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Analysis: Baltic Sea Heating Up as Friction Point Between U.S., NATO and Russia

Two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft fly over the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) on Apr. 12, 2016. US Navy Photo

Two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft fly over the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) on Apr. 12, 2016. US Navy Photo

This piece is based on the recently released Atlantic Council Issue Brief “A Maritime Framework for the Baltic Sea Region” by Magnus Nordenman and Franklin D. Kramer.

The Baltic Sea region has emerged as one of the friction zones between an aggressive Russia and the United States and its NATO allies in northeastern Europe. Recently the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) was twice buzzed by Russian Sukhoi Su-24 Fencers during an exercise in the Baltic Sea. The Cook incident is just the most recent of a string of close encounters between Russia and the West at sea and in the air over the Baltic Sea over the last two years.

Russia is also building a powerful anti-access/area-denial network in the Kaliningrad enclave in the southeast corner of the Baltic Sea. Built around the S-400 system and Iskander missiles, it would make U.S. and NATO operations in the region hazardous in a crisis or during wartime. Russia would also be able to quickly move its mobile Bastion anti-ship missile system into Kaliningrad, which would further threaten U.S. and allied maritime operations in the region. The relatively small size of the region also means that Russian systems reach well into, and in some cases, over the Baltic Sea. And while Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet is not very big, its submarines could still cause serious problems in a sub-surface domain that is famously challenging for anti-submarine warfare forces.

This is a critical problem for the United States and NATO, as it must reach its NATO allies Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on the other side of the Baltic Sea with reinforcements in case of a serious crisis or war. NATO’s forward presence in the Baltic States is certainly increasing, but it is not enough by itself to deter Russian aggression. Defense and deterrence in the region therefore hinge on reinforcements, and this is where access to the maritime domain and NATO’s ability to establish sea control is crucial.

The situation is, however, far from hopeless. While the navies of the region are all relatively small, they all pack some punch. The German navy operates 15 surface combatants along with five submarines. Poland is in the process of a major modernization of its naval forces, and Sweden operates one of the finest conventional submarine fleets in the world, albeit a small one. The Baltic States have built up considerable experience in mine-hunting since regaining their independence in the early 1990s. The nations of the region also operate considerable airpower, including F-16s, Eurofighters, F-18s, and JAS-39 Gripens.Norway is currently introducing the F-35 into service. All in all, there are over 400 modern combat aircraft in the region, some of them capable of conducting electronic warfare as well; an important aspect of defeating A2/AD networks.

The missing ingredient is thus not capabilities, but an approach that would allow the navies of the region to work together to align capabilities (especially maritime domain awareness, anti-submarine warfare and mine hunting), devise a long-range plan for maritime exercises, and develop regional command-and- control arrangements. Of course, the role of U.S. naval forces must be considered as well, as only it (and perhaps the U.K. and France) could provide key high-end capabilities (such as strike from the sea and amphibious landings) in case of war in the region.

In order to accomplish this the NATO nations of the Baltic Sea region could use a framework approach, where one nation takes on the role as leading the development of maritime capabilities, planning, and command-and-control in the Nordic-Baltic region. NATO has used this approach before with considerable success. A framework approach could also allow the NATO-partner nations Sweden and Finland to plug into the effort and contribute their forces to the framework as well.

That will not work, however, without the direct involvement of the U.S. maritime forces. They are needed both for the capabilities that they bring to the table, but also in the form of U.S. naval leadership that can catalyze action from the nations of the region. The Baltic Sea is likely to remain tense for quite some time, and the A2/AD challenge in the region will become ever more apparent. A maritime framework led by the region, but directly supported by the United States could do much to bolster the defense of U.S. allies in northeastern Europe and deter an increasingly aggressive Russia.

  • same old wargames.

    • WRBaker

      We’ve been participating in the yearly BALTOPS for decades anyway. The Russians seem to need a little internal PR to show how bad they are for internal consumption.

  • Don Bacon

    The US fleets off Russian shores means “an aggressive Russia?” No.

    • sferrin

      Try to get up to speed. Russia buzzing ships and trying to intimidate everybody in the region into cowtowing to them is “an aggressive Russia”. Also those are international waters.

      • Jaan D

        The US is the main Aggressor. Its operating in the backyard of Russia.

        • sferrin

          “Its operating in international waters.”

          Fixed for ya.

          • Vasya Pypkin

            Semantics. Imagine Russians subs start operating in international waters but not far from NY and Miami… let’s see how you will howl.

          • EdC

            They do, we don’t. What we do is simply follow them around and practice targeting procedures. Thanks for helping the training budget!

          • doedenfralubeck

            Semantics. Imagine Russians subs start operating… Period.. 🙂

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    Same ol’ Same ol.

    NATO & Nordic ships will continue to operate more or less as usual…
    Russia will bitch & moan as usual, as if the Baltic sea was a private lake just for them….. (when in reality their coastline is the shortest of all Baltic occupants).

    ‘plus ca change’ etc..

  • Curtis Conway

    The Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Sea of Okhotsk are all mostly International Waters, unless you ask the Russians.

  • Andre

    The poor Donald Cook…in the future she should put a radar lock on any “dangerous drivers”. After all, even an unarmed Su-24 is capable of a suicide attack…

    • Dave_TX

      The Russians want our ships and aircraft to light up the “dangerous drivers” so that they can record and analyze the signals. Why give them what they want?

      • tpharwell

        Extending the logic of that a little, why cruise the Baltic ?? Why not ping their subs in the North Atlantic and Med instead ?

        • Dave_TX

          The idea is that if somebody doesn’t exercise their right of free passage through international waters and airspace in the Baltic, the Black Sea, and elsewhere, Russia and countries like it, will be able to assert sovereignty over those international waters and airspace. The US is less easily intimidated than the smaller countries in the regions Russia and countries like it are trying to dominate and so it is the country that executes those free passage missions. Pinging Russian subs in the Med and North Atlantic does not serve that purpose.

          • tpharwell

            Yes, I see. And make a big show of doing it with a solitary destroyer. In a place where rights have been settled for 1000 years, but where the US Navy would never think of going in time off war – on Russia’s doorstep and under the guns of St. Peterburg and Kalinigrad. A shooting gallery for submarines of a half dozen navies. But empty out the Med, and give the Russians wide berth there. Watch them move short-range nuclear capable ballistic missiles to Syria, by sea, through the Bosporus, station SSBN and CG there. Set up their A2/AD zone there as if it were Kalinigrad.

            Clear the zone. Heaven forbid that we would get in the way of the Russian Navy in the Med.

            Now let us adjourn to the South China Sea, and ask this question: How long will the stunt continue to work there ? “Use it or lose it”, eh ? I guess that will work. Until is doesn’t.

          • Dave_TX

            So you think the US should just abandon those areas to Russia and China? How far should the US Navy back off?
            The Russians don’t go anywhere without tugs to make sure their warships can make it back to port when they break down. How have we abandoned the Med to them? The only way they can project power is via a small number of subs that likely have a US sub on their tail whenever they leave home waters.

      • Andre

        Good point.

  • EdC

    It’s about time for NATO to establish a base in Bulgaria or Romania and another at Gdynia.

  • olesalt

    Good news that the USN is standing up to Russia. Must never show indecisiveness or weakness. BZ.

  • RobM1981

    Hmmm… what would a competent President of the United States do? What would, say, Ronald Reagan do? Or Richard Nixon, even. Or Ike. Or even Bubba. Hmmm…

    Lemme take a look at this map thingee. Oh, right, there’s Poland right next door. Hey, isn’t Poland part of NATO? You remember NATO, Mr. President, don’t you?

    You know what Poland needs? More of everything. Let’s sell them some fighters, some SM-6’s configured for ABM… whatever they ask for.

    Then, when Vlad knocks on our door and asks us what we’re doing in Poland, we can have a Conversation.

    The issue isn’t Vlad Putin, it’s Barack Obama. Instead of deploying strength, he’s talking to Carly Simon’s agent to see if she’s available to sing “You’re So Vain” at the UN…

  • tpharwell


    “Key aspects of a fully developed maritime framework for the Baltic Sea should include considerations for capabilities development, exercises, enhancement of existing regional cooperation, domain integration, command and control, and the role of the United States in the region, as well as the potential benefits for framework development across the Alliance.”

    There are infinite possibilities for finding ways to agree or disagree with the plain vanilla recommendations contained in this white paper. Yes, of course, why not take a “framework” approach to meeting NATO’s mutual defense obligations in northern Europe ? That is what NATO is: an international framework for mutual defense. But so were the alliances that led to WW1. And what the authors take for granted as the most necessary, salubrious, benevolent and virtuous aspects of expanding NATO integration, Russian leaders regard as great irritants, and indeed, so they say, threats. Therefore, allow me to respectfully demurrer to this general recommendation by noting that there is a host of dangerous and/or unrealistic assumptions underlying the entire discussion advanced in support of it.

    The first false assumption is that NATO can defend the Baltic states from a hostile Russia by conventional means. In war, geography is supremely important. In this case, one has only to consult a road map in order to see that in time of war, the Baltics would be indefensible from Russian occupation by any means short of nuclear deterrent effect. An attempt to overcome this condition through conventional reinforcement would be foolishly counter-productive, as it would make of the Baltics a death-trap for NATO forces, and if pursued at the level required, would undoubtedly precipitate the very event it sought to avoid: war with Russia.

    There is no escape from these facts. Therefore, one is driven to the conclusion that the expansion of NATO to include the Baltic states was premised on NATO’s future irrelevance. It was thought safe to include the Baltics in NATO because the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Baltics had received their discharge from it. NATO had served its purpose. The threat had disappeared. It was a sunny new day for Europe. And it was not considered likely (by anyone not living in the Baltics) that they would ever again face a threat from Russia, nor that NATO would thus be required to defend them. NATO had become merely a good club to belong to.

    Now that the membership dues have dramatically gone up it seems necessary to raise the question of whether the United States and the rest of western Europe belonging to NATO would ever go to war with Russia over the Baltics. Let us assume the authors will say yes, because of a treaty. Let me respond, however, by repeating this question which I have already asked and answered: Can it ? I have answered that question in the negative, in so far as limited war is concerned. NATO can not have the will to do what NATO lacks the means to do. Now let me answer the rest of the question by saying that NATO will not combine with Russia to destroy the world in order to preserve the independence of the Baltic states: it will not start WWIII.

    Poland ? Well, that is another matter. But Poland is not seriously at risk. Similarly other frontline NATO states. Thus it is evident that NATO has been greatly weakened by its extension in to the Baltic states. They are a great liability to it. Unless, of course, there is no need for NATO. Push hard against these conclusions as the authors propose, and I am afraid one will find at some point in the future that it is dead. It may already be.

    Above all, what is not needed is an American led, American motivated, and American orchestrated collective military build up in the Baltic littoral all focused on Russia. American participation: yes. Assistance ? Yes. But dominance ? No. As the authors note, the Baltic Sea can be easily populated with submarines by any of several bordering states including Russia. It is therefore a potential shooting gallery. One might analogize it to a shared driveway leading to lakefront properties. Those that have property there have the greatest stake in its peaceful condition. It is best left to them to maintain it. And it is unrealistic, arrogant, and dangerous to suppose that they can all, including non-NATO members Sweden and Finland, be made to work together under American leadership.

    There: done in under 5000 words. The Baltic is a draw. The US and NATO are well advised to focus efforts on pushing back against Russian saber-rattling in other areas: to wit, the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, and Gulf of Alaska.

  • Montgomery Granger

    Heating up? It should be on fire, with Russian jets supplying the fuel.

  • Anthony Papagallo

    Rumour has it Russia has asked Iran to deploy a few of their canoes, apparently Americans sh 1t their pants and surrender at the first sight of them.

  • John B. Morgen

    We must show to President Putin that we are [not] weak, maybe we should buzz their ships and aircraft. Or even place radar lock-ons on their passing aircraft, never knowing that we might be firing some missiles. We must be stern with the Russians.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      Russia would love a radar lock…. they would like to have that electronic data so they can evaluate it.
      Don’t give them what the want.

      • John B. Morgen

        Do you have any suggestions about dealing with this matter?

  • minutemanIII

    The Russian Baltic fleet does not stand a chance against the nato navy in the area.
    A smart man once said the point of war is not to die for yor country to make the other guys die for theirs.

    Having a strong naval presence in the baltic compliments this idea. If the Russians blitzkrieg the baltic states the navy (after mopping up the russian ships) can stit back and grind them down and inflict casualties to the point where land and air assets can go in in more desirable conditions and in mass.

    We hold all the advantages in the sea so we should build from there.

  • Rick Bennett

    The plug for US naval involvement is another step in the ratcheting motion toward insolvency. Europeans have a federal governance and must use it – the Russian threat may seem like a wolf at the door but entropy is constant pressure just like the sea.

  • Bainsworth ZombieHead

    I consider it an extremely cowardly stand to take, to consider a neighborly fly by would determine a US assertion, that Russia is being aggressive. You’ve done nothing wrong, Donald duck was in international waters….do you honestly think this Russian buzz cut was aggressive?? They’re soldiers not cream puffs…take any opportunity to demonize…well guess what…you go looking for a demon at every turn like a hysterical lunatic, you’re eventually gonna find one.