Two years after invading Ukraine, Russia is shut out of Baltic Sea by a beefed-up NATO

Posted on : 2024-02-28 17:05 KST Modified on : 2024-02-28 17:05 KST
Based on its location, it’s possible that Sweden will be called on to police the air space above the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during their meeting on Feb. 23, 2024, in Budapest. (AP/Yonhap)
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during their meeting on Feb. 23, 2024, in Budapest. (AP/Yonhap)

Sweden cleared the final hurdle in its bid to join NATO on Monday, a development that comes after Finland’s accession to the alliance last April. The Western alliance now essentially encircles Russia along the Baltic Sea. Once officially a member, Sweden is expected to adopt the role of surveilling the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave that sits outside its mainland. Contrary to Russia’s intent with its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO has actually expanded, radically changing the security landscape in Europe. 

Hungary's parliament, which had been opposed to Sweden joining NATO, ratified Sweden's bid on Monday, clearing the final official obstacle to Sweden's membership.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sweden has reduced its military spending in its army by 90% and in its naval and air forces by 70%. During the Cold War, Sweden devoted 3% of its GDP to military spending. Following the Soviet collapse, however, this diminished to 1%. The southeast corner of the Swedish island of Gotland, which sits in the Baltic Sea, directly faces Kaliningrad. Sweden pulled most of its troops in Gotland after the Soviet Union collapsed, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly convinced Stockholm to reexamine its security. 

Sweden’s inclusion in NATO is expected to strengthen the alliance’s deterrent power in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. NATO will also likely upgrade its surveillance of the Kola Peninsula, which stores around two-thirds of Moscow’s second-strike nuclear weapons, as the northwest territory shares a border with Finland and Norway. 

The New York Times reported that Robert Dalsjo, the deputy director of research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, has said that Sweden’s geographic advantages such as Gotland will enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense capacity. 

Many observers think that the Suwałki Gap, a 64-km strip of land that separates Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north, would be the first point of contact in the event of a military conflict between Russia and NATO. The corridor separates Kaliningrad from Belarus, a country that currently hosts Russian troops, so Moscow would have a clear interest in linking that gap to form a single front against Poland and effectively isolate the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — three NATO countries whose eastern borders run along Russia, with the Baltic Sea separating them from Sweden and Finland. 

Sweden’s participation in NATO would obviously become a major obstacle to this strategy. Sitting between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, Sweden could serve as a base from which NATO dispatches troops to defend the corridor. A NATO military presence in Sweden would also obstruct the navigation of Russia’s nuclear submarines along the Baltic coastline. 

Sweden is now likely to join NATO’s multinational battlegroups, which currently involve the three Baltic states and Poland. Based on its location, it’s possible that Sweden will be called on to police the air space above the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad. In a conflict scenario, Sweden must defend Gotland, a critical logistics point for transporting troops, weapons and supplies. 

Sweden is currently building fighter jets, frigates and submarines. These are designed for deployment in the Baltic region during a crisis.  

For a long time, Dalsjo explained, Swedish leaders have publicly advocated for neutrality and “military nonalignment” while looking for security guarantees from the US behind closed doors. Over time, Sweden has become more openly Atlanticist, clearly moving towards NATO membership. Official NATO membership was simply the final step in this process. 

Russia has protested Sweden’s imminent NATO membership. Russia’s state-owned news agency TASS reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to reestablish the Moscow and Leningrad military districts, which were abolished 14 years ago. The two districts were absorbed into the country’s Western Military District during a military reformation in 2010. The Leningrad district comprises St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, and Kaliningrad. Reestablishing the Leningrad district signifies Russia’s intentions of fortifying its military presence in its northwestern region. 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu publicly expressed these intentions for the first time at the end of 2022. In December of that year, during a publicly broadcasted meeting with Putin, Shoigu said, that “given NATO's desire to increase its military potential near the Russian borders, as well as to expand the alliance by adding Finland and Sweden, it is necessary to take retaliatory measures and to create an appropriate grouping of troops in the northwest of Russia.” Last year, Putin also publicly mentioned the necessity of resurrecting its military districts in response to Finland becoming a NATO member. 

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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