Russia’s geopolitical influence is increasingly shrinking in the Baltic Sea region. The most recent episode in the region’s worsening relations with Moscow was the sudden arrival of hundreds of migrants from the Middle East and Africa in November to the busy border crossing between Russia and southeastern Finland (Kommersant, November 30).
The Finnish government responded to the crisis by renouncing the agreement on cross-border cooperation with Russia and closing all border crossings (RBC, November 30).
Rather than help the desperate migrants, Moscow used the opportunity to recruit them into “voluntary” units to join the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, likely to feed them into the “meat grinder” in the battle for Avdiivka (Severreal.org, December 6). By mid-December, the situation appeared to have normalized, and the two border crossings were re-opened. After the crowds of migrants returned, however, Helsinki immediately reinstated the border closures (Meduza, December 14). The deepening crisis in Finnish-Russian relations highlights Moscow’s deteriorating ties with Finland and the other states of the region, exacerbating the already tenuous relations (Carnegie Politika, December 1).
Provoking a migrant crisis
Moscow aims to test Finland’s resolve by provoking a migrant crisis to exploit the country’s domestic difficulties. The Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK) had called for a strike to register their dissatisfaction with government reforms to counter budget deficits. The strike took place on December 14 and led to severe disruptions in Helsinki’s bus and railway system. Russian mainstream media extensively covered the strike in an effort to highlight Finnish dysfunction (Izvestiya, December 15). Russian media only briefly mentioned the finalization of Finland’s Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, which the Kremlin described as a “direct threat” to Russia (RIA Novosti, December 15). The agreement grants US forces access to 15 bases and logistic hubs on Finnish territory, which Helsinki has authorized for joint exercises and the storage of heavy equipment (Moscow Times, December 14).
The Rovaniemi airbase in northern Finland is currently being modernized to service F-35 fighter jets. This will allow the base to operate jointly with the Norwegian and Swedish air forces to counter the potential threat of Russian troops grouping on the Kola Peninsula. Russian strategic submarines are based in this militarized region, and, last week, President Vladimir Putin oversaw the flag-raising ceremony for two brand-new nuclear submarines: the Borei-class Emperor Alexander III and Yasen-class Krasnoyarsk (Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 11).
Naval forces in the Baltic theater
Moscow’s channeling of scarce resources for the construction of expensive new nuclear submarines in Severodvinsk has hampered the operations of other shipbuilding enterprises. For example, the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg recently laid off hundreds of workers due to delays in the construction of Kilo-class diesel submarines. This led the newly appointed owner, VTB Bank, to fire the shipyard’s general director (Fontanka.ru, December 11). Additionally, the operations of the Baltic Fleet, the oldest fleet in the Russian Navy, have been so constricted that the Kremlin has accelerated plans to redeploy newly built Karakurt-class missile corvettes to Ladoga Lake, north of Saint Petersburg and near the Finish border (Izvestiya, October 23).
Regional cooperation – now without Russia
The balance of naval forces in the Baltic theater has shifted to Russia’s disadvantage. The lamentations of “military-patriotic” commentators cannot alter this decline (TopWar.ru, December 5). Even mainstream pundits admit that Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought unprecedented unity among the North European states, leaving Russia outside the structures of Baltic, Barents, and Arctic cooperation (Valdai Club, December 8).
This solidarity, centered around supporting Ukraine, was reconfirmed last week when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Oslo to meet with the prime ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden (Svoboda.org, December 13). The new military and financial support they agreed to provide comes at an important moment, as the European Union has been forced to postpone deliberations on the 50 billion euros ($54.6 billion) of aid to Ukraine until the next leadership summit in January 2024 (Re:Russia, December 14).
Another boost for Baltic unity comes from newly appointed Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk taking the lead of a pro-European government (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 12; see EDM, December 13). In a symbolic coincidence, the Aegis Ashore missile defense base in Redzikowo, Poland, a long-time irritant for Russian strategic planners, became operational on December 15 (Kommersant, December 14). Moscow sees every step in West’s consolidating defensive positions in the Baltic region as an increased threat to Kaliningrad. The Russian exclave used to be heavily fortified, but the naval infantry brigade and S-400 surface-to-air systems that once protected the region have since been redeployed to the Ukraine front (Moscow Times, November 26; TopWar.ru, December 7).
Trade and shipping
Russia is worried its military weakness will embolden the Baltic states to enforce control over the trade routes leading to St. Petersburg. Denmark may in fact take measures against the Russian “gray fleet” of dubiously registered and underinsured tankers transporting oil from the Primorsk and Ust-Luga terminals (Forbes.ru, November 22). Estonia’s intention to establish a contiguous zone in the Gulf of Finland beyond its 12-mile territorial waters is of particular concern to the Kremlin (Izvestiya, December 9).
The damage to the Balticonnector gas pipeline and two cables on October 8 emphasized the need for the states of the Baltic Sea region to establish tighter controls over shipping (see EDM, October 31; Neftegaz.ru, November 11). The Finnish government has reported that the Hong Kong-registered Newnew Polar Bear container ship acted in tandem with the Russian nuclear-powered Sevmorput cargo vessel in damaging the pipeline. Following the incident, both ships continued their voyage along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, refusing to cooperate with investigators (Fontanka.ru, November 24).
Russian attempts to put pressure on regional border crossings or damage undersea infrastructure have backfired as the states of the Baltic Sea region have grown more resolute in countering Moscow.
Russia’s rigid isolation from its Baltic neighbors may answer Putin’s geopolitical designs just fine. Yet, his obsession with asserting the Kremlin’s autocratic “sovereignty” by escalating the confrontation with the West condemns his corrupt regime to self-destruction and the war-traumatized country to further degradation. Ukraine continues to struggle with the devastating material and human costs of the war. Its European future, however, has been further cemented with the European Union officially opening accession talks with Kyiv. Russia’s increasing isolationism will likely lead to more failures for the Kremlin in Ukraine and the wider region.