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Russia Is Freaking Out Its Northern Neighbors

Russia's northwesterly neighbors are putting their money where their mouths are. Concerned about Russian adventures in Ukraine and elsewhere, they’re all beefing up their defenses.
October 16, 2015, 2:00pm
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If actions speak louder than words, the nations bordering the Baltic Sea are starting to scream bloody murder about Russia. A regular stream of reports is coming out of Nordic and Baltic states about their efforts to modernize and expand military capacity, with countries from Sweden to Latvia making sizable changes to their militaries and arsenals in response to a heightened sense of threat from Russia.

Their fears took on new urgency with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, but events like the 2008 Russo-Georgian war have had the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and various Nordic states (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) on edge in recent years. Now these countries are seeking to strengthen their militaries and shore up cooperation among themselves and with NATO.

Related: Romania Is Starting to Freak Out About Russian Designs on Transnistria

While Latvia is reconsidering conscription, Norway is increasing its armed forces budget by 9.8 percent. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are all discussing the idea of a jointly operated mid-range missile defense system. The Nordic Defense Cooperation, a military collaboration among Nordic states, has an agenda of "unprecedented" cooperation on the improvement of situational awareness and air and sea defenses; their militaries are currently eyeing simulation and combat training technologies.

Europe's sense of threat from Russia is commonly discussed using the term "hybrid warfare," or warfare conducted through a range of tactics beyond conventional means, including political ones. This phrase is criticized in some corners as having little real analytical use; warfare has always been more than just conventional tactics. But the concept does get at the heart of the fears that European countries have, particularly those bordering Russia: They do not necessarily fear annexation, but rather a host of possible aggressions and predations.

The regional fears present before 2014 had already compelled Baltic and Nordic governments to focus on military preparedness.

"Not all of the military preparations, modernization programs and reforms started in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea," said Emmet Tuohy, a research fellow at the International Centre for Defense and Security.

In 2007, controversy turned to rioting in Estonia after the government removed a Soviet war memorial — the Bronze Soldier — from Tallinn, the capital. The removal caused outrage among Estonia's Russian-speaking population, and they proceeded to clash with both police and ethnic Estonians, who saw the statue as a reminder of Soviet occupation. In the aftermath of the protests, Estonia was hit with a wave of cyberattacks targeting the president, parliament, political parties, government ministries, news organizations, and banks. Moscow was accused of having a role in the attacks.

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"Even if the term 'hybrid warfare' hadn't yet become a popular buzzword back in 2007, the Bronze Night events and the subsequent cyberattacks certainly made Estonian policymakers aware of the broad-based nature of the threat they faced — and a lot of preparations began accordingly," Tuohy said. "The Georgia war of 2008 did the same on a broader scale."

The war in Ukraine has confirmed previous fears and elevated new ones, but as Tuohy explained, "things like social cohesion, energy security, cyber defense, and so on have very much been topics of active work and interest in Tallinn over a longer period of time."

The Baltic and Nordic states, of course, have different sets concerns when it comes to Russia. The Baltics, once part of the Soviet bloc, have more direct worries, said Barbara Kunz, a research fellow at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales.

"Given their history with Russia, and also their geographic location, I think they are much more afraid of Russia than the Nordic states," she said. "This is really about an existential threat."

But the Baltics are not necessarily under the same kind of threat as Ukraine was and continues to be. James Rogers, director of the Baltic Defense College's department of political and strategic studies, told VICE News in a private capacity that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have state structures that are "far more stable and secure" than those in Ukraine, and that "the idea that there would be 'little green men' popping up on the Estonian side of the Estonia-Russia border" is "a misunderstanding in some Western European countries."

While Nordic states such as Sweden and Finland have had run-ins with Russian military aircraft in Baltic airspace, they have a different set of concerns. Kunz said that for them, it "is much less about being directly attacked by Russia, and more about being drawn into a conflict" should a Baltic state come under attack. The question then would be whether or not to remain neutral. Russia, Kunz noted, is well aware that should NATO have to come to the aid of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, they would need to use Swedish territory. "The idea of Russia would be to occupy the territory first," she said, forcing Sweden into the conflict.

Related: NATO is Two Properties Away From a Baltic Monopoly, and Russia Is Freaking Out

Unlike the Baltic states, which all became NATO members in 2004, Finland and Sweden remain outside the treaty organization and lack the protections provided by NATO's Article 5. Article 5 codifies the cornerstone principle of the alliance: collective defense. If one member nation is attacked, it is viewed as an attack on all member nations.

Not surprisingly, as the two increase their defense spending and develop their military capacities, the discussion of joining NATO has bubbled to the surface.

Sweden's current leadership, the Social Democratic Party, has held onto the idea of neutrality for decades, eschewing membership in the organization. Kunz said that neutrality is a "myth," but a prevalent one, and one to which the ruling Social Democrats have tied themselves. However, recent poll shows that 41 percent of Swedes now favor joining NATO.

Finland, which is in a precarious position because of its long border with Russia, "will only move if Sweden moves," Kunz suggested.

The security environment has pushed countries toward more joint action, and to place greater value on the assurances brought by security cooperation and collective defense pacts. These preparations affect more than just defense budgets and equipment purchases, and are accompanied by strengthened diplomatic relationships and significant shifts in political sentiment.

Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett

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