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EUREN Brief 6
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EU-Russia relations and security in the Baltic Sea region: relative stability in the shadow of deep-rooted divisions

Although not free from tensions, the Baltic Sea region is a relatively stable subregion in the broader European security landscape. There are no unresolved conflicts in the region, and the likelihood of a military conflict is broadly regarded as low. Yet, the turning point of EU-Russian, and more broadly Western-Russian relations that followed Russia's aggression against Ukraine in 2014, has weakened the security environment in the Baltic Sea region in many ways.

Kristi Raik

Estonian Foreign Policy Institute of the International Centre for Defence and Security, Tallinn

Back to bi-polarity

During the Cold War era, the Baltic Sea region was split by the Iron Curtain. The dividing line was blown up, but only to a certain degree, by the collapse of the Soviet system. The post-Cold War attempts to integrate Europe's East and West (or rather, the East into the West) shifted the borders of the EU and NATO next to Russia. At the same time, the EU's and Russia's political systems and views on European security remained too different to be integrated. A flurry of regional cooperation initiatives emerged in the 1990s, but did not bridge the differences.

Since the late 2000s, and especially after 2014, these differences have been growing again. Splitting the Baltic Sea region, the dividing line between Russia and the rest has become more pertinent again. Once again, the region is divided into two poles with distinctly different political systems, democratic versus authoritarian, and conflicting approaches to European security order. Unlike during the Cold War era, the dividing line now goes between Russia and the rest of the Baltic Sea states, whereas Moscow has no satellites or annexed countries in the Baltic Sea region.

The Nordic-Baltic security landscape remains fragmented when it comes to the basic security policy choices of countries in the region,[1] notably Finland and Sweden. Both used to be neutral states during the Cold War, but have become closely engaged in developing the EU's security and defence policy, while staying outside NATO.

Unlike during the Cold War era, the dividing line now goes between Russia and the rest of the Baltic Sea states, whereas Moscow has no satellites or annexed countries in the Baltic Sea region

At the same time, Russia's actions against Ukraine and increased military activity in and near the Baltic Sea region have pushed other countries in the region, especially the smaller ones, closer together in their threat perceptions and views on regional security. Coordination and cooperation among the Nordic and Baltic countries in the field of security and defence have intensified, both in the frameworks of the EU and NATO and in various bi- and minilateral groupings. The EU's unity vis à vis Russia is considered to be vital by the Nordic and Baltic states.

More than ever before, regional security and the implications of Russia's actions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere for the Baltic Sea region have become key topics at the foreign and defence ministers' meetings of Nordic (N5) and Nordic-Baltic (NB8) countries.[2] Cooperation in the framework of NORDEFCO – an overarching structure for Nordic defence cooperation, established in 2009 – has intensified, and now also involves, to some extent, the Baltic states.[3]

The most notable change, however, has occurred in bilateral defence cooperation between Finland and Sweden. In 2014, enhanced cooperation was initially limited to peacetime activities, but it then shifted in 2015 to cooperation "without political predeterminations", including the possibility of potentially undertaking combined Finnish-Swedish territorial defence operations.[4]

Russia's actions against Ukraine and increased military activity in and near the Baltic Sea region have pushed other countries in the region, especially the smaller ones, closer together in their threat perceptions and views on regional security

The Nordic and Nordic-Baltic defence cooperation is complementary to the various levels of engagement of these countries with NATO and the EU. The increased presence of NATO in the region has been welcomed, not only by the Baltic states and Poland, but also (less vocally) the militarily non-aligned Finland and Sweden. The latter have intensified their cooperation with NATO as much as possible, while stopping short of membership.[5] For instance, the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, launched in 2015. This initially involved the Nordic-Baltic NATO members, plus the Netherlands, before Sweden and Finland joined the group in 2017.

The Russian side has repeatedly condemned the increased presence of NATO in the Baltic States and Poland and the deepening cooperation of Finland and Sweden with the Alliance as reasons for the worsening security situation and Russia's increased military activity in the region. Such comments were most recently made by the defence minister Sergey Shoigu as a warning signal right before President Vladimir Putin met with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinistö in Helsinki.[6] From the perspective of the other Baltic Sea states, however, the cause-effect relationship works in the opposite direction. In light of Russia's aim to prevent further enlargement of NATO to Sweden and Finland, its actions have appeared to be rather counterproductive.

Growing role of the EU in regional security

The strength of institutions and norms remains a critical issue for smaller countries in the Baltic Sea region, as well as Germany. Two norms deserve to be highlighted in the post-Crimea context: the right of countries to choose their own foreign and security policy orientation (highlighted, for instance, by Finland and Sweden, as they contemplate their choices), and the unacceptability of changing borders by the use of force. The lack of a shared commitment to these norms, together with violations by Russia, inevitably make Russia's smaller neighbours feel more insecure. The erosion of the norms and multilateral structures of European security that involve Russia, such as the OSCE and mechanisms of arms control, enhances the importance of military deterrence and defence.

Many of the underlying assumptions of the EU's approach to Russia, as developed in the post-Cold War period, have proven unrealistic or unhelpful. The earlier attempts (with their roots going all the way back to German Ostpolitik in the 1970s) to support economic ties, sectoral cooperation and Russia's modernization as a way of enhancing stability and security failed to produce the expected results during the 2000s and 2010s. The prioritization of economic cooperation over security considerations, which is a traditional EU approach, was never embraced by the Russian side. The EU side had practically abandoned its expectations regarding Russia's transformation before 2014. Yet, old concepts about economic cooperation, modernisation and transformation lurk in the background of EU policy and have not been replaced by new, more realistic ideas. EU-Russia interdependencies, which used to be a key element in the EU's approach to building win-win relations and stability, no longer appear in as positive a light as before. Both the EU and Russia have become increasingly concerned about reducing the vulnerabilities that come with mutual dependencies; for instance, the EU's vulnerability in the energy sector and Russia's in the financial and technological sectors.[7]

Both the EU and Russia have become increasingly concerned about reducing the vulnerabilities that come with mutual dependencies; for instance, the EU's vulnerability in the energy sector and Russia's in the financial and technological sectors

As a direct consequence of Russia's actions in Ukraine in 2014, the EU is placing new emphasis on strengthening its resilience and countering hybrid threats.[8] The Nordic-Baltic member states have been proactive in this field.For instance, in 2017 Finland established the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which is endorsed by both the EU and NATO and now brings together more than 20 member states, including members of both organisations. By conducting research, training and exercises, the Centre seeks to improve shared situational awareness and the exchange of best practices. Estonia has focused on its flagship area of cybersecurity, where it held a first-ever strategic table-top exercise called EU CYBRID in the framework of Estonia's presidency of the Council of the EU in 2017.

Furthermore, defence cooperation in the EU framework has taken a major leap forward. The EU is not to take responsibility for territorial defence, which remains the core task of NATO, but has started to contribute to member states' defence capabilities in new ways.[9] The most important project for regional security, pursued under the EU's Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on defence, is the project on military mobility, pursued in cooperation with NATO.[10] Hence, the EU's contribution to regional security has seen some increase, even though it remains limited and mostly indirect.

Some ways to manage tensions

In the current context, the deeper sources of EU-Russian tensions – most notably the lack of a shared understanding about the European security order – are unlikely to be dissolved any time soon. Thus, the main practical short-term question is how to manage tensions and keep them under control. Some points for consideration in this regard:

- Strong Euro-Atlantic institutions and their strong presence in the Baltic Sea region may be portrayed in negative terms by Moscow, but they constitute an important element for enhancing stability and predictability. The increase of tensions in the transatlantic relationship during Donald Trump's presidency has so far had no tangible negative implications in the Baltic Sea region, but it does increase uncertainty.

- Dialogue between the EU and Russia, and between EU member states and Russia, is needed, but should not be fetishized. The reason for the increasing tensions was not a lack of dialogue, and more dialogue will not, in itself, solve the fundamental disagreements. That said, talking to each other as a way to have a better understanding of the perceptions and intentions of the other side is a basic tool to manage tensions. Among (and, to some extent, within) the Nordic-Baltic countries, there are considerable differences as to how dialogue with Russia is viewed. A shared more pragmatic approach to maintaining contact with the Russian side would do no harm. This should not, however, include re-engaging Russia in multilateral institutional frameworks, from which it was excluded in 2014, without preconditions.

The EU has to downscale its expectations, since Russia's actions have proved that while economic losses have contained military escalation, they have not stopped Russia from pursuing its geopolitical interests, and (more fundamentally) have not made Russia redefine its interests.

- Likewise, economic ties do not solve security-related problems, but can help to manage tensions. The Baltic Sea states (other than Russia) have been firm supporters of EU sanctions, although they have suffered economic losses as a consequence. The Western sanctions and Russian countersanctions expose the vulnerabilities that accompany mutual economic dependencies and the increased use of economic power as a geostrategic tool. However, the sanctions also show that economic ties can help to constrain aggressive actions – up to a point. The EU has to downscale its expectations in this regard, since Russia's actions have proved that while economic losses have contained military escalation, they have not stopped Russia from pursuing its geopolitical interests, and (more fundamentally) have not made Russia redefine its interests.

- In the current tense geopolitical context, cross-border cooperation and people-to-people contacts remain a brighter spot in relations between Russia and its neighbours in the Baltic Sea region. These ties are of particular importance as a way to maintain mutually beneficial interaction and an understanding of each other's perspectives.


Kristi Raik participated in the 10th EUREN meeting on "The EU, Russia and the future of European security" on 4-5 July 2019 in The Hague. This paper is based on her presentation. Its content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the position of individual EUREN members or EUREN as a group.


[1] Piret Kuusik, Kristi Raik, "The Nordic-Baltic Region in the EU27: Time for New Strategic Cooperation", Report, Tallinn:International Centre for Defence and Security/ Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, 2008.

[2] Tuomas Iso-Markku, "Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation: The new strategic environment as a catalyst for greater unity?", FIIA Briefing Paper 234, Helsinki: Finnish Institute of International Affairs, // March 2018.

[3] Pauli Järvenpää, "NORDEFCO: Love in a Cold Climate?", Tallinn:International Centre for Defence and Security,// April 2017.

[4] Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Henri Vanhanen, "Finland's defence cooperation", FIIA Comment 23, // December 18, 2018.

[5] Anna Wieslander, "What Makes an Ally? Sweden and Finland as NATO Partners", Atlantic Council, // April 1, 2019.

[6] Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, "В Москве прошло заседание Коллегии Минобороны России" ["A meeting of the Board of the Russian Ministry of Defence took place in Moscow"], August 21, 2019.

[7] Kristi Raik, András Rácz (eds.) "Post-Crimea Shift in EU-Russia Relations: From Fostering Interdependence to Managing Vulnerabilities", Tallinn: International Centre for Defence and Security / Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, // May 2019.

[8] Rein Tammsaar, "The EU after 2014: Reducing Vulnerability by Building Resilience", // May 2019.

[9] Daniel Fiott, Yearbook of European Security, Paris: European Union Institute for Security Studies, 2019.

[10] Marta Kepe, "Preparing for the NATO Summit: Why Military Mobility Should Be on Top of the Agenda", Real Clear Defence Commentary, // February 26, 2018.