Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (Alexey Nikolsky, Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — With the addition this year of Sweden and last spring of Finland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Baltic Sea has been dubbed a “NATO lake” by some analysts. A glance at a map shows that is largely (but not completely) true — the coastline has a couple of slivers of Russian territory. The rest of the coastal littoral is in NATO hands: Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark.

Russia controls a bit of coast between Lithuania and Poland because of its strange enclave of Kaliningrad. And President Vladimir Putin remains in control of the far eastern corner of the Baltic Sea in the approaches to St. Petersburg — ironically once thought of as the “window to the Western world” by the czars beginning with Peter the Great. Today, in the event of a conflict between Moscow and NATO, any of Russia’s warships there would be quickly and easily bottled up or destroyed.

How should the alliance best take advantage of its new (nearly) lake, and what kind of exercises and training should the member-state navies be conducting to assure smooth teamwork?

When I was the alliance’s military commander, I relished participating each fall in Baltic Operations, or BALTOPS. This premier NATO exercise has been conducted since 1972, with the next iteration in a few weeks.

I also took part in BALTOPS as a junior officer several times in the late 1970s, at the height of the Cold War. Then, the Baltic naval situation was fairly balanced between U.S.-NATO on one side and USSR-Warsaw Pact on the other. Sweden and Finland were strictly neutral. I remember standing bridge watches, needing to be very mindful of Soviet warships darting in and out of our formations, trailing us to gather intelligence (often at dangerously close distances), and generally harassing our ships.

Things have changed: Last year’s Baltic Operations exercise included 20 nations, with Finland at sea for the first time as a full member and Sweden participating as an applicant. It boasted nearly 50 ships, 45 aircraft and 6,000 maritime personnel.

Significantly, the event featured a complex web of air-defense exercises, linking together the entire NATO land-based defense grid, alongside multiple guided-missile ships at sea. It looked a lot like the coalition put together by the U.S. a couple of weeks ago that helped knock down 250 incoming drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles launched by Iran at Israel.

Central to the exercise was testing new technologies. The U.S. 6th Fleet, which covers all European waters, focused on joint use of advanced minesweeping systems, unmanned underwater vehicles, airborne drones and unmanned surface ships — like the killer surface drones used so effectively by the Ukrainians against the Russian Black Sea fleet. BALTOPS successfully demonstrated how NATO could use its Baltic Sea forces across the spectrum of naval activity, and sent Russia an ominous signal of alliance capability.

A second element of Baltic naval control will be deploying sea-based air power — planes on our carriers — to hold down Russian air and sea capability. In what was probably a rehearsal for Baltic operations, a similar level of NATO maritime prowess has been on display in the Mediterranean for the last two weeks in Operation Neptune Strike: five carrier strike groups and dozens of ships from 11 nations.

Retired Adm. James Foggo, a former commander of all U.S. Naval Forces in Europe (and my key aide at NATO a decade ago), was a senior observer and mentor of the exercise. He told me that it was particularly important to see a French carrier strike group led by the powerful nuclear-powered carrier Charles de Gaulle under full NATO command for the first time.

Russia will push back against any NATO Baltic drills, although the correlation of forces at sea is now weighted heavily against them. Next month, they may move to short-of-war cyber and electronic warfare. This is akin to something they allegedly have been attempting in the past few weeks, with commercial airliners as the targets. (Finnair has been forced to suspend normal daily flights to Estonia after several jamming events.) NATO can counter Russia’s aggression by exercising both offensive and defensive electronic warfare at BALTOPS.

Finally, look for NATO to use its Baltic lake to put pressure on tiny Kaliningrad, which acts as a geographic wedge between NATO’s Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and the rest of the alliance. Most of the Russian Baltic Sea fleet is based in the port of Baltiysk there, and Kaliningrad hosts significant air and missile forces. (There may also be tactical nuclear weapons.) In the event of war, Kaliningrad will need to be neutralized so Russian land forces — likely operating through Moscow’s vassal state Belarus — cannot take control of the critical Suwalki Gap, which runs along the border between Lithuania and Poland.

To some this threat might seem overblown — what are the chances that Putin would create a major crisis at sea or invade one of the Baltic states? Well, three years ago the idea that he would launch an assault on Ukraine seemed unlikely too; don’t try to outguess the man in the Kremlin. Those small nations are certainly taking it seriously: The former chief of Estonia’s military intelligence unit warned that Russia would be ready to attack within four years. War games have predicted that Russian troops could take the capitals of Estonia or Latvia in less than three days.

Fortunately, the addition of Sweden and Finland to the alliance — call it “Putin’s Folly” — gives NATO more options than ever in the Baltic Sea. While Russia has some capabilities, a continuous program of training, exercising and innovating will ensure NATO has total control over its new lake.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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