Don´t forget about the Baltic Sea



On Friday, EU Foreign Ministers will gather for their semiannual informal meeting. The venue this time is Skeppsholmen, a small island in central Stockholm. Once a stronghold for the Swedish navy, now a peaceful place for museum visits and nice strolls along the water.

Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are among the issues to be discussed at this “Gymnich”-meeting. Today, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt travelled to Afghanistan for a visit.

Other crisis areas might well appear on the agenda. Most likely, Iran will be an important subject, with Germany and France threatening with tougher sanctions and news reports indicating that the Obama administration has promised Israel tougher sanctions towards Teheran.

However, during the coffee breaks, when glancing out of the too small windows in the Museum of Modern art (designed by a Spanish architect not very familiar with long, dark Swedish winters), Foreign Ministers would be wise giving another geographic area some consideration.

The Baltic Sea. Just outside the meeting room.

The relocation of a Russian bronze soldier in Tallinn caused violent protests in 2007. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The relocation of a Russian bronze soldier in Tallinn caused violent protests in 2007. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

When the Baltic States became members of Nato and the EU, their security concerns seemed to have been met. The standard of living grew quickly during the economic boom. At the same time, Russia and the EU deepened relations. Regional development was a success story, and still is to a large extent.

But the war in Georgia last year caused concern in the Baltic States. If Russia could act like this towards a former Soviet Republic in the Caucasus, how could anyone be sure it couldn´t happen in other parts of the old empire?

According to my sources, soon after the war in Georgia one Baltic government asked Nato partners for confirmation on details about how Article 5 on mutual defense would be applied in case of Russian action. That was a question better not asked, was the answer. Article 5 exists. Full stop.

This does not seem to have calmed fears down. In July, 22 well-known intellectuals and former policy-makers published a letter in Gazeta Wyborcza, urging Barack Obama not to forget Central and Eastern Europe. Among other things, the authors proposed Nato contingency planning and prepositioning of forces in case of crisis.

“It was a mistake not to commence with proper Article 5 defense planning for new members after NATO was enlarged”, wrote Valdas Adamkus, Sandra Kalniete, Mart Laar, and the other authors.

Feelings will not change to the better during the upcoming Russian Zapad 2009 exercise, reminding people in Central and Eastern Europe of the cold war and highlighting possible conflict over Kaliningrad, Belarus or the Nordstream gas pipeline. On the Russian side, future Nato enlargement and exercises such as Loyal Arrow in Northern Sweden provoke reactions.

There was some doubt in London and Berlin when the Baltic States applied for membership of Nato and the EU. Was it really possible to defend these small countries, seen by Moscow as part of Russia´s sphere of influence?

Baltic demands for military assurances are directed towards Nato. The role of the EU is different (although the solidarity clause in the Lisbon Treaty also carries obligations).

Still, building stability around the Baltic Sea is and should remain a central objective for the European Union. This calls for more efforts to promote true democracy in Russia, as well as for a Baltic Sea Strategy with sufficient funding and political commitment.

There is no need for alarmism. Any destabilizing action by Russia in the Baltic States would come with a high price for the Kremlin.

However, EU Foreign Ministers should not let Finance Ministries handle issues like the economic crisis in the Baltic States all by themselves. Budget cuts in Latvia and Estonia will hit the Russian-speaking minorities hard. Insensitive demands from Brussels and from the IMF are already being used by populist politicians to increase tensions. The conflict over the Bronze Statue in Tallinn 2007 illustrates how quickly a serious situation can develop.

Putting such scenarios on the agenda for a Gymnich meeting would probably be unwise. But thinking about long-term security issues in the Baltic Sea area is not a bad way of using spare time during the visit to Stockholm.