November 3, 2016
By Paul D. Shinkman

Officials in Finland, Sweden and Norway are concerned about what have become almost routine acts of Russian aggression, how they can respond, and whether they could prevent an incident, or even an accident, from spiraling out of control. So now, quietly, they’re preparing for a confrontation.

“This is where the accident – God forbid – would more likely occur,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James says of the Baltic region, an area of critical importance to NATO and where it abuts Russia. Commonly called the alliance’s “northern flank,” the three Nordic countries beget military activity frequently due to their geography, instilling in them the need for greater cooperation with the West both to train their forces and to determine how they could synchronize their activities in the event of an actual conflict.

In October, James completed a tour through each of the three Nordic countries, months after the U.S. signed a new security pact with Sweden, days after after Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work secured to a similar agreement in Helsinki, and weeks after Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Norway, a NATO ally.

Throughout meetings with her Nordic counterparts, the secretary heard common concerns about the threats they face, as well as the national shortcomings that would limit their ability to understand and respond to a potential incident. They also wish to move closer to cooperation with the U.S. and others in NATO without upsetting what remains of the security balance in the region.

The Baltic area has been at the center of recent incidents that observers worry only contribute to a greater divide between Moscow and NATO. Norway confirmed last month it would allow a rotation of more than 300 U.S. Marines to be based on its territory for training and exercises, a move Russia’s state news service blasted as sending “negative signals eastward,” citing Norwegian critics of the deal. Weeks after deploying a nuclear-capable missile shield to its outpost province of Kaliningrad, Russia reportedly bolstered its Baltic Fleet, which the Polish defense minister called “an obvious cause for concern.” And Russia already had deployed a flotilla of warships through the English channel en route to support operations in the Mediterranean, causing Britain to deploy its own navy to shadow the ships and which an official in Sweden called “worrying.”

“The risk for an armed Russian attack is still very low, but the risk for incidents is, of course, there as long as we are seeing increased military activity,” says navy Rear Adm. Jonas Haggren, head of the Policy and Plans Department with Sweden’s Armed Forces Headquarters. “The catalyst is, of course, the deteriorating regional security situation, which Russia is, of course, a part of.”

“Russia has clearly shown they are prepared to move borders in Europe, that they are prepared to use violence to achieve political aims.”

This area around the Baltic Sea, the career submariner says, is complicated and crowded.

Former Soviet nations that have since joined NATO share the same seas with Russia’s traditional competitors, like Norway, a founding member of the pro-Western bloc, and former friends, like Finland, which until 1917 was a Russian state and has since maintained close ties along the 800-mile border the countries share.

The Nordics’ vulnerability is a shortcoming at the center of recent U.S. military efforts to reinforce its alliance with Norway through NATO and bolster ties with Sweden and Finland, the two countries it’s signed new defense pacts with in recent months.

Those two, which aren’t NATO members, are particularly concerned about their relative inability to communicate securely with allies in the event of a crisis.

Haggren describes his nightmare scenario as something akin to the series of incidents in which Russian jets have buzzed U.S. Navy vessels. Sweden’s shortcomings in encrypted communications limit its ability to, first, understand provocations, and then coordinate a response with allies before an incident spirals into a conflict.

In an effort to make up for the lag in a military response that inadequate communications creates, countries in the region in some cases are acquiring more versatile weapons and deploying troops in advance to potential hotspots. Sweden dispatched a rotational force of soldiers to Gotland Island in the middle of the Baltic Sea in case Russia were considering testing its resolve to protect the territory. Norway purchased the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for its deterrent capability as well as its information-gathering potential.

“We’re being firm toward Russia,” says air force Maj. Gen. Morten Klever, director of Norway’s F-35 program.

Russian state-sponsored news repeatedly blasts the purchase as provocative, claiming Norway is only interested in the highly advanced airframes to evade Russian defenses and attack its territory. Klever, however, like his counterparts in the U.S., insists the aircraft is a necessary evolution to replace aging squadrons, like Norway’s F-16s.

“It’s not in our interest to attack Russia,” he says. “We have the capability, there’s no doubt about that … as Russia has.” Perhaps more importantly, the potential for military misunderstandings in this part of the world makes the F-35 an essential tool for de-escalations, due to its sophisticated sensors and computers that allow it to serve as more of an airborne intelligence collection hub and combat controller, not just a direct-attack craft. Klever describes it as a “vacuum cleaner for information,” which it can then process into one picture and share with politicians and military decisionmakers.

“That’s very valuable, specifically in the beginning of a crisis,” he says.

In many ways, Russia is a good neighbor to Norway and the others along its border. Oslo and Moscow maintain long-established coordination for search-and-rescue efforts in the Arctic Sea, for example.

And Norway has a unique relationship with Russia, Klever says, because the presence of its jets should not be an inherently threatening signal as new formations of other countries’ planes could. Finland and Sweden, however, must tread more carefully in escalating military purchases, deployments or patrols.

Another obstacle these countries face is the intense presence of propaganda, perhaps the most damaging instrument of war that Russia has exercised outside of its declared war zones. Authorities in Finland, for example, have complained about what they say is an uptick in propaganda by Russian-controlled news outlets, including reports that criticize its government and question the foundation of the country’s independence nearly 100 years ago.

As Finnish government communications chief Markku Mantila told The Independent in October, the Russian media activity “aims at creating distrust between leaders and citizens, and to have us make decisions to harm ourselves. It also aims to make citizens suspicious about the European Union and to warn Finland over not joining NATO.”

Haggren offers a similar assessment.

“It is in our opinion that Russia is trying to influence our public opinion” through cyber operations, he says. Russia wants to maintain the status quo, and doesn’t want to see changes in security cooperation in the region.

Such changes could include either Sweden or Finland joining NATO or merely a stronger NATO presence around the Baltics. Russia preys on societies that have a free media by injecting ideas that serve its interest.

“We have to have a clear idea of how to handle that type of hybrid warfare as it’s being done and also how to influence our public opinion,” Haggren says. “The more we talk about it, the more we’re making people aware of it.”

Underlying this fear are the propaganda campaigns Moscow has employed before, like to exacerbate unrest in Ukraine in 2014 and capitalize on the subsequent dissension by laying claim to Crimea. To the rest of the world, this brand of information warfare serves what most officials in the region believe is Russia’s ultimate goal: to restore its once-proud role in the world, beginning with establishing dominating influence over its neighborhood and earning the respect of other global powers.

“Russia certainly yearns for the so-called ‘great power status,’ which I think is quite remarkable because I would say they’re already a great power,” James says. “They don’t need to be doing all this to demonstrate great power status.”

“They have a large territory, they have a plethora of natural resources, they have a history of being a great civilization,” she explains. “To me, they should not have such an inferiority complex.”

James also points to what she sees as another aspect of Russian identity: that its leaders understand the “the consistency of action,” or emphasizing the importance of, for example, professionally intercepting provocative Russian flights each time they happen.

“Consistency and strength,” James says. “That, Russia understands.”

The strength of the counterbalance the alliance provides has been a question for the Nordic countries amid a U.S. presidential election in which Republican nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly said he would pull back U.S. involvement in NATO, perhaps even withdraw fully from the treaty unless other participants contribute more.

“What I told my counterparts was, ‘Hold on,'” James says. “Every president, once he or she becomes president, still has their opinions, but you don’t get to choose your facts. Your facts are the facts and your opinions will shape what you do about the facts.

“Once all these details are revealed, I can’t imagine any future president wouldn’t remain very committed to Europe, wouldn’t remain very committed to a defense strategy for the U.S. and in partnership with others which is robust.”

As the reaction to the statements of would-be world leaders shows, conflict today is not limited to bullets and bombs. In addition to rhetoric and propaganda, countries within Russia’s perceived spheres of influence routinely fall subject to subversive cyberattacks and other forms of hybrid tactics in addition to provocative overt actions. As one Finnish analyst said privately, “this sense of uneasiness is a form of psychological warfare.”

It’s something Washington now understands directly, after the U.S. intelligence community concluded earlier in October that operatives connected to Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee servers to interfere with the U.S. election.

For many Americans, Moscow’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 was uncharacteristic of the Russia they knew. Everyone below the age of 25 lived in a world that had known Russia as a partner, one that is now solely responsible for transporting and protecting American astronauts traveling to and from the International Space Station. In the early years of Putin’s administration, he appeared committed to bolstering economic and political cooperation with the West and even suggested the possibility of Russia’s joining NATO during a BBC interview weeks before he was first elected president in 2000.

Countries here, however, began to perceive a threat much earlier. Shortly after Russia annexed part of northern Georgia in 2008, Sweden passed a new defense postures through parliament shortly after the Russian incursion, moving from a strictly neutral state to one that would help defend a fellow European Union or Nordic country that came under attack. It has since worked to bolster the military it let atrophy after the Berlin Wall came down and find ways to integrate it into the forces it could prospectively fight alongside.

“We’re getting into a rough ride,” says Robert Dalsjo, an expert on the Baltics with the Defense Research Agency, an independent think tank sponsored by the Swedish government. “We have forgotten how to do this for real, and we are suddenly faced with a threat that is much bigger than we expected.”