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New NATO drills in Baltic Sea

30 Jun 2024

What is happening with NATO in the Baltics?

Approximately 9,000 NATO troops have carried out military drills in the Baltic region this month, from 7 June to 20 June, in the annual Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) exercise, organised by NATO. The Baltic region has become increasingly sensitive since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The operation consists of army, ground, and naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and other locations in Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden. The manoeuvres mark the involvement of Sweden’s armed forces with NATO for the first time since its entry into the military alliance earlier this year.

The exercises are aimed at projecting NATO’s strength in the region in light of Russian actions in Ukraine and ominous threats to the wider region, including a now-deleted draft decree by the Russian parliament proposing a redrawing of the Baltic border, and fears that Sweden’s Baltic Island of Gotland is in Russian sights. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told Politico, “Russia’s actions are seen as a deliberate, targeted, escalatory provocation to intimidate neighbouring countries and their societies.”

The Swedish government previously demilitarised the island in an effort to placate Russia; however, the presence of Russian tankers in the region has impelled Sweden to reintroduce permanent troops. Describing the incursions, the Swedish supreme military commander stated, “The Baltic Sea must not become Putin's playground where he terrifies NATO members.”

The exercise involved approximately 50 naval craft and 45 aircraft participating in minesweeping, troop landing, and submarine detection drills aimed to streamline the interoperability of NATO military forces and demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to military force in the region. According to the Wilson Centre, the Baltic Sea has become a “laboratory for Russian hybrid-warfare threats against NATO Allies,” which includes GPS jamming, aggressive incursion into sovereign waters, and sabotage of vital infrastructure. 

The Russian action has been viewed by many NATO member states as a maritime equivalent of ‘borderisation,’ in which Russian forces steadily readjust internationally recognized borders and extend their control beyond them—similar to its actions in Georgia. According to Vice Admiral Ishee, Commander of the US 6th Fleet and Naval Striking Support Forces NATO, Russian actions “are something that we have to be concerned with as we work to defend all of the alliance, now including Finland and Sweden, which have a lot of the coastline in the Baltic Sea.”

What is in it for you?

Our readers in the Baltic region should expect to see increased military activity in the region as NATO and national governments try to counter Russian hybrid warfare in the region. As Russia has faltered in Ukraine and is isolated on the world stage, it may intensify its activity in the Baltic Sea in an attempt to destabilise the region, with tactics such as sabotage, territorial encroachment and GPS jamming.

Our readers in NATO member states will note that the organisation will commit more troops and resources to the region and increase the frequency of drills. The threat of Russian action in the Baltic states and spillover from the Ukrainian conflict—especially as Ukraine receives NATO-standard fighter jets—means that NATO will want to ensure interoperability and efficiency in its forces in case of any direct conflict with Russia.

What happens next?

While there has been an absence of official reaction to the drills, the Russian government is probably eager to respond diplomatically and/or militarily. Earlier this week, it was reported that NATO jets were scrambled several times to monitor and escort Russian jets that were flying provocatively without flight plans and were not maintaining contact with regional flight centres. These actions are likely to increase once the drills have ended, as Russia attempts to assert its presence in the region and maintain its narrative that NATO aggression has prompted its military actions in the region.

The Baltic region is increasingly becoming a focal point for NATO activity as Russia adopts a more aggressive tone toward its neighbours. Recently, NATO launched the Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure to help identify weak points in undersea infrastructure, and has provided support to the European Centre for Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. It is clear that NATO’s focus has shifted towards the Baltic region, and it will commit more resources and manpower to the region as its members—Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Sweden—feel threatened by Russian activity.

The Polis Team in Birmingham

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