Russia is quietly testing the defenses of its Nordic neighbors with subtle provocations, alarming Western powers concerned about Moscow’s intentions in a vital but largely overlooked part of the world.
In recent months, Russian fighter jets violated the airspace of Western nations, Moscow has turned a blind eye as thousands of refugees from countries along its southern border use Russian territory to cross into Europe, and the former superpower has deployed missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to areas that pose that a direct threat to NATO countries.
Taken in isolation, none of these incidents merits particular concern. Even major powers’ air forces occasionally mis-navigate and drift into sovereign airspace – though they usually acknowledge it and apologize. The Russians had previously pledged they would move their missile shield to Kaliningrad, sovereign territory, perhaps to offset Poland’s decision to purchase American Patriot missiles to use in defense. And all of Europe suffers from the ongoing migrant crisis as refugees from North Africa to Central Asia flee conflicts in their respective countries, so it makes sense some would find alternate routes after the Balkans, Macedonia and others sealed their borders.
However, Moscow’s belligerence toward the West has mounted during Vladimir Putin’s 16 years of leadership, demonstrated through its apparent desire to sow political dissention and destabilize its foes. While the world’s attention is focused on crises in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, U.S. officials are quietly working to secure what they see as the next potential flashpoint of dangerous tensions along Europe’s northern border.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James last month visited Finland, Sweden and Norway the week after Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work returned from signing a security pact earlier in October, mirroring a similar arrangement the U.S. secured with Sweden in June, and a month after Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Oslo in September. Their work centered on strengthening alliances with countries that are friendly to U.S. interests – particularly Sweden and Finland, which aren’t NATO allies – and that now feel compelled to move away from historically neutral roles in favor of preparing for Russian hostility.
James heard from her counterparts an almost unanimous refrain: None of Russia’s activities in recent weeks was a coincidence but rather examples of Moscow’s coordinated attempts to intimidate the region.
“I think they’re probably right,” James says.
Military buildups represent an increase in a country’s ability to wage war, James says, citing a long list of recent aggressive actions Russia has carried out in areas that were part of or in the strategic interests of the former Soviet empire: It annexed north Georgia in 2008, then Crimea in Ukraine in 2014. It’s steadily increased the quality of its military machinery and quantity of troops it can deploy, and does so, including to Syria last year to offset U.S. influence in the ongoing wars there. And Russia reportedly has a plan to undermine the current pro-West, pro-Europe sentiment in Eastern Europe that informs those countries’ economic and security policies.
Now it’s bolstering its military presence around the Baltic Sea, which James worries could trigger “a larger event.”
Last month, Russia transferred a shield of nuclear-capable missiles to its outpost province of Kaliningrad, adjacent to the Baltic countries and across the Baltic Sea from Norway, Sweden and Finland, as it had recently promised to do. It followed reports days before that two armed Su-27 fighter jets had crossed into Finnish airspace and lingered there for about a minute, one of them, reportedly, right as Work sat down to dinner with his counterparts in Helsinki after signing a new security cooperation pact.
The incidents follow Russia’s inexplicably opening its well-guarded border crossings with Norway and Finland starting last year, allowing thousands of refugees to spill over into the Western nations.
“Russia is not anyone’s enemy, because all of us to a certain degree have relationships with Russia. Certainly each of the three Scandinavian countries have cooperation with Russia in a variety of ways,” James says, including usually cooperative border security agreements. Norway and Russia, too, maintain close coordination for maritime search-and-rescue efforts along their Arctic borders.
“And yet,” James says, “everybody is worried about Russia.”
Russia’s attempts to extend its influence and to emphasize the necessity of its involvement in world affairs have only been seen as provocation by its neighbors and the West. Washington has castigated Moscow for its support of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, which the U.S. has spun in public forums as a callous endorsement of a murderous regime. Russia’s annexation of Crimea challenged early 1990s Western promises to defend Ukraine in return for its surrendering its nuclear weapons. Russian fighter jets have on multiple occasions buzzed U.S. ships, including one that came within yards of the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in April. U.S. officials at the time described the incident as deeply concerning, and the potential for a similar situation to escalate has become a common touchstone for military chiefs in the Nordic countries when privately describing their own nightmare scenarios.
Most recently, Moscow sailed a flotilla of warships bound for the Mediterranean through the English Channel, an unusual move that prompted Britain to dispatch its own warships to escort the convoy as it passed.
Despite spies’ and analysts’ best efforts, it’s impossible to know what Putin hopes to achieve with these moves, or even if he is following the sheet music of one large master plan or simply seizing opportunities as they arise. The actions he’s taken already, however, appear to contribute to the amorphous goal of forcing other world powers to recognize Russia as one of them.
What is clear is that the extent he’s willing to go to win that goal grows even more worrisome.
In Stockholm, James received a closed-door briefing from the Defense Research Agency (DRA), a government-funded think tank that provides independent analysis, which offered a startling appraisal of Russia’s buildup in recent months.
“Russia is moving toward conducting large-scale conflicts, not handling insurgencies,” DRA’s Russia specialist Fredrik Westerlund told James. “Though significant, Russia’s increased fighting power is not our top concern. Its willingness to fight is.”
Russia’s ability to fire land-attack missiles from ground-based launchers, aircraft, surface ships and submarines in Western Russia has tripled since 2013, according to DRA, though it’s unclear how accurately it can pinpoint its targets. It has also particularly increased its offensive military capabilities west of the Ural Mountains, the area that borders Europe. Moscow has focused on bolstering its armed forces’ ability to work together and has deployed provocative tools of war, like missile shields capable of employing nuclear weapons.
Their mostly likely targets are former Soviet Union countries, DRA says, like Moldova or Ukraine but also those that have since joined NATO, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A conflict with those latter countries would, by treaty, compel all other NATO countries to come to their aid, as they did for the U.S. when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 – the only time in the Cold War-era alliance’s history that part of its charter, Article 5, has been invoked.
“A major war can no longer be ruled out,” Robert Dalsjo, DRA’s expert on the Baltics, said of Russia. “What’s at stake is U.S. credibility for its own guarantees. … Their goal is to show that Article 5 is a joke.”
And so the U.S. is increasing attention to this part of the world – NATO and Europe’s “northern flank”– with this series of top officials’ visits and other forms of strengthening U.S. engagement. Marines from the Black Sea Rotational Force have begun intensifying training exercises in Norway alongside British royal marines, strengthening their NATO partners’ capabilities but also acclimatizing themselves to operating in a cold weather environment after focusing so much of the last two decades on desert warfare. A Marine officer who recently returned from a deployment there tells U.S. News it was the first time in his 20-year career he’s had cold weather training.
For James’ part, she sought ways the U.S. military can better cooperate with its partners, both through its alliance with Norway but also partnerships with Sweden and Finland as they reconfigure their militaries from post-Cold War peacetime toward the possibility of having to coordinate in war.
“The neighborhood is changing, and it has become more worrisome to those who live in the neighborhood,” James says. “It certainly has become more worrisome to the U.S. as a member of NATO and as a bilateral partner.”
Each country, she says, wants to have a military able enough to send Russia a strong signal: “If you try to bully me, I’m going to give you a really bad punch in the face. So don’t mess with me. That is the idea of this defense posture.”