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Since the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, the Baltic states have grown anxious. Indeed, as relations between the West and Russia worsened as a result of the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 as well as President Putin’s determined support for the Assad Regime in Syria, suspicions have deepened that the Baltics may be also be in the Kremlin’s sights. The list of areas of military and political friction between Russia and its neighbours across Northern Europe has grown long. Towns in north-eastern Estonia, such as Narva, that have high numbers of ethnic Russians, seem particularly vulnerable to Russian disruption.
Any incursion into the Baltic by Russia could trigger the mutual security guarantee entrenched in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, with profound consequences for the United Kingdom. That is because since 2017, Britain has led a multinational group in support of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in the region. The EFP is intended to reassure Baltic members that robust support by the Alliance will take place in the event of military aggression, while also sending a powerful deterrence message to Moscow. As part of the UK’s mission in Estonia, in November 2019, nearly 200 British paratroopers from 16 Air Assault Brigade parachuted into Estonia to join Operation Cabrit. This mission involves the deployment of around 900 British combat-ready personnel. British forces are rotating through the country on a continuous basis, working alongside Danish, French and Estonian forces.
The much-publicised sight of British forces arriving in Estonia also serves as a timely reminder of the enduring and historic friendship between the two countries. Last year, Estonia celebrated 100 years of independence. Tallinn well remembers that it was British naval and air forces that, in 1918-1919, provided critical support to Estonia during its War of Independence. That was part of a wider British operation against the Bolsheviks, which included fighting the Red Army from bases in Murmansk and Archangel on Russia’s northwest Arctic coast.
The connection that we make between the Baltics and the High North (or European Arctic), what we regard as the ‘Wider North’, is therefore not new, but its renewed relevance in terms of British interests in Northern Europe has only become apparent recently. The sacrifice of the independence of the Baltic states to Soviet demands in 1945 by Britain and the United States is not forgotten but has been somewhat forgiven in the post-1992 embrace of these countries in to NATO. Today, it is concerns about escalated Russian activity in the Baltics and beyond that is driving closer cooperation between the UK and its allies in the region.
Over the past decade, several structures have been established that mean the UK is frequently in conversation with its Nordic and Baltic allies at the same time. In addition to the EFP, and an expanding array of joint military exercises, the Ministry of Defence established the Northern Group (NG) and became an observer to the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) in 2011. In 2014, the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) was launched.
However, strategic thinking about the High North and the Baltics still needs joining-up. In September 2018, the then-Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson announced that Britain was to produce a new strategy paper that would ‘put the Arctic and High North central to the security of the United Kingdom’. When it is eventually published (probably, it is hoped, at some point in 2020), it is expected to further strengthen defence relations with Nordic allies in particular. What is unclear though, is the extent to which this contribution to security in the High North will be related to the UK’s Baltic commitments, if at all.
To make the connection between what is happening in the High North and the Baltic clearer, we think a more expansive approach is needed. Specifically, such a vision would need to convey that the Nordic and Baltic regions are inseparable in strategic terms (after all, Nordic-Baltic defence cooperation was formalized in 1992 so the UK has some catching-up to do). During the Cold War, Britain only had to worry about reinforcing Norway and Iceland in the north. However, the so-called ‘Northern Flank’ has now widened to encompass the Baltic region as well (including non-NATO Sweden and Finland, with whom the UK’s defence partnerships are also deepening). A security crisis in the Baltic will inevitably provoke a reaction among the Nordic nations wishing to bolster their own defences, and vice versa. Meanwhile, during such a crisis, we should expect that both regions will look to Britain, as a leading military power in Europe, for simultaneous support.
Speculation about the next phase of the JEF’s development points towards its near-term focus being expanded to include the High North as well as the Baltics. We might infer from this that recognition of the strategic relationship between the two regions is growing. Russia, for its part, has always regarded the two as inseparable, so it makes sense to understand and be able to react to that strategic vision. Having been caught ‘napping’ over Crimea, it is clear that all members of the Western alliance need to do more in terms of guaranteeing immediate and resolute defence of its territory. However, we think the UK should lead and make a more explicit statement.
Developing a framework in terms of a ‘Wider North’ would incur little cost and help in several respects, irrespective of any actual aggression from Russia. First, it would demonstrate, proactively, that Britain is equally committed to the defence of all its allies and partners in the north, thus delivering a strong message to Russia that it will not be allowed full freedom of manoeuvre in the region. Second it would provide a focal point around which the UK’s existing contributions to the NG, the ASFR, the JEF and the EFP could be shared, discussed and brought into alignment. That could lead to both cost and efficiency savings in terms of how patterns of training, exercising and deployments are organised, and closer coordination across the services. Third, it would strengthen the UK’s efforts to bring together a like-minded group of defence partners for the purposes of improving inter-operability and joint force development that could also be relevant outside the Wider North.
There will be concerns about where to draw the limits of the ‘Wider North’, especially since instability in Northern Europe could spread further northward to what is still a relatively peaceful Arctic. Cooperative arrangements in the Arctic between the West and Russia have shown resilience in the face of deteriorating relations in Europe, and efforts should be made to protect that. Norway and Canada in particular rightly remain concerned that excessive military activity in the higher reaches of the Arctic could prove unnecessarily destabilising.
All of this is set against uncertainty growing in Northern Europe over whether the UK can be relied upon in any such crisis. The vote to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum sent shockwaves through the region and confidence in the UK was undermined despite the substantial increase in the size of British military bootprint in both the Baltic and the High North which has taken place over the past decade. With a General Election upcoming, both main parties still have much work to do to reassure the UK’s Nordic and Baltic allies that Westminster remains firmly committed to defending them across the Wider North.
Caroline Kennedy-Pipe is Professor of International Security and International Relations at Loughborough University.
Duncan Depledge is a Politics and International Studies Fellow at Loughborough University and Associate Fellow of RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of NATO
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other organisation.