Recent concerns over Russian aggression have led countries all around the Baltic Sea to take their security more seriously. Poland certainly has; Sweden has, too. Those concerns have also driven Sweden closer to Finland. A country well-accustomed to the threat from Russia, Finland fought two major wars against the Soviet Union, Russia’s twentieth-century incarnation. Despite pulling off many incredible battlefield successes, Finland lost both the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944). And after each Finnish defeat, the Soviet Union annexed territory whose terrain could present natural obstacles to a future Russian invasion, leaving Finland in an ever more vulnerable position.
In 1999, Poland joined the NATO Alliance. Ever since, collective defense has been at the heart of Poland’s national security strategy. But recent changes in Europe’s strategic environment may be leading Poland to think twice about whether collective defense alone can guarantee its security. The combination of a more aggressive Russia, a less resolute Western Europe, and a growing divergence between the military capabilities of Poland and those of the rest of NATO have made unilateral Polish action a real possibility.
No one needs to remind Poland of the strategic dangers arising from its geography. Often sandwiched between great European powers, Poland has been invaded, carved up, and occupied for over two centuries. During World War II, its mostly flat and open terrain made it particularly vulnerable to the mechanized armies of Germany and the Soviet Union. Today, Poland’s position is less tenuous, but still fraught. While its western and southern borders are anchored by friendly NATO countries, its eastern border abuts Russia’s military stronghold of Kaliningrad, Belarus (a close Russian ally), and Ukraine (a country riven by Russia).
Most Russians would be forgiven for skipping this month’s presidential election. With less than two weeks until polls open, we can say with strong confidence that Vladimir Putin will win his fourth term in office. Officials are taking no chances to ensure turnout isn’t embarrassingly low, however, mobilizing students and workers, plastering the regions with pro-Putin materials, and seemingly handpicking the other candidates allowed to run.
Russian behavior has long influenced how safe Poles feel. Centuries of fending off or being subjugated by Russia (or, its 20th-century incarnation, the Soviet Union) have left them with an abiding mistrust of their big and often unfriendly eastern neighbor. Needless to say, Russia’s recent aggressiveness in Eastern Europe has put many Poles on edge. Adding to their unease have been worries over the reliability of Poland’s principal security partners: NATO and the United States. At times, both have appeared either slow or unprepared to counter Russia’s actions.
Colleagues at the U.S. Army War College recently published a piece making important arguments that largely echo the competitive approach emphasized in the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy (NDS). They correctly argue that U.S. strategy since 9/11 has been obsessively focused on counterterrorism and that U.S. military power has been drained by exhausting and largely unproductive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their conclusion, however, that this has left the United States at a distinct disadvantage with respect to the revisionist powers of Russia and China, is exaggerated. Moreover, an imbalanced U.S. strategy that is excessively reliant on military force fails to capitalize on America’s significant advantages in the non-military instruments of power. Furthermore, an overemphasis on building ever more offensive military capacity risks provoking even more aggressive counterbalancing by adversaries that will ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling and dangerous security dilemma, in which the international system and the United States will actually be less secure. Finally, a more muscular military strategy will do little to address the central challenges posed by Russia and China as they expressly avoid directly confronting U.S. military strengths and instead seek asymmetric advantages in the “gray zone” below the threshold of open military conflict.
Thanks to a near-myopic obsession with eradicating transnational Islamic terrorism, costly invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a zero-risk approach to homeland security, America’s competitive edge has eroded over the last 16 years relative to China and Russia. That’s the conclusion of the recently released National Defense Strategy (NDS), which recognizes—correctly, in our view—that the United States finds itself behind the curve today when it comes to this inter-state strategic competition and the threats it poses. However, the NDS falls short in identifying how America should best respond to it.
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. 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.
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.