Security in the Baltic Sea Region Contested

By invitation only

Wed 18.5.2016 at 10:00-12:00
Wanha Satama, G-hall
Kanavakatu 5, Helsinki

The security situation in the Baltic Sea region is getting tense. What used to be a region of good cooperation and common interests is gradually turning into an area of increasing political and military tension and mutual distrust. How is it possible to manage the current tensions? How can the role played by the norms and institutions of cooperative security be restored? What are the main concerns of Finland in the Baltic Sea environment and how does it promote its own goals there?

Speakers: 

Anne Sipiläinen, Under-Secretary of State, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

Tomas Ries, Senior Lecturer, Swedish Defence College

Hanna Ojanen, Jean Monnet Professor, University of Tampere

Chair: Teija Tiilikainen, Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Summary of the Seminar

Director of FIIA, Dr. Teija Tiilikainenopened the seminar and addressed the particular features of the Baltic Sea region. The states around the Baltic Sea are small, and they have painful memories from the era of the Cold War, when huge confrontation took place in the area. When the Cold War ended, the atmosphere at the Baltic Sea region was optimistic. Now, the future seems very bleak, said Dr. Tiilikainen.

Under-Secretary of State, Anne Sipiläinen from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland noted that a year ago Prime Minister Sipilä’s government decided that we need to change the way of preparing our foreign and security policies.  So instead of a traditional security and defence policy report, two papers will be prepared. A more strategic report outlining the government’s foreign and security policy goals will be given to the Finnish Parliament this June and a paper on defence will be submitted probably by the end of this year. She also mentioned the new NATO assessment, which was conducted by four independent researchers, Dr. Tiilikainen being one of them. In her speech Ms. Sipiläinen addressed the key factors affecting the security policy environment of Finland. Unpredictability, complexity, fast changes, short reaction time and new actors characterize this environment, she said. Russia has challenged the foundations of the European security by illegally annexing Crimea, and its increased military activities make Europe more unstable. Incidents and close military encounters in our neighborhood bring increased risks and can lead to further escalation. We can try to enhance our security by building confidence between parties, by strengthening international cooperation and by increasing the cooperation within Nordic countries. In addition, regional structures such as the Arctic Council can offer ways to search grounds for practical work in the region. To conclude her remarks, Ms. Sipiläinen noted that transatlantic relations will remain very important.

Senior lecturer Dr. Tomas Ries from the Swedish Defence College pointed out the reasons why the Baltic Sea region states are so concerned with their security. This concern focusses on the Putin regimes intentions, capabilities and interests.  First, the nature of the Russian regime raises concerns. . Putin has used brute military force outside its territory in wars against Georgia and in Ukraine and the Russian regime is based on strong centralized leadership and authoritarian power politics.  The Kremlin has sent strong signals of increasing hostility towards the West. Secondly, the vulnerability of the Baltic States also raises concerns that Russia would use military force in the Baltic Sea. Russia has maintained its strategic nuclear arsenal as strong as possible, allowing it to deter the United States, it has built up an absolute nuclear superiority in Europe which makes Europe helpless in the event of Russian nuclear coercion, and it started to modernize its conventional forces in 2010. The ambitious modernization of Russia’s armed forces is struggling under the country’s economic pressures, but if Russia reaches even third of theoriginal goals it will have an overwhelming military superiority along its frontiers in Europe, said Dr. Ries. In addition, according to US government studies, neither the United States nor NATO can currently defend the Baltic States. Third, the Kremlin under Putin could have deliberate interests in invading one or more Baltic countries, as a means to crack NATO and teach Europe to respect Russia as a great military power, Dr. Ries notes. There is also a risk of inadvertent conflict, should Putinfeel the need to counter an unexpected situation. Dr. Ries concluded that we face a dilemma, because if we start to build up defence, we increase tensions, but if we do not, we remain vulnerable to a very dangerous and militarily powerful regime.

Dr. Hanna Ojanen, a Jean Monnet Professor from the University of Tampere, addressed change. In the Baltic Sea region, nuclear weapons have been brought back to game, and trust has changed into mistrust. The Baltic Sea region has changed from a periphery to a center. Russia’s actions have shifted from cooperation to confrontation, said Dr. Ojanen. Russia’s actions are diverting our attention and time at the same time when Europe faces problems with economy and immigration. Russia has hit EU’s weak points and it has not been easy for member states to decide on sanctions against Russia. EU is now contested within and outside the EU, noted Dr. Ojanen. She remarked that the EU must keep its unity, legitimacy democracy and resilience in order to survive.

Dr. Tiilikainen opened the floor to questions and asked the panelist, whether the perception, that the Baltic Sea region was the easiest area for Russia to deal with was based on a realistic understanding or not. She also asked if we still do have power in dealing with our own security issues. Dr. Ries answered, that the conditions for the small countries are getting more difficult. He added that Sweden lost its sense of history, when they declared in the 1990s that Russia would no longer be a threat. Sweden has no capacity to defend itself but the Ukraine crisis has woken up the political parties to search for solutions. Dr. Ojanen noted that we have lost the power over the security agenda for Russia.

Questions and comments from the audience concerned the accountability of the EU, striking Russia in Kaliningrad and at the Belarussian territory, economic interdependence and if Finland still does see Russia as a threat even though it is not mentioned often. Dr. Ries remarked that Europe faces two challenges, Russia and the domestic development of societies. He thinks that we should balance deterrence with reassurance. Russia should be more careful because of Kaliningrad, but on the other hand Russia can also see it as a reason to move forward to the Baltic States in order to protect it. Dr. Ojanen pointed out that in a globalized word it is difficult to say who is dependent on who. Ms. Sipiläinen noted that we have constructive work going on with Russia which offers avenues for building confidence. When it comes to Ukraine, she said that there can be no normalization of relations with Russia before the implementation of both Minsk agreements.

More questions were asked regarding for example Finland active stability strategy towards the Baltic states, the border between Norway and Russia, and Obama’s speech where he promised to stay on the side of the Baltic States. Ms. Sipiläinen remarked that the U.S. government decided to increase its military expenditure in Europe, and that Finland's territorial defence is an important contribution to the Baltic Sea region’s security. Dr. Ries noted that Russia has an interest in keeping its border to Norway stable, and that Russia has seen Obama crossing his red lines previously, which undermines the commitment of the U.S. towards the Baltic States. Dr. Ojanen added that even though Sweden and Finland seem to have different approaches to the defence of the Baltic States, it might not mean a big difference in practice.