of battlefield success, and the possibility of a wider war might cause NATO leaders to think twice about liberating the Baltics. Russian information operations would likely exacerbate those concerns to sow doubt and division within NATO countries. If NATO leaders were to hesitate during the interregnum and agree to a settlement that left any part of the Baltics in Russian hands, then no NATO member could fully trust NATO’s security guarantee again. The rationale for NATO would be lost and its future existence put at risk.

The Tripwire Fix

NATO faced a similar danger during the Cold War. At that time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had amassed such enormous conventional forces that they threatened to overwhelm those of the Alliance. Observers wondered whether the United States would risk a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union if it quickly occupied Western Europe. The question put to American leaders was: “Is Bonn worth Washington?” NATO responded by stationing large U.S. military forces close to the frontline, in part, to act as a tripwire. They would incur the first casualties of any Soviet invasion. Those losses would bind the United States and its nuclear arsenal to the defense of Western Europe, and thus deter the Soviet Union from invading it in the first place.

NATO appears to be trying a similar tactic in the Baltics states. For years, NATO has rotated tiny military contingents through the region. But over the last year, their sizes have grown. Currently, a German-led battle group of 1,000 soldiers is in Lithuania. Later this year, a Canadian-led battle group will be in Latvia and a British-led one will visit Estonia. Though still too small to stop a Russian invasion, they could serve as a tripwire to bind the rest of Europe to the defense of the Baltics. However, that only works if NATO can prevent Russia from achieving a quick victory, since the prospect of a costly counteroffensive could still render NATO’s tripwire ineffective.

Conclusion

To reliably avoid Russia’s existential threat, NATO must ensure that Russia is unable to score a quick victory in the Baltics. That requires NATO members to pledge more than words of resolve. That requires more resources for more troops, better equipment, and, above all, higher combat readiness.

Most exposed to the Russian threat, NATO’s Eastern European members are leading the way. Poland created a new Territorial Defense Force of reservists who will number 53,000 in two years. It also ordered 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks.[1] All three Baltic countries have acquired new light armored vehicles. Better yet, they are beginning to acquire the firepower needed to slow a Russian advance. Lithuania recently bought PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers, and Estonia is in discussions to purchase K9 long-range artillery.[2]

The rest of NATO needs to do the same. After all, one of the key reasons why NATO was so important in the most successful unfought war of the last century, the Cold War, was because its member countries were conscious to brook no ambiguity about the Alliance’s combat readiness to take on its main adversary.


[1] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland orders 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jan. 4, 2016.

[2] Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Estonia begins K9 artillery negotiations with South Korea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 7, 2017; Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Lithuania receives first PzH 2000 howitzers,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jun. 28, 2016.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

NATO’s Baltic Defense Challenge

As NATO expanded eastwards after the Cold War, the geography that the Alliance needed to defend changed significantly (See map). Rather than a relatively narrow front in Central Europe (dashed line), NATO now had to contend with a far wider front across Eastern Europe (solid line) stretching its defense capabilities. When the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004, they created an even greater operational challenge for NATO.

Lay of the Land

Sitting on the Alliance’s eastern edge, all three Baltic countries border Russia, NATO’s most likely adversary. But only one, Lithuania, is connected to any other NATO country. Lithuania’s border with Poland, just 100 km wide and with a single highway running through it, forms a bottleneck that NATO planners call the Suwalki Gap (named after a nearby Polish town). Worse still, on one side of the gap is Kaliningrad, a large Russian military enclave, and on the other side is Belarus, a close Russian ally.

Figuring out how to overcome that problematic geography became more pressing for NATO after 2007, when Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, which had limited the number of troops and equipment that NATO and Russia could station in continental Europe. Since then, Russia has steadily strengthened its military forces across its western regions, including Kaliningrad. One recent study estimates that if Russia were to invade the Baltics today it could mobilize 25 battalions of armor, airborne, and mechanized infantry (supported by ten battalions of artillery, six of attack helicopters, and five of short-range ballistic missiles). By contrast, the Baltic countries could field only 11 battalions of light infantry, most of which are reserve units.[1] Plus, without any fighter aircraft of their own, Baltic forces would be completely exposed to Russian air power.

Clearly, without NATO support, the Baltics could offer little serious resistance to a Russian invasion. From St. Petersburg, a Russian column could advance into Estonia to seize Tallinn. From Pskov, another column could advance into Latvia to take Riga and pivot south into Lithuania.[2] Simultaneously, Russian forces in Kaliningrad could seal off likely avenues for NATO reinforcements. A Russian thrust toward Marijampolė would close the Suwalki Gap and another toward Klaipėda would close NATO’s most accessible Baltic port. To ensure battlefield success, Russia could use its strategic reserve of airborne and Spetsnaz forces.

From the Sea

Should Russia sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, NATO may be forced to send its reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. However, doing so would face serious hurdles. First, NATO lacks enough military sealift to transport the volume of troops and equipment necessary to stop a Russian assault. As a work-around for its sealift shortage, NATO could commandeer car ferries and other civilian shipping. But NATO could not as easily work around the threat of Russian long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. Launched from K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense batteries in Kaliningrad, such missiles could inflict heavy casualties on any NATO reinforcements.

Since the U.S. Navy would not likely want to expose an aircraft carrier battle group to such a threat in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, the job of escorting NATO’s troop transports would then fall on smaller warships with less sophisticated anti-ship cruise missile defenses. That could put already scarce troop transports at higher risk.

Even worse, if Russian forces were to capture all the ports in the Baltics, NATO might have to mount an amphibious assault to reestablish itself on land. That would be difficult to pull off, despite the spectacle of NATO’s Baltic Operations (Baltops) exercises. Amphibious assaults have never been easy; but they are even more difficult today, given that modern precision-guided munitions could make short work of landing craft, helicopters, and even MV-22 aircraft.

Conflict Escalation

Given the potential for Russia to interdict their seaborne forces, NATO commanders would naturally want to suppress Russian coastal defense batteries. After all, a successful missile strike on a single transport could result in the loss of hundreds of troops and their equipment. Multiple missile strikes could swiftly sap the combat strength of any NATO relief force.

At first glance, the suppression of Russian coastal defense batteries (and the air defense systems protecting them) would appear to be a straightforward affair. NATO air forces based in Germany and Poland could easily reach and strike Russian positions in Kaliningrad. However, were NATO air forces to do so, they would be hitting targets on Russian soil. That, in turn, could prompt Russia to expand the conflict beyond the Baltics. NATO could expect retaliatory Russian strikes on its German and Polish air bases.

In addition, one could reasonably expect NATO commanders to want to stem the flow of Russian forces and supplies into the Baltics, either to slow a Russian invasion or as a prelude to a NATO counteroffensive. To be most effective, that would require NATO strikes on Russian logistical facilities near St. Petersburg and Pskov. Such strikes would hit targets deep into Russian territory. That could also prompt Russia to escalate. It could launch retaliatory strikes against NATO logistical facilities in Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. Russia could even use submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles to hit targets in the United States, like Naval Station Norfolk or Pope Air Force Base, which normally support U.S. operations abroad.

Ultimately, Russia could threaten to use nuclear weapons. Indeed, in 2016, Russia moved Iskander 9K720 intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad.[3] It may have done so, in part, to ensure that NATO leaders think twice before attacking targets there, since a strike on Russian nuclear forces could quickly escalate into a nuclear confrontation. In any case, even if armed with conventional warheads, those missiles could hit and devastate targets as far away as Germany.

Conclusion

The best way for NATO to overcome its operational challenge in the Baltics is to make sure it never manifests itself. To do that, NATO must convince Russia that it could not achieve a quick victory in the region. Already NATO has rotated small air and ground detachments through the Baltic countries to stiffen their defenses as well as to create a tripwire to guarantee a forceful NATO response in case of a Russian attack.

But more needs to be done before Russia is really convinced. Forward-deployed NATO battle groups need to be stronger—strong enough to hold open avenues for NATO reinforcements. Moreover, NATO countries need to revive their conventional war-fighting capabilities and maintain them at a higher state of combat readiness than they do now. Finally, NATO forces need to be able to react more quickly to Russian actions. That means Western governments need to give NATO’s commander the authority to not only put their national military forces on alert, but also order them into the field for limited periods. In short, NATO should, once again, adhere to the old aphorism that “if you want peace, prepare for war.”


[1] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2016), pp. 4-5.

[2] Should Belarus allow them to do so, Russian forces could also pass through Belarusian territory to advance on Vilnius from Minsk.

[3] Brooks Tigner, “Kaliningrad becoming a more dangerous military threat for NATO, say officials,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 10, 2016.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

“The Rail Baltica” Project: True European Interconnectedness?

Russia possesses a tremendous amount of control over the Baltic states’ rail infrastructure—including the ability to cut off all international train service between them. There is no direct passenger train service connecting the Baltic states to one another or to the European Union. Today, all international rail lines run east, dating back to the Russian Empire, and later to the Soviet Union, when direct connections between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were discouraged and everything had to go through Moscow.

High Speed Train in the Station

Yet this threat to the region’s security will be eliminated with the completion of the Rail Baltica project. Rail Baltica will offer more security to the Baltic states by integrating them with the EU rail network apart from their existing integration with the Russian rail network.

Rail Baltica is a priority project of the “European Union Trans-European Transport Network,” aimed at connecting Finland, the Baltic states, and Poland to the rest of the EU countries. Former European Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, explained that “as members of the European Union, the Baltic States need to be connected to Europe, not just politically – but through their infrastructure.” The project involves the construction and upgrade of a continuous railway line for both passenger and freight transport between Estonia and Poland, passing through Latvia and Lithuania. It will develop a north-south railway corridor and circumnavigate Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast as well as the Hronda territory in Belarus. The railway will be built with the EU 1435 mm standard gauge, replacing the existing 1520 mm Russian gauge line that is primarily used in the former Soviet Union states. (Editor’s note: The Soviets used a broader gauge track so that invading states could not use their rail lines without switching the gauge of their trains.)

The Rail Baltica project took a major step forward in 2015, when the European Commission approved funding for its three main projects. The first project involves several studies and works on different sites in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The second project takes place in Lithuania, focusing on the development of the EU standard gauge railway line from the border with Poland to the city of Kaunas, and then on toward the Latvian border. The third project will upgrade the existing railway line in Poland, to the EU standard gauge line. The three projects together will form part of the Rail Baltica project and are estimated to cost €734 million, which will be funded by the EC’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) Program for Transport.

With the ability to transport at least 13 million tons of cargo and five million passengers a year, Rail Baltica will be the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the Baltic States. Lithuanian minister of transport and communications, Rimantas Sinkevičius, explained that the project will “create new possibilities for market integration, economic development and new mobility solutions for passenger and cargo transportation in the Baltic region.”

The construction of a new railway is set to begin in 2020, and the overall project is estimated to cost €3.68 billion. Over 80 percent of the project will be financed by member states and the EU TEN-T budget. The Tallinn-Riga-Kaunas route is scheduled to be completed in 2025, and the rail connection to Warsaw by 2030. When complete, the project will connect the Baltic states to the rest of the EU rail network.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Baltic Nations and the Continuing EU Refugee Crisis

More than a million migrants and refugees escaped to Europe in 2015, creating divisions between the European Union member states over how to best deal with the crisis. The European Commission designed a quota system to distribute refugees among the member states, using criteria such as the size of the population, GDP, unemployment rates, and the number of asylum applications received in the past. The mandatory quota proposal has strained relations between western, eastern and central European member states because some countries have faced a disproportionate burden. While western European states such as Germany have accepted a large number of refugees, eastern European states are reluctant to share the burden.

The  mandatory quota strategy continues to be met with much resistance in the Baltics. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remain among the most vocal opponents of quotas for accepting refugees.

Estonia has agreed to accept up to 550 asylum seekers over the next two years as part of the EU effort. Estonian citizens have expressed concern over accepting a large number of refugees, given Estonia’s considerably smaller population of 1.3 million people, approximately 30 percent of whom are Russian speaking. Estonia witnessed several anti-immigrant rallies over the summer, followed by a 24-hour rally in October outside of the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament. The rally, organized by a number of Estonia’s right-wing parties, including the European National Front, the Conservative People’s Party, and the People’s Party of Unity, called for stricter EU border controls and a national referendum on whether Estonia should accept the EU quota of refugees. The Estonian government proposed that in light of the country’s relatively small population, instead of accepting the required number of refugees the EC suggested, they would accept people on a voluntary basis.

The mandatory quota proposal also sparked demonstrations in Latvia’s capital, Riga, where the divided communities of Latvians and ethnic Russians united in opposition to allowing more refugees to enter the country. Latvian political parties are divided on the issue. The nationalist-conservative National Alliance and the centrist Union of Greens and Farmers do not support the decision to admit additional refugees. On the other hand, the leading party of the coalition, the center-right Unity, warned that refusing to admit refugees could have negative consequences for Latvia’s economy and security in the future. The Latvian government has adopted a tentative action plan to admit up to 776 refugees, which would place them in a center until their status is determined. Only afterward would they be permitted to integrate into Latvian society. At the European Council meeting in Brussels on October 16, former Latvian Prime Minister Straujuma announced that Latvia supports strengthening the EU’s external border and the development of a repatriation policy for persons who are not judged to be refugees.

Lithuania has agreed to accept 1,105 refugees from the Middle East and Africa over the next two years.  Lithuanian officials are open to discussing the acceptance of more refugees, but only on a voluntary basis.  President Grybauskaite first spoke out against Brussels’ proposal for Lithuania to take in 780 people, calling the plan “unjust” and an “inappropriate way of solving the problem of refugees.” Initially, she announced that in taking the country’s population and GDP into consideration, Lithuania would be able to accept up to 250 people. In late November, the Lithuanian parliament passed legislation that defines regulations of refugee resettlement in the country. According to the regulation, the Government will make decisions on resettling refugees in Lithuania, and the Migration Department will be tasked with processing individual applications.

Not all political leaders in the Baltics are opposed to taking more refugees. Estonia’s President Toomas Ilves criticized the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and praised German chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. Nonetheless, Germany is accepting record numbers of migrants, while its European neighbors are fighting to keep them out. If the Baltic countries don’t do their fair share to help Germany address its refugee challenges, they run the risk that Germans and others in Europe will conclude that they are ‘free riders’—happy to enjoy the benefits of a united Europe, but unwilling to pay their share of the costs.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Latvia Is Changing the Wheel on Its Bike—Not Buying a New One

On December 7, Laimdota Straujuma, the Prime Minister of Latvia, resigned. Although her resignation came into effect immediately, she will continue to lead the three-party coalition in a caretaker capacity until a new one is found.

 

The now ex-Prime Minister left during a time of dissension within the Latvian government. Though Straujuma cited the need for “new ideas and new input” as her immediate reason for resigning, her exit comes after a tortuous political period following Latvia’s successful presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Straujuma’s departure was preceded by myriad internal struggles. Significant tension among her colleagues surfaced as Straujuma confronted the Minister of Transport, alleging incompetence and asking for his resignation. Inter-personal conflicts were exacerbated by tumultuous political negotiations within the ruling coalition government, the most polarizing of which concerned next year’s budget and the acceptance of refugees. On top of the political dissonance common to coalitions, was a government formed on the unsteady grounds bequeathed by the economic crisis. The ex-Prime Minister herself admitted that there was no guarantee the government could survive until the next political term.

The roots of the government schisms can be found in the current composition of parliament, which has a total of 100 seats. Since the 2014 elections, the ‘Concord’ party holds the most seats, at 24. The breakdown of the rest of the seats in the parliament, held by other parties is as follows: ‘Unity’ (23), ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ (21), ‘National Alliance’ (17), ‘Latvian Regional Alliance’ (8), and ‘For Latvia from the Heart’ (7). Because any decisions require at least a majority vote to pass, a coalition is needed. The current coalition consists of Unity, Union of Greens and Farmers, and National Alliance. Together they hold a total of 61 seats – and thus form a majority force in parliament.

The minister positions, elected by parliament, are therefore held solely by members of the coalition, divided amongst themselves. A mutual dependency between the three parties guarantees their representatives in executive government and promotes cooperation. Their fundamental ideological differences, however, remain intact. Most recently, this manifested itself in the clashes over allowing additional refugees into Latvia on a quota regime. While the National Alliance party stood staunchly against the quota, the Unity party supported it. An eventual compromise was reached, but the situation served to highlight how loss of support from any member of the coalition severely reduces the government’s ability to efficiently conduct its functions. This division of influence becomes a catalyst for power plays, and is one of the primary reasons for why the coalition dynamic sustains political intrigue to the extent that a Prime Minister may be pressured to resign.

With this background, the primary domestic consequence for the nation from the resignation of the Prime Minister is that parties will undergo a hectic process of vying for the position. Tensions over issues within coalition parties may, in the most extreme case, lead to a party joining or leaving the coalition. However, the coalition itself is bound to remain intact.

As for potential Prime Ministers, the most frequently discussed candidate is Solvita Āboltiņa, head of the leading coalition party – Unity. Yet, party support for candidates is still broadly fluctuating and her prospect at ascension remains opaque. Regardless of the incoming incumbent, Latvia’s foreign policy is unlikely to change. A new leader will take the place of Laimdota Straujuma, but it will certainly be a candidate from the ruling coalition, who will accordingly be bound to follow the current policy course. With a new Prime Minister, Latvia is changing the wheel on its bike—not buying a new bike.

Tags: , , ,

Bundeswehr 2.0: A German Military for a New Normal

A visit to Germany’s military history museum in Dresden reveals just how deeply ambivalent modern Germany is about its military, the Bundeswehr.  One account described it as “a meditation on mankind’s addiction to state violence.”  No wonder that Germany—despite being Europe’s most populous and wealthiest country—has continuously cut the size of the Bundeswehr since the end of the Cold War.  While much of that was warranted, given the disappearance of the Soviet threat, today’s Bundeswehr is not only a fraction of its former self (and half the size of the French military), but also apparently in a state of disrepair, according to an independent review of the Bundeswehr’s combat readiness last September.[1]

Germany Military

Hence, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Moscow to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his aggression in Ukraine, she did so without the benefit of military power to back her efforts.  Instead, German diplomats have sought to use Germany’s economic power as leverage to shape Russia’s behavior.  Far better, they argue, to avoid competing with Russia on military terms, in which Germany is weak and Russia holds “escalation dominance.”  But economic power clearly has its limits, as Russia has yet to end its intervention in eastern Ukraine.  That has led even those Germans who have long been sympathetic to Moscow to consider whether there has been a fundamental shift in Russian posture—one that might require Germany to address through a stronger defense.  For the first time in decades, Bundestag legislators have begun to discuss the need to strengthen the Bundeswehr.[2]

But what kind of Bundeswehr is needed?  Surely, it must be one that is consistent with Germany’s vision of itself, if Germans are ever to embrace it.  It should be tailored for a mission that most German citizens can agree is in Germany’s national interest, such as the security of Central Europe.  It should also be one that can meaningfully contribute to NATO’s collective defense, but does not put its neighbors ill at ease.  As such, one could envision a Bundeswehr that is designed—through its armaments and force structure—to be fundamentally defensive, yet still beneficial to NATO.

From the way the German army chose to pare back its equipment after the Cold War, it is clear that its leaders sought to preserve as much of the combat capabilities of its heavy armored units as possible.  But by 2010 that was no longer possible, as the numbers of its main battle tanks (MBT) and armored infantry fighting vehicles (AIFV) plunged.  Rather than rebuild its army on a foundation of MBTs, Germany could equip it with more defensive weapon systems, like AIFVs that are fitted with long-range anti-tank missiles.  Such systems wound provide an effective defense against armor without having the offensive strength of MBTs.

Meanwhile, the German navy could focus its attention on the defensive mission to protect NATO’s sea lines of communication to the alliance’s Baltic member states.  Given the maritime environment of the Baltic Sea, that mission would primarily entail coastal diesel-electric submarines, corvettes, and minesweepers, rather than larger oceangoing combatants.  As a corollary to that mission, the German navy could contribute to NATO’s ability to send reinforcements to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with landing ship tanks (LSTs).  Finally, the German air force could focus its resources on filling an air-superiority role (which it apparently already has begun to do), rather than a more offensive ground-support role.  Such an air force would have the added benefit of being able to enforce future defensive no-fly zones.

Even so, if the Bundeswehr is to be seen as non-threatening to its neighbors, one must also consider its force structure.  The Bundeswehr should be appropriately sized relative to those of its neighbors, France and Poland—small enough that they would not find it menacing, but large enough that, when combined with the capabilities of other NATO countries, it would be useful to fend off a foreign threat to the alliance.

Within those criteria, one could envision an expanded German army that includes two armored brigades equipped with Leopard 2A7 MBTs and six mechanized brigades equipped with a new generation of missile-armed Marder AIFVs.  When operating alongside Poland’s heavily armored units (which include 900 MBTs), the German force could help respond to any aggression from the east.  Similarly, a German navy equipped with 12 coastal diesel-electric submarines, 12 corvettes, and 36 minesweepers could help NATO keep its sea lines of communication open to its Baltic member states.  Moreover, the navy could help NATO develop a credible sealift capability with 12 LSTs that could transport relief forces and supplies to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Finally, the German air force—if equipped with 240 air-superiority fighters (a mix of European-built Eurofighters and American-built F-22 fighters)—could help ensure that NATO controls the skies over Central Europe.

Such a Bundeswehr would be a largely defensive force, essentially incapable of offensive action without the support of its NATO allies.  But it would be one that could make a meaningful contribution to the security of Central Europe and the integrity of the NATO alliance.  Of course, this sort of transformation would not be costless.  It will consume every bit of the military spending increase that Germany promised its NATO allies in the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration.  But in making that investment, Berlin could create a force that is worthy of praise from its allies and, perhaps, Germans too.

[1] “Consultants list Bundeswehr blunders,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 6, 2014, http://dw.de/p/1DR9m; “Merkel peeks over Bundeswehr shortfall parapet,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 3, 2014, http://dw.de/p/1DPdX; “A German army museum reopens,” Economist, Oct. 15, 2011.

[2] Anton Troianovski, “Ukraine Crisis Spurs Calls in Germany to Reverse Years of Trimming Army,” Wall Street Journal, Mar. 9, 2015, p. A10.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,