Russian Arctic Strategy and NATO Enlargement: Perceived Challenges and Possible Responses

Abstract: Due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland submitted official applications for admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on May 18, 2022. Once they gain full membership, the security architecture in Europe will significantly change, and the existing geopolitical landscape in the wider Arctic region will also be transformed. Aware of this, Russia has announced that it will respond accordingly. By analysing the content of various sources, it becomes apparent what challenges Moscow might face and how it could react. These challenges are diverse, and so are the possible answers to them. They will depend on several important factors: further activities of Finland and Sweden, first on the military front; the development of the situation in Ukraine; and the unfolding of the crisis in the Kaliningrad region located on the coast of the Baltic Sea.


Problem statement: What challenges can the Russian political leadership face after Finland and Sweden officially become NATO members?


Bottom-line-up-front: Sweden and Finland have decided to join NATO, announcing a change in the existing geopolitical matrix in Europe and the Arctic region. The range of possible reactions is as diverse as the challenges themselves, varying from strategic adjustment to potential military action.


So what?: After Sweden and Finland's potential NATO accession, triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the following modification of the geopolitical landscape of Europe and the Arctic region, it will be crucial from the Russian Federation's perspective to anticipate the potential challenges arising from it to formulate adequate responses to protect its national interests. It is also relevant to determine what Moscow's possible reactions will depend on in terms of nature and intensity.


Russian Arctic Strategy and NATO Enlargement
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Winter panorama with large satellite dishes. Telecommunications in the Arctic. Industrial landscape with antennas. Morning twilight. Location place: Anadyr, Chukotka, Siberia, Far East of Russia.
Source: shutterstock.com/Andrei Stepanov

NATO: Who is Joining and Why Now?


After the official letters of application were submitted by the Finnish Ambassador to NATO, Klaus Korhonen, and the Swedish Ambassador to NATO, Axel Wernhoff, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, said that on May 18, 2022, Sweden and Finland officially submitted requests to join the military alliance.[1] They completed their accession talks at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on July 4, 2022,[2] and NATO Ambassadors signed the Accession Protocols with the two countries a day later in the presence of Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.[3]


Characterising this event as "historic,” the NATO Secretary General estimated that Finland and Sweden could become full members of the alliance within a few months. Although the process usually takes between 8 to 12 months, NATO, as well as the two states, wish to speed up the procedure due to the Russian threat. Namely, public opinion in those countries, Finland particularly,[4] has changed significantly in favour of NATO membership since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022. According to a poll conducted by national television "Yle,” 76 per cent of Finns now support joining NATO, compared to 12 per cent who are against it. The main reason is Russia's war against Ukraine. Finland considers itself the most susceptible to what happened to Ukraine because of its geographical position and highly developed relations with the West.[5] On the other hand, according to a recently published report by the Swedish Defense Institute, Stockholm sees the United States of America as the only power capable of guaranteeing European security.[6] In this respect, it is essential to point out that Finland and Sweden cooperate closely with NATO and the US, have functional democracies, and have visibly contributed to the alliance's military operations for some time.


Finland considers itself the most susceptible to what happened to Ukraine because of its geographical position and highly developed relations with the West.

However, while NATO welcomes this decision of the two states, calling them “closest partners”, Moscow has a different perception. This is largely understandable because once Finland and Sweden join the western military alliance, it will change Russia’s security perception of northern Europe, especially on the western flank of the Russian Federation. In geographical terms, the accession of two states results in Russia’s border with NATO doubling.

Moscow's Reactions to NATO Enlargement: The Narrative Buildup


When Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO became certain, Moscow’s reactions were rather uneven and inconsistent. The reactions varied from mild ones stating that the Kremlin was prepared for such a possibility and, consequently, it did not pose any major threat to very polarizing ones arguing that the accession of the two Baltic states would cause a significant imbalance in the geopolitical matrix of Europe and the Arctic, going so far to posing a direct threat to Russian national security. Moreover, after Turkey gave away its opposition to the NATO membership of the two states, Russian political discourse grew more adverse.

Namely, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin reportedly tried — even before Russia invaded Ukraine — to dissuade Finland from joining NATO, saying, "Now, when we look over the border towards Finland, we see a friend. If Finland joins NATO, we will see an enemy".[7] After the Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, informed his Russian counterpart by phone that Finland had decided to join the western military alliance, Putin allegedly received the news quite calmly. According to the words of the Finnish president, "the conversation was direct and conducted without aggravation". However, Putin did not miss the opportunity to claim that "currently there is no threat to Finland's security" and that "abandoning its long-standing neutral status would be a mistake". He also noted that such a change could damage the relations between the two countries.[8]


Vladimir Putin reportedly tried — even before Russia invaded Ukraine — to dissuade Finland from joining NATO, saying, "Now, when we look over the border towards Finland, we see a friend. If Finland joins NATO, we will see an enemy".

On the same occasion, the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aleksandar Grushko, made a statement in a similar tone. He stated directly that the accession would result in a strategic change from Kremlin, continuing his statement by declaring that Russia will take adequate (and necessary, according to the Russian narrative) measures if NATO’s nuclear forces approach the Russian borders. However, to tone down this very direct statement, Grushko emphasized that Russia holds no hostile intentions for the two states.[9] This rather contradictory attitude was pursued shortly afterwards at the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization by the President of Russia himself, who implied that a Russian military response would happen only if provoked by the extension of military infrastructure on the territory of the Scandinavian countries. Following the same narrative he used in the last couple of years, Putin hinted that the enlargement of NATO is nothing but a problem artificially created to serve US interests.[10] A similar assessment was made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, who said that "the accession of the two Baltic states to NATO will not fundamentally change the situation in the region". On that occasion, he emphasised: "We are reacting calmly and no one can tell us that we are raising hysteria, and they themselves do not know what they are doing, because they do not understand what the future world will be like".[11] While Putin’s statements around NATO enlargement were relatively balanced and quite direct, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, delivered the complementary message openly alluding to the most recent military clashes between Russia and Scandinavian countries. On the same occasion, he insisted that the situation is not similar to the one in Ukraine, where Russia is having territorial disputes.[12]


However, after Turkey officially announced that it would not create a problem regarding Finland and Sweden joining the western military alliance,[13] and the American president “warmly welcomed and strongly supported their historic decision to join NATO”,[14] the rhetoric of Russian officials noticeably changed. The Russian president was among the first to speak. He reiterated that Russia did not have the same problem with Sweden and Finland as with Ukraine, pointing out: “If Finland and Sweden wish to, they can join. That’s up to them. They can join whatever they want”. However, Putin also warned that “if military contingents and military infrastructure were deployed there, we would be obliged to respond symmetrically and raise the same threats for those territories where threats have arisen for us”.[15] In addition, he emphasised that it is inevitable that Moscow’s relations with Helsinki and Stockholm deteriorate due to their membership in NATO. “Everything was fine between us, but now there could be some tension and certainly there will be”, Putin said and added that “it is inevitable if Russia is in danger”.[16] Other Russian officials made similar statements. Konstantin Kosachev, a member of Russia's Federation Council, said that the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO would “certainly mean a worsening of relations between these two countries and Russia”. He noted that Finland and Russia share a long land border, while Russia and Sweden have shared interests in the Baltic and the Barents Sea areas. He concluded: “All of this would definitely change for the worse, and not at Russia’s initiative. This can only be regretted”.[17] Subsequently, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergei Ryabkov, explained that Helsinki’s and Stockholm’s move could have “serious military and political consequences” and that Russia would be forced to “restore military balance by strengthening its defences in the Baltic Sea region, including by deploying nuclear weapons”. He criticised NATO for bringing Finland and Sweden into that organisation, calling it a destabilising effort that will increase tensions in the region: “We condemn the irresponsible course of the North Atlantic Alliance that is ruining the European architecture, or what’s left of it. I have a great deal of doubt as to whether the upcoming period will be calm for our northern European neighbours”.[18]


Putin also warned that “if military contingents and military infrastructure were deployed there, we would be obliged to respond symmetrically and raise the same threats for those territories where threats have arisen for us”.

Commenting on the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, some Russian officials referred to the consequences that this act may have on the development of the situation in the Arctic. Grushko, for example, warned of the danger of the region turning into a zone of military confrontation. Pointing out that NATO is ready to “militarise everything available to the military bloc, " he said there is a strong possibility of turning the Arctic into an arena of military competition. In this sense, he emphasized that the region should remain a place of broad international cooperation and stressed the importance of keeping the military component to a minimum.[19] The ambassador for special orders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia and the chairman of the Committee of High Officials of the Arctic Council, Nikolai Korchunov, made similar assessments. According to him, the traditional policy of Finland and Sweden, the policy of non-alignment in military alliances, has long created a solid foundation for maintaining peace and stability in the High North. Korchunov now thinks that the enlargement of NATO towards the Arctic region will not contribute to achieving that goal. Highlighting the alarming trend of internationalization of military activities, he also expressed worries about the possible turning of “the top of the world” into an international arena of military operations.[20] In his opinion, the inclusion of the Arctic into the NATO area of interests “only complicates the military and political situation in the region, increases the degree of conflict, and creates serious challenges for other countries, including Russia”.[21] With that in mind, Korchunov noted that a change in the military-political status of Sweden and Finland would certainly lead to appropriate adjustments in the development of high-altitude cooperation but left out to specify what exactly those adjustments could be.[22]


The inclusion of the Arctic into the NATO area of interests “only complicates the military and political situation in the region, increases the degree of conflict, and creates serious challenges for other countries, including Russia”.

This kind of narrative, as the result of mixing political, public, and media discourse, opens up the possibility for different interpretations of how Russia actually perceives the current enlargement of NATO and, more specifically, how it will react to it. To clarify that, it becomes necessary to first establish in what context Finland and Sweden’s accession to the Western military alliance would threaten Russian national security.

Shifting Ground in the Arctic Circle: Russian Perspective On Probable Challenges


The accession of Sweden and especially Finland to NATO creates several critical strategic issues for Moscow. First, it visibly affects relations within the Arctic Council and creates a new geopolitical structure in the so-called “High North”.


Namely, since 2021, Russia has presided over the Arctic Council, which, in addition to Finland and Sweden, includes five other countries (USA, Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Norway, and Iceland). The organisation functions as an intergovernmental forum for cooperation and addresses the issues of ecology, sustainable development, and protection of indigenous peoples of the Arctic, as well as other issues. Until now, there has been a certain balance within the Council because, in addition to NATO member states and Russia, two militarily neutral countries — Finland and Sweden — participated in its work. However, Russia will remain the only country not a member of the western military alliance, which noticeably changes the balance of power within the organisation and may affect its functioning. In this regard, it should be noted that certain actions have already been taken. Namely, immediately after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, seven members of the Council (NATO states, plus Finland and Sweden) refused to participate in all Council events in Russia and generally suspended their activities in the organisation.[23] Even though official Russian policy is that Moscow will proceed with many of its planned activities in the High North despite the freeze of Arctic international cooperation,[24] a part of the Russian scientific and political elite is clearly not satisfied with recent developments. According to their statements, they are either confused or surprised by such a decision, or they are openly concerned about the situation's further evolvent.[25] This, among other things, is sufficiently confirmed by the statement of Nikolay Korchunov, who points out the following: “Currently, we are observing a pause, meaning our partners have ‘frozen’ all contacts: not only in the Arctic Council itself, but also in the fields of science, youth ties, and contacts between people. This, of course, can raise nothing but concern”.[26]


Even though official Russian policy is that Moscow will proceed with many of its planned activities in the High North despite the freeze of Arctic international cooperation, a part of the Russian scientific and political elite is clearly not satisfied with recent developments.

Secondly, although Finland and Sweden requested admission to NATO as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the membership of the two Baltic states in NATO can be understood, according to some Russian analysts, as a continuation of the plan for the containment of Russia.[27] Since it is geographically landlocked, Russia has historically sought to expand externally in search of ice-free ports and to ensure access to the open sea – considered indispensable for its survival and growth. For Russia, the Scandinavian Peninsula is a natural barrier to the open ocean, and the continued neutrality of Finland and Sweden was regarded as a geopolitical requirement for its survival. However, when the two Baltic countries become part of NATO, access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Baltic Sea will be much more difficult. Russia’s border with NATO will increase from approximately 1,200 km to around 2,500 km.[28]


In line with the strategic containment thesis, some Japanese military experts, such as Jun Nagashima, also note that “since almost all the countries bordering the Baltic Sea would become NATO members, Russia’s access to its enclave of Kaliningrad would become more difficult, and the activities of the Russian navy would be severely restricted”.[29] Accordingly, some Polish analysts think that the Baltic Sea could become a “NATO lake,” which, they believe, would give the West a strategic advantage over Moscow.[30] After all, the information about the participation of Sweden and Finland in the NATO military exercise, which started on June 05, 2022, and lasted for two weeks, vividly portrays what kind of challenges the Russians can potentially face in this regard. Forty-five allied ships participated in the manoeuvres, led by the large assault ship USS Kearsarge, where the main task was to “practice actions against the Russians in the Baltic Sea”.[31] In that regard, it should be pointed out that the island of Gotland, on and around which the military manoeuvres were conducted, has been completely demilitarised since 2005.[32] However, since 2018, and based on the likely scenario of Russian occupation, the Swedes have begun a slow ramping up of infrastructure, personnel, and hardware.[33] A year later, they also deployed an updated ground-to-air missile defence system on the island.[34] Coupled with military exercises, these activities are a source of concern for Moscow.


Apart from the above, the admission of the two Baltic states, particularly Finland, to NATO opens another very important question. According to the opinion of those familiar with the situation, the answer lies in the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest of Russia, which is almost entirely within the Arctic Circle. The largest arsenal of Russian nuclear weapons in the Western Arctic is stationed in that region. Specifically, the headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet is located in the city of Severnomorsk, where about 80 per cent of the total maritime nuclear capacity of the Russian Federation is located.[35]


The admission of the two Baltic states, particularly Finland, to NATO opens another very important question. According to the opinion of those familiar with the situation, the answer lies in the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest of Russia, which is almost entirely within the Arctic Circle.

Not far from there, more to the south, there is the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, where the RS24 ICBM missile systems that can carry nuclear warheads to a distance of ten thousand kilometres are stationed. In other words, the western part of the Kola Peninsula is one of the densest repositories of nuclear weapons on the planet. In addition, there is an extensive network of Russian military air bases on the peninsula, with long-range nuclear strategic bombers such as the Tupolev Tu 160, Tu 122N, and Tu 95. Most of those bases are also located in the western part of the Kola Peninsula, with all the airbases seated methodically along a single vertical corridor. The problem for Russia is the poor connection of this extremely important area with the rest of the country; the entire Kola Peninsula is connected to the mainland by only one road and a single railway line, which stretch to the south parallel to the border. Namely, from Murmansk to the fork above St. Petersburg, there is a 700-kilometre-long road that was quite safe in the current geopolitical circumstances. NATO forces could threaten it only from the north, from Norway, but this initial position was not very promising due to the less than 30-kilometre-wide border. Furthermore, Russia has long since deployed two divisions to guard its northern flank (50,000 troops). However, with Finland joining NATO, the security balance of the Kola Peninsula could completely collapse because this territory along the Finnish border becomes practically impossible to defend. Theoretically, the North Atlantic Alliance forces could cut off the Russian road to Murmansk from Finland at any time, in at least a hundred places, while NATO would not have to use its larger forces at all. As analysts notice, a minor sabotage tactical group in this heavily forested area could routinely cut rail, road, communication, and power infrastructure and return to its territory undetected, leaving Russia’s greatest military and nuclear potential logistically cut off from the rest of the country.[36] Although such a scenario would almost certainly provoke a sharp response from Russia, it should not be excluded from the overall analysis, especially from the military-tactical perspective.

In the Mist of Arctic Geopolitics: What could be Moscow’s Response?


As can be seen, the accession of Finland and Sweden to the western military bloc might create several issues that present a noticeable challenge to Russian power. In this respect, it should be expected that Russia will react accordingly, primarily on the military-strategic level. However, it is also essential to note that even before submitting the application of the Baltic states for admission to NATO, Russia took specific measures which indicate how Moscow perceives the current development of events.


That is to say, one week before Helsinki and Stockholm officially applied for membership in the alliance, Russia’s foreign ministry announced that their country would cut ties with a Finnish NGO and banned two Swedish organisations — the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Swedish Institute. In a statement, the ministry accused the organisations of “focusing on efforts to destabilise Russian society”.[37] In addition, a few days later, the Russian utility Inter RAO suspended the electricity supply to Finland, allegedly due to unpaid obligations.[38] Moreover, just a day before the accession ceremony in Brussels, Moscow announced that Russia would completely withdraw from the Council of the Baltic Sea States.[39]


One week before Helsinki and Stockholm officially applied for membership in the alliance, Russia’s foreign ministry announced that their country would cut ties with a Finnish NGO and banned two Swedish organisations — the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Swedish Institute.

After Finland and Sweden had officially submitted a request to join the western military bloc on May 18, 2022, the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Sergei Shoigu, claimed that there was an “increase in military threats on Russia’s borders״. He accused NATO and the USA of this and said that Moscow would respond adequately.[40] Specifically, due to the decision of the Baltic states concerning admission to NATO, Shoigu announced the accelerated opening of new military installations in the country's West. As he said: “By the end of the year, 12 more new bases will be established in the Western Military District, and the troops will receive over 2,000 units of modern weapons and military equipment”.[41]


Such a reaction from Moscow should not come as a big surprise, given that the Arctic has been perceived as a region of strategic importance for Russia in almost all strategic documents adopted since 2008. This was also confirmed in the latest (2020) documents, called “Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2035”.[42] Apart from emphasising the utilisation of the Arctic as a strategic resource base, it also centres on using the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a national transport route for Russia.[43] Bearing in mind that 10 per cent of Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 20 per cent of Russia’s exports are currently produced in the Arctic,[44] it is reasonable to expect that Moscow will do everything to protect its national interests in the region, primarily by strengthening military capacities.[45] However, in conjunction with Sweden and Finland’s potential accession to NATO, the Russian military buildup (especially in the so-called High North and the Baltic) prompts analysts to think that Moscow could also have other intentions.


For example, Holly Ellyatt believes that the strengthening of military potential, which Moscow is pushing for, will lead to more provocations toward NATO. She points out that over the years, Russia has made repeated provocative incursions near or into NATO allies’ airspace, and these seem to have increased in frequency in the last few years. Referring to NATO reports, the analyst remarks that “in 2020, air forces across Europe were scrambled more than 400 times to intercept unknown aircraft approaching the alliance’s airspace, with almost 90% of these missions in response to flights by Russian military aircraft”.[46] Ellyatt also thinks Russia could launch cyberattacks, hybrid attacks, and other measures in response to NATO expansion. In addition, she believes that in the transition period, before Sweden and Finland become full NATO members, the possibility of increasing tensions due to the accumulation of a larger number of military troops near the borders of the Baltic states should not be ruled out. Moreover, according to Ellyatt, the fact that Russia still holds 40% of the EU՚s gas imports should not be disregarded. Recalling that the Russian state-owned utility company Inter RAO has already suspended electricity deliveries to Finland, the author assumes that “potential space for retaliation, and possible Russian punishment for NATO’s expansion, could come in the energy sphere”.[47]


In 2020, air forces across Europe were scrambled more than 400 times to intercept unknown aircraft approaching the alliance’s airspace, with almost 90% of these missions in response to flights by Russian military aircraft.

On the other hand, some analysts believe Russia will now focus on the Baltic Sea, especially Finland’s Åland Islands and Sweden’s Gotland Island. In other words, although the Baltic is located outside the Arctic Circle, some view it as an extension of the Arctic geopolitical matrix in the context of the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO and Russia's possible military response to that act. This is also logical because the territories of all three countries (Russia, Finland, and Sweden) extend to both regions, which implies that the analysis of events in the Arctic cannot be completely separated from the one in the Baltic and vice versa. In this regard, Nagashima believes that Moscow will likely take increasing military interest in the mentioned islands, primarily as a strategic way of dividing NATO. “Should the islands be taken by Russia and rearmed with long-range weapons, such as Iskander-M intermediate-range nuclear missiles, NATO countries will be confronted with a direct military threat a few dozen kilometres away—just like the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad”.[48]


Given this, it should be recalled that since Soviet times, Kaliningrad has been strongly militarised, serving as the home port of large parts of Russia's Baltic Fleet and hosting considerable aviation, air defence, and ground forces.[49] In addition, as Heinrich Brauß and András Rácz explain, as of 2018, Russian ground forces in Kaliningrad have been further upgraded. They now include “a motorised rifle brigade, a motorised rifle regiment, a tank regiment, a naval infantry brigade as well as strong artillery, air, and missile defence and aviation force”. The authors point out that the “majority of Baltic Fleet vessels are located at Baltiysk, and includes two vessels equipped with Kalibr missiles, thus presenting a significant long-range conventional and theatre nuclear precision-strike capability vis-à-vis Europe”.[50] This is very important to note because, according to some theoreticians and military strategists, any Russian military action in response to the perceived threat of NATO enlargement would primarily be directed towards the Baltics, where the alliance is most vulnerable.[51] As Nagashima explains, “If Russia or ally Belarus moves to occupy a critical strategic corridor of NATO defence called the Suwałki Gap that runs for 104 km along the Polish-Lithuanian border, a long forward line of defence linking Belarus, the Suwałki Gap, Kaliningrad, and the occupied islands of the Baltic Sea (Åland and Gotland) would emerge, putting the three Baltic NATO members in danger of being isolated”.[52] Such a scenario is not ungrounded, since “both Western and Russian military literature more or less take it for granted that controlling the ʻSuwałki corridorʼ would be of key importance in any military confrontation between NATO and Russia in the region. If Russia seized and closed the corridor, it would cut land connections between the Baltic States and other NATO allies, significantly complicating reinforcement”.[53] In turn, if Lithuania closed the transition route between Belarus and Kaliningrad, as happened in late July 2022, it would cut the same land connections for Russia.


According to Nagashima, there are also growing concerns about the safety of undersea cables laid at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. As the author explains, “Åland and Gotland are key cable relay stations in the Baltic Sea. Should Russia invade the islands and destroy the cable facilities, this could seriously impact communication among NATO members, especially for the Baltic states. This would not only physically disrupt operations, supplies, and communication within NATO but also lead to the loss of digital information sharing and command and control functions”.[54]

Towards an Uncertain Future


As can be seen, assumptions about Moscow's potential reactions to NATO expansion are pretty diverse and cover many possibilities. However, whether they will be realised in practice depends on several important factors.


First, those reactions will be conditioned by the activities of NATO members, especially the newly arrived ones. In this regard, it is essential to recall that Russia has repeatedly emphasised that “the expansion of NATO to Finland and Sweden does not represent a direct threat to their country”, but that Moscow “will adequately respond in the event of the installation of military infrastructure, and particularly concerning nuclear capabilities on the territories of these Scandinavian countries”. Judging by the statements of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Swedish President Magdalena Andersson, there should be no increase in tensions because these countries have no plans to deploy military contingents and NATO missile systems on their territory.[55] Regarding NATO’s nearing Russia’s borders, Moscow’s response has already been announced. It involves strengthening the military infrastructure along the western flank through the hasty opening of new bases and increasing troops.

In addition, Russia’s possible reactions will also be determined by its overall relations with NATO. An important variable of these relations, in addition to Ukraine and other issues, is the unfolding of the situation related to the Kaliningrad region. Namely, some time ago, Lithuania banned the transport of certain goods and energy to that Russian exclave following the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine. Moscow characterised such a decision by the Lithuanian authorities as a “blockade” and emphasised that it violated several international legal acts, including documents on Vilnius՚ accession to the EU and NATO.[56] Although some officials in Moscow call for an armed conflict with Lithuania if the problem is not resolved promptly,[57] according to Dmitriy Peskov, “Russia is still deciding on how to respond to it”.[58]

An important variable of these relations, in addition to Ukraine and other issues, is the unfolding of the situation related to the Kaliningrad region.

Moscow has left room for various speculations about the possible actions of Russia, which may or may not necessarily include the mentioned options predicted by analysts. On the other hand, the connection between Russia’s broader Arctic strategy and the events in the Baltics is more than evident, which raises numerous questions and points to the complexity of the geopolitical matrix. In this context, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting enlargement of NATO that has been announced, the situation in Kaliningrad should be understood as one more in a series of crises, the method of resolution of which will be determined by further development of Moscow's relations with the western military bloc, but the one that will also define Russian activities on the so-called High North in the following period.



 

Marko Filijović, PhD, is a member of the Social Science Research Division (Politics and International Affairs Research Unit) at Athens Institute for Education and Research – ATINER, in Athens, Greece, as well as a member of the Eurasian Security Forum in Belgrade (Serbia) which monitors and analyses the current state of World Security with its focus on Europe and Asia. His research interests include geopolitics, international relations, regional studies, human security, and Arctic geopolitics. The views contained in this article are the author's alone and do not reflect those of his professional affiliations.

 

[1] “Finland and Sweden submit applications to join NATO,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, last modified May 18, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_195468.htm?selectedLocale=en.

[2] “Finland and Sweden complete NATO accession talks,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, last modified July 5, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_197737.htm?selectedLocale=en.

[3] “NATO Allies sign Accession Protocols for Finland and Sweden,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, last modified July 5, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_197763.htm?selectedLocale=en.

[4] “Finska i Švedska predali zahtjev za članstvo u NATO-u,“ Radio Slobodna Evropa, [“Finland and Sweden submitted NATO membership applications,” Radio Free Europe], last modified May 18, 2022, https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/nato-svedska-finska/31855960.html.

[5] “Zašto je ulazak Finske u NATO opasniji za Moskvu nego ulazak Ukrajine?,” [“Why is Finland's accession to NATO more dangerous for Moscow than the accession of Ukraine“], AlJazeera, last modified May 18, 2022, https://balkans.aljazeera.net/teme/2022/5/18/zasto-je-ulazak-finske-u-nato-opasniji-za-moskvu-nego-ulazak-ukrajine.

[6] “Deterioration of the security environment – implications for Sweden,” Government Offices of Sweden, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Ds (2022):8. https://www.government.se/49a4d8/contentassets/50afebe322d54940b69c91751db2305c/deterioration-of-the-security-environment---inplications-for-sweden-002.pdf.

[7] John Ringer and Meghna Chakrabarti, “The risks and rationale of expanding NATO,” Wbur, last modified April 8, 2022, https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2022/04/28/how-putins-invasion-of-ukraine-has-pushed-the-nordic-nations-toward-nato.

[8] “Putin upozorio da bi ulazak Finske u NATO bila greška,” [“Putin warned that Finland's accession to NATO would be a mistake“ ], Radio Free Europe, last modified May 14, 2022, https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/rusija-finska-clanstvo-nato/31849499.html.

[9] “Putin upozorio da bi ulazak Finske u NATO bila greška,” [“Putin warned that Finland's accession to NATO would be a mistake“], Radio Free Europe, last modified May 14, 2022, https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/rusija-finska-clanstvo-nato/31849499.html.

[10] Branko Vlahović, “Blago Arktika u pozadini ulaska Švedske i Finske u NATO,” [“The treasures of the Arctic in the background of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO"], Novi Standard, last modified May 22, 2022, https://standard.rs/2022/05/22/b-vlahovic-blago-arktika-u-pozadini-ulaska-svedske-i-finske-u-nato/.

[11] Branko Vlahović, “Blago Arktika u pozadini ulaska Švedske i Finske u NATO,” [“The treasures of the Arctic in the background of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO"], Novi Standard, last modified May 22, 2022, https://standard.rs/2022/05/22/b-vlahovic-blago-arktika-u-pozadini-ulaska-svedske-i-finske-u-nato/.

[12] Branko Vlahović, “Blago Arktika u pozadini ulaska Švedske i Finske u NATO,” [“The treasures of the Arctic in the background of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO"], Novi Standard, last modified May 22, 2022, https://standard.rs/2022/05/22/b-vlahovic-blago-arktika-u-pozadini-ulaska-svedske-i-finske-u-nato/.

[13] At the NATO summit in Madrid, the three countries reached an agreement that addressed Ankara's objections and concerns, primarily regarding Finland and Sweden's relations with Kurdish militant organizations that Turkey considers terrorist. This means that Helsinki and Stockholm can continue the process of joining NATO. “Putin: Odgovorićemo istom merom na ulazak Švedske i Finske u NATO,” [“Putin: We will respond with the same measure to the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO”], N1, last modified June 30, 2022, https://rs.n1info.com/svet/putin-odgovoricemo-istom-merom-na-ulazak-svedske-i-finske-u-nato/.

[14] Immediately after submitting the request for admission to NATO, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö visited Washington. Karla Bab, “Bajden ʻsnažnoʹ podržao prijem Švedske i Finske u NATO,” [“Biden ʻstronglyʹ supported the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO”], VOA, last modified May 18, 2022, https://www.glasamerike.net/a/rat-u-ukrajini-ukrajina-rusija-nato-finska-svedska-pristupanje/6578124.html.

[15] Andrew Roth, “Putin issues fresh warning to Finland and Sweden on installing Nato infrastructure,” The Guardian, last modified June 29, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/29/russia-condemns-nato-invitation-finland-sweden.

[16] “Putin: Odgovorićemo istom merom na ulazak Švedske i Finske u NATO” [“Putin: We will respond with the same measure to the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO”], N1, last modified June 30, 2022, https://rs.n1info.com/svet/putin-odgovoricemo-istom-merom-na-ulazak-svedske-i-finske-u-nato/.

[17] Andrew Roth, “Putin issues fresh warning to Finland and Sweden on installing NATO infrastructure,” The Guardian, last modified June 29, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/29/russia-condemns-nato-invitation-finland-sweden.

[18] Andrew Roth, “Putin issues fresh warning to Finland and Sweden on installing NATO infrastructure,” The Guardian, last modified June 29, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/29/russia-condemns-nato-invitation-finland-sweden.

[19] Branko Vlahović, “Blago Arktika u pozadini ulaska Švedske i Finske u NATO,” [“The treasures of the Arctic in the background of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO"], Novi Standard, last modified May 22, 2022, https://standard.rs/2022/05/22/b-vlahovic-blago-arktika-u-pozadini-ulaska-svedske-i-finske-u-nato/.

[20] “Rusija upozorava: Ulaskom Švedske i Finske u NATO Arktik se pretvara u poprište vojnih operacija,” [“Russia warns: With the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, the Arctic is turning into a theater of military operations”], Sputnik, last modified May 22, 2022, https://rs-lat.sputniknews.com/20220522/rusija-upozorava-ulaskom-svedske-i-finske-u-nato-arktik-se-pretvara-u-popriste-vojnih-operacija-1137583928.html.

[21] “NATO expansion toward Arctic intensifies potential conflict: Russia,” Al Mayadeen, last modified October 8, 2022, https://english.almayadeen.net/news/politics/nato-expansion-toward-arctic-intensifies-potential-conflict:

[22] Atle Staalesen, “Arctic Council chairman warns against Nordic NATO expansion,” Arctic Today, last modified October 8, 2022, https://www.arctictoday.com/arctic-council-chairman-warns-against-nordic-nato-expansion/

[23] “Council states suspended contacts with Russia, envoy reveals,” TASS, last modified July 1, 2022, https://tass.com/politics/1474637.

[24] Atle Staalesen, “Arctic Council chairman warns against Nordic NATO expansion,” Arctic Today, last modified October 8, 2022, https://www.arctictoday.com/arctic-council-chairman-warns-against-nordic-nato-expansion/

[25] “Ulazak Finske i Švedske u NATO bolan udarac za Moskvu: Baltik i Arktik za Rusiju postaju zone opasnosti,” ["The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is a painful blow for Moscow: the Baltic and the Arctic are becoming danger zones for Russia"], Novosti, last modified April 27, 2022, https://www.novosti.rs/planeta/svet/1111269/svedska-finska-nato-rusija-baltik.

[26] “Council states suspended contacts with Russia, envoy reveals,” TASS, last modified July 1, 2022, https://tass.com/politics/1474637.

[27] Branko Vlahović, “Blago Arktika u pozadini ulaska Švedske i Finske u NATO,” [“The treasures of the Arctic in the background of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO"], Novi Standard, last modified May 22, 2022, https://standard.rs/2022/05/22/b-vlahovic-blago-arktika-u-pozadini-ulaska-svedske-i-finske-u-nato/.

[28] Jun Nagashima, “What Membership for Finland and Sweden Would Mean for NATO’s Evolution,” The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, last modified June 24, 2022, https://www.spf.org/iina/en/articles/nagashima_12.html.

[29] Jun Nagashima, “What Membership for Finland and Sweden Would Mean for NATO’s Evolution,” The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, last modified June 24, 2022, https://www.spf.org/iina/en/articles/nagashima_12.html.

[30] Vladimir Todić, “Postaje li Baltičko more ʻNATO jezeroʼ,” [“Is the Baltic Sea becoming a ʻNATO lakeʼ”?] Politika, last modified May 22, 2022, https://www.politika.rs/sr/clanak/507805/Postaje-li-Balticko-more-NATO-jezero.

[31] Aleksandar Radić, “Nadnica za krv,” [“Wages for blood”], Vreme, last modified June 6, 2022, https://www.vreme.com/svet/4596539/.; “16 NATO Allies and partners take part in exercise BALTOPS 22”, NATO, last modified June 7, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_196240.htm

[32] Teri Schultz, “Sweden's Gotland gets ready for anything amid rising Russian threats,” DW, last modified February 1, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/swedens-gotland-gets-ready-for-anything-amid-rising-russian-threats/a-60620892.

[33] Isabella Higgins, “How Sweden's idyllic Gotland island could become a strategic 'watchtower' in the north to keep an eye on Vladimir Putin,” ABC News, last modified June 25, 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-26/sweden-gotland-island-could-be-key-to-nato-bid/101179346.

[34] “Sweden boosts patrols on Gotland island amid Russia tensions,” EURACTIV.com, last modified January 14, 2022, https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/sweden-boosts-patrols-on-gotland-island-amid-russia-tensions/.

[35] Mathieu Boulègue, Russia’s Military Posture in the Arctic: Managing Hard Power in a ‘Low Tension’ Environment, (London: Chatham House - The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2019):1-45.

[36] “Zašto je ulazak Finske u NATO Putinu trn u oku? Svi odgovori leže na jednom poluostrvu,” [“Why is Finland joining NATO a thorn in Putin՚s side? All the answers lie on one peninsula”], Srbija Danas, last modified May 17, 2022, https://www.srbijadanas.com/vesti/svet/mapa-zasto-je-ulazak-finske-u-nato-putinu-trn-u-oku-svi-odgovori-leze-na-jednom-poluostrvu-2022-05-17.

[37] Andrew Roth, “Putin issues fresh warning to Finland and Sweden on installing NATO infrastructure,” The Guardian, last modified June 29, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/29/russia-condemns-nato-invitation-finland-sweden.

[38] “Russia cuts power exports to Finland over failed payments,” Reuters, last modified May 16, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/russia-cuts-power-exports-finland-over-failed-payments-2022-05-16/.

[39] “Rusija se povlači iz Saveta država Baltičkog mora,” [“Russia withdraws from the Council of the Baltic Sea States”] Politika, last modified May 17, 2022, https://www.politika.rs/sr/clanak/507412/Rusija-se-povlaci-iz-Saveta-drzava-Baltickog-mora.

[40] “Sergej Šojgu: Rusija će formirati 12 novih vojnih baza na zapadu zemlje kao odgovor na širenje NATO,” [Sergei Shoigu: “Russia will establish 12 new military bases in the west of the country in response to NATO expansion”], Danas, last modified May 20, 2022, https://www.danas.rs/svet/sergej-sojgu-rusija-ce-formirati-12-novih-vojnih-baza-na-zapadu-zemlje-kao-odgovor-na-sirenje-nato/.

[41] “Ruski ministar odbrane poručio: Blizu smo uspostavljanja pune kontrole nad Luganskom,” [“The Russian Minister of Defense said: We are close to establishing full control over Lugansk”] Klix, last modified May 20, 2022, https://www.klix.ba/vijesti/svijet/ruski-ministar-odbrane-porucio-blizu-smo-uspostavljanja-pune-kontrole-nad-luganskom/220520079.

[42] More detailed information about the document is available at: http://kremlin.ru/acts/news/62947.

[43] Rosemary Griffin, “Russia Approves Arctic Strategy Up to 2035,” S&P Global Platts, last modified October 27, 2020, https://www.spglobal.com/platts/.

[44] Ekaterina Klimenko, “Russia’s new Arctic policy document signals continuity rather than change,” SIPRI, last modified April 6, 2022, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/essay/2020/russias-new-arctic-policy-document-signals-continuity-rather-change.

[45] Shaheer Ahmad and Mohammad Ali Zafar, “Russia’s Reimagined Arctic in the Age of Geopolitical Competition,” (Online) Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press, last modified March 9, 2022, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA/Display/Article/2959221/russias-reimagined-arctic-in-the-age-of-geopolitical-competition/#sdendnote10sym. In this regard, it should be noted that Russia has recently strengthened offensive and defensive capabilities to the Northern Fleet, now including the S-400 and hypersonic missiles, then Knyaz Vladimir, a Borei-A strategic missile submarine armed with Bulava ICBMs and 667BDRM, Delfin submarines equipped with Sineva ICBMs. Roger McDermott, “Russia’s Northern Fleet Upgraded to Military District Status,” Jamestown, last time modified January 6, 2021, https://jamestown.org/.

[46] Holly Ellyatt, “NATO is about to get bigger and Putin is unhappy: Here are 3 ways Moscow could react,” CNBC, last modified May 17, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/16/how-could-russia-react-to-finland-sweden-joining-nato.html.

[47] Holly Ellyatt, “NATO is about to get bigger and Putin is unhappy: Here are 3 ways Moscow could react,” CNBC, last modified May 17, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/16/how-could-russia-react-to-finland-sweden-joining-nato.html.

[48] Jun Nagashima, “What Membership for Finland and Sweden Would Mean for NATO’s Evolution,” The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, last modified June 24, 2022, https://www.spf.org/iina/en/articles/nagashima_12.html.

[49] Heinrich Brauß, András Rácz, Russia’s Strategic Interests and Actions in the Baltic Region, DGAP REPORT (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations, 2021):1-30.

[50] Heinrich Brauß, András Rácz, Russia’s Strategic Interests and Actions in the Baltic Region, DGAP REPORT (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations, 2021):1-30.

[51] Edward Lucas, “NATO Is Dangerously Exposed in the Baltic,” Foreign Policy, last modified February 2, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/02/nato-baltic-states-sea-russia-military-defense/; John R. Deni, “NATO Must Prepare to Defend Its Weakest Point—the Suwalki Corridor,” Foreign Policy, last modified February March 3, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/03/nato-must-prepare-to-defend-its-weakest-point-the-suwalki-corridor/; Charles Szumski, “Ex-NATO general: Risk that Russia invades Baltics is ‘real’,” EURACTIV.com, last modified March 28, 2022, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/ex-nato-general-risk-that-russia-invades-baltics-is-real/. Viljar Veebel and Zdzislaw Sliwa, “Kaliningrad, the Suwalki gap and Russia’s ambitions in the Baltic Region,” Journal of International Studies, 12(3), (2019): 109-121. doi:10.14254/2071-8330.2019/12-3/9; Heinrich Brauß, András Rácz, Russia’s Strategic Interests and Actions in the Baltic Region, DGAP REPORT (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations, 2021):1-30; “Amid fears of further Russian expansionism, NATO looks to its weakest link,” The Japan Times, last modified March 21, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/03/21/world/nato-baltics-weakest-link/.

[52] Jun Nagashima, “What Membership for Finland and Sweden Would Mean for NATO’s Evolution,” The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, last modified June 24, 2022, https://www.spf.org/iina/en/articles/nagashima_12.html.

[53] Heinrich Brauß, András Rácz, Russia’s Strategic Interests and Actions in the Baltic Region, DGAP REPORT (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations, 2021):1-30.

[54] Jun Nagashima, “What Membership for Finland and Sweden Would Mean for NATO’s Evolution,” The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, last modified June 24, 2022, https://www.spf.org/iina/en/articles/nagashima_12.html.

[55] Vladimir Todić, “Postaje li Baltičko more ʻNATO jezeroʼ,” [“Is the Baltic Sea becoming a ʻNATO lakeʼ”?] Politika, last modified May 22, 2022, https://www.politika.rs/sr/clanak/507805/Postaje-li-Balticko-more-NATO-jezero.

[56] Per those documents, Lithuania undertook to maintain transit to Kaliningrad. Dragan Bisenić, “Blokada Kalinjingrada i otvaranje severnog fronta: Vilnjus 2022. kao Sarajevo 1914,” [“The blockade of Kaliningrad and the opening of the northern front: Vilnius in 2022 as Sarajevo in 1914”], RTS, last modified June 23, 2022, https://www.rts.rs/page/oko/sr/story/3320/svet/4859551/blokada-kalinjingradske-oblasti-i-posledice.html.

[57] “Russian senator threatens Lithuania with war due to Kaliningrad,” Ukrainska Pravda, last modified June 29, 2022, https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/news/2022/06/29/7355426/.

[58] “Russian military exercise held in Kaliningrad Oblast after Lithuania halts transit of Russian freight trains,” Ukrainska Pravda, last modified June 20, 2022, https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/news/2022/06/20/7353631/.

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