Russia and the Baltic Sea

Three events that took place last week give us the opportunity to make visible Russia’s political and military activity in the Baltic Sea and understand its meaning. First, we are talking about the visit that Russian President V. Putin paid to his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto (July 27), then the joint Russia-China naval exercises in this sea, and finally about the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate’s resolutions expanding the sanctions on Russia, sanctions introduced after it annexed the Crimea in the spring of 2014.

Taken separately, each of these events has its significance, but their ensemble evinces a worrisome trend in international relations, namely the consolidation of global hostility between groups (some still informal) of great powers. V. Putin’s visit to Finland comes during the year marking the centenary of this state’s independence, which until 1917 was a great duchy dependent on the Russian Crown and a component part of the Czarist empire. As a symbolical fact, the talks between the two heads of state took place in the Punkaharju Hotel located close to Finland’s Savonlinna city. The hotel is a former hunting residence of the Romanovs (its construction started in the 19th Century, under Czar Alexander I), and Savonlinna – as Carl Bildt informs us – “was built as defence against Russia.” The two heads of state’s joint press conference revealed the good relations between the two countries, their cooperation, including in the nuclear, environment protection and tourism fields, but outlined – via V. Putin’s remarks – some of the dossiers of dispute between the great powers.

Thus, he pointed out that the naval parade set to take place two days later on the Baltic coast of St. Petersburg is not a show of force but the resumption of a century-old tradition of the Russian navy. The mention was expected, because the appearance off the Finnish coasts of the largest Russian submarine (‘Dmitry Donskoy’), also the largest in the world, a veritable underwater nuclear arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which was to take part in the parade, caused unease among the riparians.

In this context, the Russian President also referred to the Russian-Chinese naval exercises that took place last week in the Baltic Sea, pointing out that “More military exercises will be organised with China, on land and at sea/…/It is a stabilizing factor for the whole world. No third country should feel threatened. We are not creating a military blockade or alliance.” Of course, on one hand, V. Putin sought to calm Finland’s apprehensions about the presence of the said submarine off its coast, and on the other hand to also issue a political signal for the West, particularly for the U.S., regarding the existence of intense military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing (similar exercises took place in recent months in the Mediterranean Sea and in the South China Sea) in the Baltic Sea, the area in which NATO is consolidating its military presence. V. Putin’s mention that there is no intention to form a Russo-Chinese military alliance is very important. However, as an editorial published by ‘The Moscow Times’ on July 28 underscored, in the new reality of relations between Russia and the U.S., such military manoeuvres adapted to current exigencies in the vicinity of flashpoints of dispute (Syria, South China Sea, Baltic Sea) are meant to force the U.S. “to distribute its limited military resources between several parts of the world. It is tasked with containing Russia, China and Iran at the same time. It is also deterring North Korea, fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Similarly, the Russian analyst points out that such cooperation at international level strengthens Russia’s position in its potential dialogue with NATO. The mention of the consolidation of NATO’s defensive deployment in Eastern Europe, especially in the Baltic Sea region, is very clear.

Especially since, during the same joint press conference with the Finnish President, the Kremlin leader decried the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Russia, pointing out in this regard what he dubbed the “anti-Russian hysteria” that exists in the U.S. in relation to Moscow’s involvement in the U.S. presidential elections of 2016. And, in his view, the recent U.S. House of Representatives bill that stipulates an expansion of sanctions on Russia and similarly the limiting of the President’s possibility of acting to ease them are “illegal from the standpoint of international law” and Russia is justified to take counter-measures. For the time being, Moscow does not resort to such measures since it hopes the resolution would not be adopted by the American Senate (which nevertheless happened the following day, when it cleared the Senate almost unanimously, its promulgation by the White House being now expected). According to the TASS news agency, what happened in Washington has generated veritable “anger” in Moscow, which was also visible on different occasions in other unexpected reactions from Russian officials in their recent relations with U.S. allies. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said that “the authors and sponsors of this legislation are taking a serious step toward the destruction of prospects for normalizing relations with Russia.”

The U.S. House of Representatives’ “move” in relation to the sanctions on Russia also irritated the European Union, especially since its provisions, once implemented, would act restrictively on some European companies and firms that are engaged in the construction of the ‘North Sream-2’ natural gas pipeline that will link Russia and Germany. According to European Union Commission President J.C. Juncker, easing or expanding the sanctions on Russia should be first discussed “between allies,” something that did not happen in this case. Some Russian analysts show that these developments suggest certain clarifications on the international arena.

Firstly, hence, that military cooperation is consolidating between Russia and China, with the purpose of countering U.S.’s global actions – it’s worth mentioning that the House of Representatives bill refers not just to Russia but also to Iran and North Korea –, the Baltic Sea being one of the vectors “pinning down” or blocking American forces (others being Syria and the South China Sea). Analyst V. Kashin wrote the other days, in ‘The Moscow Times’ that “Now, Russia can greatly impact the military balance of powers in the Pacific by simply making rather empty military gestures in Europe. In this case a formal alliance between Russia and China is not even needed to produce a decisive strategic impact.” At the same time, the same analyst points out that the sign of enhanced interest for global positioning is obvious on the part of the European Union.

According to these opinions, a new link between the Atlantic and Pacific theatres is foreshadowed, reflected in the French and British naval presence in the South China Sea (through joint naval exercises with the American and Japanese navies), the only reason for naval actions on the part of the two great Western European powers being “Apparently/…/ the desire of the Europeans ’to have something on the table’ while discussing important global issues with the Americans.” Undeniably, since D. Trump was sworn in at the White House we have been witnessing an intensification of the dynamism of American global policy – both in Europe as well as in Asia – which has rapidly prompted countermeasures on the part of the other great powers. In this context, the events that took place last week gain meanings that go beyond the immediate and local interest, signalling the positioning of great powers on a global scale, in and around Eurasia.

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