In the the past few years, the Russians have really gone out of their way to be uber-dicks to the Swedes. From invading the country’s air space to sending what remains of the Swedish navy on the hunt for the Red October to finally simulating a nuclear attack on the entire country, Russia has been really going out of its way not to play nice. In everyday terms, it’s like when your ex keeps walking past you at a party and commenting about your shit outfit. It’s made worse by the fact that the house party isn’t all that big of a place.
Harmless enough maybe, but hardly endearing. And under the right circumstances, downright dangerous.
And it begs the question: What the fuck?
For many, Sweden’s peaceful reputation is only punctured by a girl with a dragon tattoo hunting down serial killers. Having sat out both the World Wars and staying mostly neutral during the Cold War, it would seem, on the surface, that going after Sweden is just the act of a bully.
But that’s just surface stuff. You and your ex may be able to sit quietly at a table, but that doesn’t mean that with the right conditions, an argument and hurt feelings loom. And a long enough argument, you well know, could result in one of you stabbing the other.
The Baltic Sea is to Russia what the Great Lakes are to America
The Baltic is key to the trade routes of every nation that’s on it; prosperity has always hinged on access. That being said, it’s not a perfect sea. The frigid winters freeze over many harbors, and so to truly be successful any state on the Baltic has long sought more than one access point. Once upon a time, the Swedish Empire tried to turn it into a Swedish lake by conquering the coastlines; the Germans during World War II hoped to bring Sweden onto the side of the Axis to do the same for Germany; and the Russians, well, the Russians have dreamt of a Russian Baltic since just about forever.
And as soon as Russia could challenge Sweden over some of those ports, it did. And while it has been two hundred years since they last fought a war, the reasons for that last war – domination of the Baltic and all the prosperity therein – are still very much in play.
Like the American Great Lakes, the Baltic is good but not great. Mostly, it’s useful for regional trade; goods from Russia’s northern regions, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg, can cut their time by using it, just as goods from America’s Midwest can cut time by using Chicago and from there the St. Lawrence Seaway to reach the rest of the world.
The czars got closest to achieving that, grabbing up the Baltic republics and Finland. The recapture of Finland was a Soviet objective under Stalin for just that reason. During the Cold War, the neutrality of Finland was essential for peace. And the need for that neutrality is one reason the Russians are acting up.
Now Russia has the weakest grip on the Baltics in centuries and would like to change that equation
When Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia joined NATO in 2003, it cut Russia off from being able to get preferential treatment in those ports forever. Up until then Russia didn’t have to compete much to use those states as trade routes; it could, in a pinch, always call up tanks to bully whoever stood in its way. Now, with NATO’s protection, Russian businesses would have to measure up to Western standards, something that drove up their costs.
That limited Russian access to the narrow, and ice-choked, waters around St. Petersburg and effectively cut Russia’s Kalingrad enclave completely off from Russia itself. What was already a weak hand grew corpse-like; Russia’s military say in the Baltic was negligible, and should push ever come to shove there, it could be expected Russia would lose.
But the vice has not completely closed yet. In play are Finland and Sweden. Should they join NATO, the Baltic Sea will be lost completely to Russia; it cannot ever hope to dominate its waves as it once did.
So why antagonize Sweden? Mostly because Sweden isn’t the likely target
In the summer of 2011, I worked in the Finnish Arctic as a dog trainer. While there I heard stories of what Soviet partisans did during World War II, crossing the border, killing and raping farmers and leaving deep scars on the Finnish psyche. Finns are rightfully wary of their much bigger, more powerful neighbor; their policy of carefully measured neutrality has enabled them to be prosperous, peaceful, and safe for over 70 years and avoided a repeat of the Winter War of 1940. Rather than risk a second partisan war, the Finns stayed out of the Cold War to great effect. It’s a stance the Russians would like the Finns to keep.
Should Finland join NATO, Russian subs and ships would suddenly have a long, hostile coast to pass before they could enter the Atlantic from St. Petersburg. A NATO blockade would be easier and defense would be more expensive.
It doesn’t benefit Russia to bully Finland directly; that could push Finland into NATO’s arms. But Sweden has long been seen as a de facto NATO ally, one that would join NATO should the insane circumstances of war ever come up. So Russia must demonstrate that friendship with NATO comes with costs.
With Russian provocation, Sweden must re-arm when its politicians and people once thought they could do as the Swiss were considering and give up paying for a military altogether. That will burden Sweden’s already strained budget and economy. It will limit Sweden’s independence on foreign affairs; under the American umbrella they will go and into, potentially, nasty conflicts elsewhere in the world as they are forced to prove their loyalty. None of that appeals to Sweden, but Russia is not going to give them a choice.
With that example in mind, Finland may take the hint: keep the sea lanes open, stay neutral, stay quiet. Sweden is practically lost anyway, and so bullying them serves only to give an example to Finns that antagonizing Russia is expensive and dangerous. At the same time, it doesn’t directly affront Finland itself. Meanwhile, the Finnish isolationists will have a prime example of why they ought not to antagonize Russia. Do we want to end up sacrificing our welfare state like Sweden, they will ask.
It may just work, too, but Russia could just as easily go too far
Russia must have access to the Baltic to keep its economy afloat. It must cut costs for its merchant fleets any way it can and keep the defense of the Baltic comparatively cheap; being outside the European Union forces Russia to adopt some mercantile policies to keep its oligarchs rich. So Putin and his government must keep Finland out of NATO’s hands, but can’t threaten Finland itself. Sweden, then, can serve as a limited object-lesson.
But it’d be easy to do too much bullying and scare Finland into the West’s camp. If Sweden formally joins NATO, pressure on Helsinki to do the same will increase; it would then be the only Baltic country, besides Russia itself, outside the alliance. Beyond that lies the fact that Putin’s vision for a new world order doesn’t much appeal to Finland, one of the EU’s model states.
Now we are in a time of great dangers, and miscalculation is going to be the rule rather than the exception
The Russians are now in the midst of a massive geopolitical game of hardball. They will do what they must to stabilize their still-imperial borders and push their influence further afield to ward off threats both at home and abroad. They have decided they can’t do this with NATO and the EU as a partners. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, NATO and the EU agree.
Conflict and competition over access to the Baltic Sea is the logical next step. They know they can’t get back into the Baltic republics, but if they can keep some players out of NATO, they can call it a win. That’s the state of their weakened hand. Conversely, NATO and the EU will seek a jugular that can be strangled; they took will seek control, although Russian actions will make it look defensive in nature.
Winter is coming, and Russia’s Mad King will make it no easier
Russia’s military is rapidly returning to its old capabilities, and in both Ukraine and Georgia, it has achieved its aims. The Baltics will feel Putin’s iron pressure. Whether or not he wins will remain to be seen.