History, Geopolitics and Perspectives of the Baltic Sea

On May 17, 2022, Finland officially announced its candidacy for NATO membership. And this, in spite of Moscow’s threats of future “military-technical measures”. The same goes for Sweden, breaking with its historical neutrality (1814), which is much older than Finland’s. Finland’s and Sweden’s entry into NATO will profoundly modify the balance of power in the Baltic Sea.

Located between the Scandinavian peninsula, Fenno-Scandia and the German-Polish plain, the Baltic Sea is a quasi-enclosed sea with a surface area of 450,000 km². The Danish straits (a Danish-Swedish strait, the Øresund, and two Danish straits, the small and the large Belt) control the passage with the North Sea and they open the Baltic to the North Atlantic. As a space of confrontation between the West and Russia, the Baltic Sea is sometimes wrongly described as the “Mediterranean of the North”. The geographer Yves Lacoste designates as “Mediterranean” maritime areas of about 4000 km in length (second order of magnitude), like the Mediterranean Sea, the “Gulf of Mexico-Caribbean Sea” (the “American Mediterranean”) or the South China Sea (the “Asian Mediterranean”). The Baltic Sea is smaller in size. It extends over 1500 km from southwest to northeast, and its surface area is almost six times smaller than that of the Mediterranean itself (2.5 million km²). In fact, the term “Northern Mediterranean” functions after the Cold War as a metaphor for peace and prosperity, which has little to do with the history, situation and prospects of the Baltic1.

Unstable northern balances

The history of the Baltic Sea is one of power rivalries and confrontations. This sea is used by the Varegians who, from present-day Sweden, have taken up position on the opposite shore. They crossed the Baltic-Black Sea isthmus (the “Varegian axis”), to hire themselves out as mercenaries to Constantinople. According to the Normanist thesis2, these men from the North were at the origin of the Kievan Rus’ (9th century). Later, the Baltic was dominated by the Hanseatic League, which spread its commercial networks from London to Novgorod and, during the Middle Ages, became an important merchant and military power3. In the sixteenth century, the Hanseatic League faded in the face of the rise of the territorial states. The Livonian War (1558-1582) pitted Russia against a coalition of Denmark, Sweden and Poland. Then, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) had important repercussions and Gustavus Adolphus’ Sweden imposed its supremacy in the Baltic. Soon, Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg (1703) and secured a port window on the Baltic. At the end of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), the Russian Empire was now the main power. It was much later, after 1871, that unified Germany became dominant: the Baltic was a “German lake” and, in essence, remained so until the end of the Second World War.

During the Cold War, the Baltic Sea was governed by the “northern balance”: it was shared between the USSR and its satellites (Poland, GDR), the NATO member states (FRG, Denmark) and the neutral states (Sweden, Finland). NATO controlled the Danish straits, but its ships hardly penetrated the Baltic, where the Northern Fleet, attached to Kaliningrad (the former Königsberg), dominated. The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the USSR renewed the geopolitical configuration. Germany was reunited, Poland regained its independence and the Baltic States became sovereign once again. Russia now has only two narrow windows on the Baltic Sea: St. Petersburg and the enclave of Kaliningrad-Königsberg, between Lithuania and Poland. The other countries on the Baltic Sea are joining the European Union and NATO4. The Baltic Sea seems to be becoming a European sea again, open to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

To develop cooperation between the Baltic Sea riparians, a Council of Baltic Sea States was established (1992). It includes Russia. Although northern, Norway is also a member, and the European Commission is represented (the United States and several Western and Central European countries have obtained observer status). Some of the Baltic riparians also participate in cooperation structures that cover areas of different sizes: the Nordic Council (Scandinavian countries, Iceland), the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Russia, European Commission) and the Arctic Council (Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Russia, USA, Canada).

Post-Cold War cooperation fails

Despite this dense network of organizations, extending regional cooperation to Russia is not easy. Energy issues, ecological questions and geopolitical disputes all have an impact on each other. Also, and above all, Russia’s revisionist policy worries the countries of the region, which want the security guarantees provided by the Euro-Atlantic bodies (NATO and the European Union) to be reaffirmed. Launched in February-March 2014, the Russian war against Ukraine has repercussions in the Baltic. In addition to the provocations at the maritime and air borders of the states in the region, the geopolitical dispute around the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia is aggravated by the Putin theme of defending the “Russian world” for which Russia would have the political and military responsibility. In the Baltic States, Poland, Finland (a 1340-kilometer border with Russia) and Sweden5, a “hybrid war” scenario is feared, as Vladimir Putin seeks to test the strength of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO’s mutual defense clause).

In order to avoid a power grab, NATO and its member states decided at the Newport summit (4-5 September 2014) to consolidate their defense and deterrence posture on the Baltic-Black Sea isthmus (reassurance measures); a decision extended by the Allies in Warsaw (8-9 July 2016), with the “enhanced forward presence.” The measures taken relate more to land than naval means (installation of headquarters, rotation of troops from the Allied countries, pre-positioning of equipment). At the same time, Finland and Sweden began a debate on joining the Atlantic Alliance and the authorities of both countries developed their military cooperation with NATO and the United States. Sweden and Finland participated in manoeuvres organized by NATO in the Baltic Sea. In addition, Helsinki is negotiating an agreement with Washington on enhanced cooperation in intelligence, training and defence research. Finally, a Centre of Excellence against hybrid threats was created6.

For its part, Moscow denounced the establishment of a “cordon sanitaire” and the Russian army deployed anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, using anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, fighter-bombers and anti-ship missiles. The idea is to create an air-sea “bubble” to counter operations in support of the Baltic States and to hinder the Atlantic military deployment. In this way, the Baltic would become a “Russian sea”. All of this is worrying, especially since the strategic situation of the Baltic States would be compromised in a space that is locked down in this way. The possibility of a Russian assault on the “Suwalki Passage”, a strip of Polish-Lithuanian territory that connects Belarus to Kaliningrad, is mentioned. From then on, the destiny of the Baltic states would depend on NATO’s free access to the Baltic and its ability to control the air-sea space.

The Baltic, an extension of the North Atlantic

It is therefore understandable that the new Russian aggression on Ukraine, on 24 February 2022, is at the origin of a historical bifurcation in the North-Baltic region. On May 18, 2022, Finland and Sweden officially applied for NATO membership. A particularly significant decision for these countries, which were formerly under pressure from Russia, before, during and after the Soviet period. Indeed, Finnish and Swedish politicians, military and diplomats have a proven knowledge of “Russia-Soviet” and intuitively perceive the threats it poses. The situation had to be serious for these two countries to renounce their position of “non-allies”, rooted in a historical neutrality, which in the case of Finland was more a matter of choice than necessity. In fact, it was at the end of two armed conflicts, the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944), that Finland was imposed a status of neutrality. This was a way out of being a satellite, but it did not come without concessions in terms of external sovereignty, internal politics and intellectual and cultural life: the USSR should not be offended.

Nevertheless, Helsinki and Stockholm did not give in to Russian threats7. With time, the historian will see in this double Finnish-Swedish decision the logical outcome of a profound political, strategic and military evolution, started once the USSR had broken up. The entry into the European Union, effective in 1995, was accompanied by a rapprochement with NATO (see Partnership for Peace). Since then, military cooperation and multiple exercises have made it possible to develop interoperability between the armed forces of the Allies and those of their Nordic-Baltic partners. Finland and Sweden are also part of the Nordic Military Cooperation, a structure whose three other participants (Denmark, Norway and Iceland) are members of NATO. In 2017, they joined the Joint Expeditionary Force, set up by London, in which nine Baltic and Nordic countries participated. The ongoing war on Ukrainian soil will have finished convincing the governments, political forces and public opinions of these two countries. With the exception of Turkey, the NATO member countries have declared themselves in favour of their integration8.

Already partially integrated at the operational level, through their participation in various NATO and European Union operations, the armed forces of Finland and Sweden will make their contribution to the defence and security of the Euro-Atlantic area. The full integration of these two “security providers” will profoundly change the balance of power in the Baltic. More than ever, St. Petersburg and the ports built during the 2000s (Vyborg and Ust-Luga), at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland, will be comparable to a simple window on the Baltic, completed, it is true, by the over-militarized enclave of Kaliningrad. As for the Baltic States, they will be opened up, with Sweden and Finland giving them real strategic depth. Let us emphasize in particular the strategic dimension of the port of Gothenburg, which is essential for supporting the Baltic States and Finland, as well as the central position of the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. In short, the Baltic, if the Allies have the will and the means, will be a western sea9.

And now what?

More than a strategic transformation, it is a geopolitical upheaval that is at stake. The Kremlin claimed to be using Nord Stream II as a vehicle for its power and influence in Europe, with its protection as a pretext for strengthening Russian military positions in the Baltic. This pipeline is “suspended”, the countries bordering it will soon all be in NATO (if the Turkish obstacle can be removed), and the center of gravity of Europe is shifting towards the center and north of the continent, in countries aware of the seriousness of the Russian threat.

The consequences of enlargement to include Finland and Sweden remain to be seen: to ratify the nullity of the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997), which has been violated by Russia, and to modify the geography of the Allies’ deterrence and defence system over time; to revise the Strategic Concept to be adopted at the next summit in Madrid (28-29 June 2022). At the same time, the challenge will be to increase political and military support for Kiev, with a view to victory. Then, the time will come to decide and plan the integration of Ukraine into NATO.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.


  1. A fortiori, this “Mediterraneanism” has nothing to do with the geohistory of what Braudel and Lacoste call the “greater Mediterranean”. Since the end of the Pax Romana, in the fifth century A.D., the Mediterranean Sea is no longer a “mare nostrum”.
  2. The Normanist thesis concerning the Variegated origins of the Kievan Rus’ was the object of a historiographic “dispute” in eighteenth-century Russia. This question arose again during the Soviet period.
  3. From the twelfth century onwards, the Hanseatic League brought together German merchants established around the North Sea (the “Frisian Sea”) and the Baltic. These merchants came from Lübeck, Hamburg and other Germanic cities and ports. They established trading posts on the island of Gotland, in the heart of the Baltic Sea, in the Gulf of Courland and as far as Novgorod, a free merchant city whose past reminds us that Russia could have had a different destiny than the tsarist autocracy (Muscovy destroyed the city of Novgorod in 1478).
  4. For their part, Sweden and Finland joined the European Union in 1995, but they remain outside NATO. However, they joined the Partnership for Peace implemented by NATO at the same time.
  5. See the incursions of Russian submarines into Swedish territorial waters and the fears for the security of the island of Gotland, located in the middle of the Baltic.
  6. On April 11, 2017, in Helsinki, nine states signed an agreement endorsing the creation of the European Center of Excellence for Combating Hybrid Threats, operational within a year. In addition to Finland, they are France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the same year, they were joined by Estonia, Norway and Spain. Placed under the aegis of the European Union and NATO, the mission of this center of expertise is to raise the awareness of leaders and public opinion in Western countries faced with disinformation and propaganda campaigns and cyberattacks, and to design and develop responses to these threats.
  7. In retaliation, Gazprom stopped its natural gas deliveries to Finland (May 21), one week after it stopped exporting electricity from Russia to Finland. In addition, on May 20, Russian War Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would open 12 new bases in the Western Military District.
  8. Referring to the candidacy of Sweden and Finland, Recep T. Erdogan, on May 16, publicly asked: “How can we trust them?” He added: “None of these countries has a clear and open attitude towards terrorist organizations. (…) They let terrorists into their parliaments and let them talk.” The Turkish president reproaches these two countries for their favorable attitude (according to Ankara) towards the PKK. Beyond that, Ankara would like to obtain from the United States and several of its allies the lifting of measures and sanctions taken because of the purchase of Russian S-400s, the operations carried out in northern Syria and the support given to Azerbaijan during the Forty-Four Day War (autumn 2020). In the absence of F-35s (Turkey was excluded from this “club” in 2019), Ankara is seeking delivery of F-16s from the Americans.
  9. While the Germans, Danes, Swedes and Finns call the Baltic the “East Sea” (Ostsee in German), it should be noted that the Estonians call it the “West Sea”.

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