torsdag 4 juli 2024

NATO and the Nordic/Baltic region - a strategic and operational assessment


This article is published in Swedish in the journal/proceedings of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences (

Below you find a crude translation into English made by the author.



NATO and the Nordic/Baltic region - a strategic and operational assessment


by Karlis Neretnieks, Major General (ret), former president of the Swedish National Defence College (University)



A strategic and operational assessment of the Nordic-Baltic region. The importance of the High North cannot be overestimated. Russia will protect its second-strike capability at any cost. Doing that Russia will try to create an exclusion zone when it comes to hinder NATO air and naval operations as far south as possible into the Norwegian sea. A secondary effect of this ambition, if successful, might be that bringing reinforcements to Scandinavia will become a quite hazardous endeavour for the alliance. Which in turn would make it doubtful if NATO can reinforce its Nordic members and the Baltic states by sea. Russia trying to create an air defence zone to the west of the Kola peninsula will affect Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian land territory. The conclusion being that: Norway, together with UK, Germany and US must contain the Russian Navy as far north as possible and that Finland and Sweden will carry the main burden when it comes to repulse any Russian offensive on land. Presently Sweden does not have the means to be a major player in such a concept. In the Baltic Sea area, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all dependent on allied reinforcements to be able to ward off a Russian attack. The main problem being lack of ground forces and air defence assets. Their limited resources, both regarding economy and population, makes it necessary to bring in these assets from the outside. Of the two alternatives: by sea across the Baltic or by land, the latter is a doubtful option due to Russian possibilities to influence movements of larger units through the Suwalki Gap. Either by attacking and closing the gap, or by using artillery and drones deployed in Kaliningrad or Belarus. The difficulty to move larger units through the Suwalki Gap makes the option to use the Baltic Sea an attractive alternative, assuming that shipping can be protected. The main threat probably being submarines, antiship missiles and mines. To cover the time gap between the arrival of reinforcements from the US and the UK, Swedish assets could probably play a decisive role in supporting the Baltic states.



The Nordic-Baltic region[i] is a key area for NATO, which therefore places high demands on the alliance's deterrence and warfare capabilities. In the High North, roughly defined here as the northern Nordic region with surrounding sea areas[ii], Russia has a pronounced need to be able to counter possible attacks on its naval and air bases on the Kola Peninsula and to protect its strategic nuclear submarines in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The threat to the Baltic States is of a different nature. There, Russia can see opportunities to realize parts of its resurrected imperial ambitions, but also to exploit the countries' vulnerable position to undermine NATO's credibility as a security provider.

The article aims to analyse the challenges NATO may face in terms of making it credible that the alliance can defend the High North and the Baltic States. The defence of the southern parts of the Scandinavian peninsula will only be touched upon to the extent that it clearly affects operations in the above-mentioned directions, which are of greatest strategic importance to the alliance, and probably also the ones that are most interesting from a Russian point of view. The defence of Finland will only be discussed to the extent that it affects NATO's operations in the High North and the alliance's support to the Baltic states. However, there is no doubt that the Finnish Armed Forces is the military organisation in the region, perhaps even in Europe, which is best prepared to fight a war if necessary.

Both geographical directions, the High North and the Baltic Sea areas, are discussed from two starting points: what would be advantageous from a Russian point of view and as a consequence of that; how should NATO be able to act as a deterrent and what does it require in terms of the necessary warfighting capabilities of the alliance. In both cases, the reasoning concludes with some reflections on desirable Swedish capabilities.

The article is part of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences' project SV-A-R, which is described in detail on the Academy's website.[iii] This connection to the project also means that the overall security policy aspects, such as factors that could affect the United States' involvement in Europe or the NATO-EU relationship, are only discussed very briefly, as they are dealt with in other parts of the project. The same applies to "hybrid warfare", even if, for example, successful cyber-attacks on Swedish electricity supply would affect the alliance's ability to use the Swedish railway network. An important capability linked to Sweden's role as a hub for moving reinforcements to both the High North and the Baltic states.

The High North from a Russian point of view

In its report from 2023, the Norwegian Defence Commission points out that: "There are many indications that Russia will increasingly lean on nuclear weapons as a more central part of its security policy during a transition period." [iv] A conclusion that suggests that the High North will not lose importance in Russian eyes, rather the opposite.

In addition to the great and probably increasing importance for Russia in protecting its submarine-based nuclear capability, the threat that the Kola Peninsula-based forces may pose to the sea lanes across the Atlantic to Europe, and those to Scandinavia across the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea, must also be taken into account when assessing possible Russian intentions.[v]

To protect the bases on the Kola Peninsula and the strategic nuclear submarines, Russia has developed what is often referred to in Western debate as the Bastion concept. It aims to create a deep defence zone that will give the Northern Fleet freedom of action at sea, especially in the Barents Sea, but also protect the bases. The protection of the extensive gas extraction on the Yamal Peninsula is also an important task.[vi] At sea, the zone stretches from the Kola Peninsula down to the Norwegian Sea and north up to the Arctic Ocean. However, it should not be seen as an impenetrable bubble, which would be an unrealistic ambition, but rather as a concept where the purpose is to impose a very high cost on an opponent that tries to act with his own forces in the zone.[vii]

The concept also includes creating a threat to NATO's transports across the Atlantic and to the sea routes to Scandinavia. It is probably a fairly limited threat; at least as far as transatlantic connections are concerned. However, NATO cannot ignore it and must therefore allocate parts of its scarce resources to be able to handle that eventuality. The announced acquisition of additional conventional submarines to the Northern Fleet two years ago is probably a part in Russian plans to increase its capabilities to attack NATO sea lanes of communication.[viii] Weapons development in general, such as the Kalibr cruise missile, deployed on both surface ships and submarines, with ranges of several hundred kilometres, in some versions up to 1500 kilometres, means that the protection of shipping to Europe and Scandinavia has become a complex task that cannot be neglected.[ix] Despite the fact that several types of anti-ship missiles have very long ranges, the weapons platforms, ships and aircraft, must have bases from which they can operate. These bases must be protected. A major problem from the Russian point of view, in order to be able to use such long-range systems, is probably to get target information, which means that the threat to NATO's sea communications to Europe and Scandinavia also has a space dimension.

From a Nordic-Baltic perspective, it may be worth noting that even if Russian resources might not be sufficient to affect maritime transport across the North Atlantic to Europe, shipping to Scandinavia may be exposed to considerable risks. Such a lower Russian level of ambition would spare the Northern Fleet's submarines and aircraft the great risks associated with trying to pass the probably well-monitored GIUK gap by NATO.[x] In the more limited, and more easily implemented, "Scandinavian alternative", both the moving of military units and supplies to the Nordic/Baltic area could probably be affected to a fairly large extent, possibly even interrupted. 

However, for Russia it is not enough to create a defensive zone at sea. NATO countries Norway and Finland both border Russia very close to the Russian basing areas. From the Norwegian border to Murmansk it is about 100 km, from the Finnish border about 200 km. From the Norwegian air bases, the distances to the Russian strategic nuclear submarines' areas of operation are also relatively short. The motives for Russia to expand the air defence zone around the bases on the Kola Peninsula and also try to prevent NATO from using the air bases in northern Norway are strong, very strong.

Depending on the size of the forces Russia has at its disposal to expand the defence zone in the High North and to act in surrounding sea areas, or conversely, how weak NATO is in the region, there is the possibility that a Russian operation may have quite ambitious goals.  If Russia were to occupy the Norwegian airfields and ports down to, for example, Bodø in Nordland county, NATO's possibilities to base air and naval forces in northern Scandinavia would be drastically reduced. Something that would lead to serious consequences for the alliance's ability to prevent Russian forces, mainly submarines and long-range aircraft, from operating in the Norwegian Sea. The importance of the northern Norwegian air bases is illustrated by the fact that Norway and the United States, as recently as this year (2024), entered into a new basing agreement (corresponding to the Swedish DCA agreement with the United States[xi]) in which the United States is allowed to use the two air bases Andöya and Bardufoss in Troms county.[xii] Both are located north of Narvik. In addition, Russian forces supporting operations in the Norwegian Sea, if based in northern Norway, would get about 1000 kilometres closer to their area of operation, compared with operating from their ordinary bases on the Kola peninsula. The possibilities to bring allied reinforcements to the High North via Narvik would disappear and Trondheim, where the US Marine Corps presently has pre-positioned equipment,[xiii] would also be significantly more vulnerable.

High Russian risk-taking and the use of, for example, Trojan horses cannot be ruled out. Rather, various methods based on surprise appear to be the most likely option, since NATO's possibilities for counteraction depend to a very large extent on what advance warning the alliance may receive. For Russia to otherwise try to occupy Norwegian airfields and ports, using sea- or air-transported forces, is probably too risky, even if Russian planning is not afraid of either high risks or losses.

Although the primary purpose of Russian military operations in the High North is to protect its own bases and military assets against attacks from the air and by naval forces, Russian planners must also take into account that NATO, depending on the situation, can also pose a threat on the ground. Among other things, they cannot ignore the risk that American Marine Corps units may be able to carry out fairly extensive landings in the rear of Russian units advancing through Finnmark. They also pose a latent threat directly to Russian territory if NATO were to succeed in gaining air and sea superiority in the Barents Sea.

The High North from NATO's point of view

The first, and biggest, problem NATO decision-makers have to deal with linked to the Russian military potential in the High North, regardless of whether Russia launches offensive operations or not, is: does the alliance dare to attack Russian military infrastructure on the Kola Peninsula, and Russian submarines in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean?  How would decision-makers in Russia react to what could be perceived as a threat, or direct attack, on Russia's second-strike capability, the ultimate guarantor of Russia's survival as a nation in the event of a conflict with the United States (or China)? There is a risk here that NATO will have to fight a war in the High North and the Arctic region with its hands tied. Russian offensive actions on the territory of NATO countries and also in the Norwegian Sea can be met with force, but attacking the areas from which the threat emanates might be "out of bounds". There is also a great risk that "self-deterrence", an overinterpretation of the risks, can play a major role in NATO's assessment process.

Another strategic conclusion of the same magnitude, as how Russia perceives the threat to its other strike capability, is: if the alliance fails to prevent Russian anti-ship systems from operating in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea, there is an imminent risk that any substantial reinforcements cannot reach the Nordic-Baltic area. Something that in turn could jeopardize the defence of the Baltic States and, by extension, the Nordic region. The first case alone, that the Baltic States cannot be defended, would put the alliance in a position where it would have to plan for a reconquest of the Baltic States, a protracted continental war of enormous dimensions. Alternatively, if the recapture option is not implemented, it would clearly show that the alliance, and thus also the United States, cannot stand up to its obligations. Something that would probably lead to several states, such as Japan and South Korea, which today depend on the United States for their security, perhaps feeling compelled to seek other security policy solutions, including considering acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Issues already being discussed in Tokyo and Seoul. [xiv]

Another problem of strategic importance may be the threat to Norwegian gas and oil extraction in the Norwegian Sea. Facilities that could be knocked out relatively easy. With Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the drastic reduction in European gas imports from Russia, Norwegian gas has increased in importance in securing Europe's energy supply. In 2023, Norwegian gas accounted for 30% of the EU's gas needs.[xv]

Among the strategic challenges there is also a wild card whose importance is extraordinarily difficult to assess, China. How would China act in the event of a conflict between Russia and NATO: strict neutrality; covert support for Russia, which is then in conflict with China's global main adversary; or, paradoxically, perhaps even support for NATO in order to gain advantages at Russian expense in Asia. The question cannot be answered as the answer probably depends on how the global situation is assessed in Beijing at the given time. However, NATO cannot ignore the problem and must therefore have some type of planning to meet a threat in the Arctic that may also include a Chinese component.

The threats NATO has to face to the alliance's maritime activities, and land territory, lead to a number of operational conclusions. Perhaps the most important is that the ability to achieve maritime security in the Norwegian Sea, and especially in the North Sea, must be ensured. Failure there is likely to have strategic consequences for the defence of both the Nordic region and the Baltic states. Looking at national orientations, it is clear that Norway plays a key role, and will have to carry a heavy load, when it comes to the protection of the maritime connections to the Nordic-Baltic region. This both in terms of its own ability and in supporting other countries' efforts, including by offering basing opportunities in Norway. In addition to Norway, the countries that can primarily be expected to participate in operations in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea are the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. All in all, this means that Norway will need to invest considerable resources in participating in and supporting naval activities in the Norwegian Sea. This means that it will primarily fall to Sweden and Finland to meet the Russian threat on the ground, at least before any reinforcements, mainly from the US, have arrived. Available Norwegian ground forces should focus primarily on Norwegian territory and be able to meet threats such as raids and out-flanking operations via the sea and airdrops targeting base areas and supply lines. Here it should be noted that the Russian Northern Fleet has a tradition of amphibious actions that stretches back to World War II.[xvi]  However, for reasons of sovereignty and the need for practical preparations in peacetime, as well as the connection to naval operations, Norway should have a reasonably good ability to meet a threat on the ground in Finnmark on its own, at least in the early stages of a conflict.

Spitsbergen and Bear Island pose a particular problem for Norway. It must be ensured that Russia cannot occupy any of the islands and use them to deploy sensors and long-range air defence and anti-ship systems, something that would make it more complicated for NATO to operate in parts of the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea and the Greenland Sea.

For Sweden and Finland, the need to be able to meet a Russian offensive in the north poses two major challenges: the limited number of early available units in the area and the ability to deploy units from other places to the area reasonably quickly. The area is sparsely populated, which is why the potential to mobilize personnel living in the region is limited in both countries. Even though Finland has a large army, by European standards a very large army[xvii], the threat to the Finnish heartland, the southern two-thirds of the country, limits the possibilities of reinforcing northern Finland. The majority of the population lives in the southern part of the country, and it is home to most of the Finnish industrial production, that is, the assets that constitutes the country's ability to defend itself. The fact that this part of Finland also borders the St. Petersburg region, which can be the staging area for large-scale military operations, accentuates the problem. The Swedish heartland is not threatened in the same way, which is why Sweden should have good opportunities to make a substantial contribution to the defence of the High North. However, such an orientation is not without problems: Sweden today only has a very limited number of ground combat units, and even fewer that have the ability to fight in the harsh environment that the High North entails; the connections between southern Sweden, where possible reinforcements could be found, are also very vulnerable. Between Stockholm and Luleå, the distance is about 1000 kilometres and any land transport will have to pass ten major rivers, where each river is only crossed by a few bridges. The possibility of knocking out or damaging these with modern long-range missiles mean that it must be expected that transports through Sweden in a north-south direction may experience serious disruptions.   

The deployment of foreign reinforcements to the High North is facing similar problems, how to get there and how to ensure a continuous flow of supplies? To a certain extent, the problems can be solved by pre-storing equipment and supplies in northern Finland or northern Sweden and then fly in the personnel. This is an attractive solution as it not only solves part of the transport problem, but also means that the units can be available on short notice. However, even if units are earmarked for operations in a certain area, in most cases they also have additional tasks, if events do not turn out as planned. For the United States, playing on a global stage, it would be very risky to lock too many resources to just one possible contingency. This means that if we talk of more extensive reinforcements, the vast majority of the equipment needed will have to be transported by sea to the area of operations, it will not be in place in advance. Incidentally, partly the same reasoning can be applied to the deployment of Swedish units from southern Sweden. Should their equipment be stored in the north so that only the personnel need to be transported to the intended area of operations, or should the unit's materiel also be in the south to ensure that the unit, reasonably quickly, can also solve other tasks than just in the High North?

In the case of reinforcing the High North, three possible reception areas for sea-transported reinforcements stand out:

-         Narvik in northern Norway, which is close to the likely area of operations, a couple of hundred kilometres, and has reasonably easily protected land connections through Swedish Lapland. However, sea transport to Narvik is very risky in view of the proximity to the basing areas of the Russian Northern Fleet. 

-         Trondheim, where the threat to maritime transport also exists but is probably easier to master as the distance that Russian submarines, planes or missiles must travel to reach the area has increased by about seven hundred kilometres.  Here, however, the problem of quite long and vulnerable land connections through Norway and Sweden begins to make itself felt. The biggest transport problem is probably the desire to be able to transport heavy equipment such as tanks and heavy artillery systems by rail. Thereby being dependent on very few bridges across several rivers.

-         Swedish ports on the West Coast, i.e. Gothenburg, are probably the alternative that provides the best opportunities to protect maritime transport, while at the same time creating the longest, most time-consuming and vulnerable land transports.

As the availability of ground combat units will be limited, especially in the early stages of a conflict, and that the transport of reinforcement units is associated with risks that may entail considerable delays, air forces, Nordic as well as from other NATO allies, will play an important role in initially delaying a Russian advance on the ground. Something that will require increased basing capabilities in the High North and stockpiling of large quantities of weapons. Long-range UAVs will also play an important role in covering the large areas, both in the early and later stages of an operation. The number of ground combat units will always be limited in relation to the size of the area of operations. Conducting a static defence will therefore not be possible. Operations on the ground will therefore have to be based on mobility and long-range firepower. For example, the Swedish and Finnish forces that primarily have to be able to meet an enemy advancing through northern Finland must also be prepared to carry out attacks in a northerly direction into Finnmark. An offensive movement covering several hundred kilometres.[xviii] 

The argument that the need for ground combat units in the High North can be limited due to the difficult terrain conditions, is often given far too much importance. The area is extraordinarily large by southern Swedish or continental standards. The combined land area of Troms, Finnmark, Swedish Lapland, Norrbotten and Finnish Lapland is about 85% of Germany's territory, or almost twice the size of the entire Baltic region.[xix] The road network is also considerably denser than a superficial view suggests. The forest-road network is extensive and there is rarely far between different road ends that allow you to "jump" from one road system to the next on load-bearing ground, and thereby create routes where you can move with all-terrain and tracked vehicles. In addition, modern combat vehicles, both tanks and armoured vehicles, have significantly higher off-road capabilities than was the basis for Swedish war planning in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The tests that were carried out, for example, when evaluating which new tank to buy in the early 1990s gave a frightening picture of how we had underestimated the capabilities of modern armoured vehicles when it came to operate in the very harsh terrain in the High North.[xx] There is a risk that by relying too much on the difficulties that the terrain in northern Sweden and Finland might create for an aggressor, we make the same mistake that the French General Staff made in 1940, when it assumed that the defence in the Ardennes could be solved with limited forces because the terrain there would not allow operations with large units.[xxi]

To this should be added tactical considerations. For example, what does it mean that it is the attacker who is the one who chooses the time and place for an attack. This means, among other things, that he is likely to be ahead of you at important places. For example, through helicopter landings, at places where it would optimal for you to destroy infrastructure, aiming at delaying his advance.

Overall, NATO's capabilities to counter Russian operations in the High North and surrounding sea areas should consist of:

-         Very well-developed ability to conduct anti-submarine operations and provide maritime security in general in the Norwegian Sea.

-         Ability to protect bases and other infrastructure in Northern Norway against air attacks (including protection against various types of missiles and drones) as well as good ability to meet threats on the ground in the form of sabotage, raids from the sea and air landings.

-         Ability to meet quite large Russian ground operations in the entire area between the Russian border and Troms county in Norway in mobile operations.

-         Ability to find/engage/attack ground targets with ground-based, long-range systems.

-         Be able to concentrate substantial air assets for operations in the High North at an early stage of a conflict.

-          Ensure rail and road connections from south to north in Sweden.


Some conclusions for Sweden regarding the defence of the High North

Of the capabilities listed above, Sweden's most important contribution to the alliance's ability to meet and repel a Russian attack in the High North would mainly be linked to ground operations and air defence. Capabilities that seem to be particularly important are:

-         To provide a large part of the ground forces required for the alliance´s defence of the High North, including: a couple of brigades with high mobility and good offensive power; long-range indirect fire, such as rocket artillery; drones for both reconnaissance and combat (FPVs); jaeger units for operations behind enemy lines. 

-         To have several air bases in northern Sweden making it possible to concentrate both Swedish and foreign air assets for operations in the High North.

-         To ensure the moving of Swedish and foreign military units and supplies from southern Sweden to the northernmost parts of the country, by being able to protect and restore sensitive connections, something that requires, among other things, air defence, engineering units and extensive resources for guarding sensitive infrastructure.

-         Norrbotten's (a county in northern Sweden) central location in the area, and good connections by rail, road, air and also by ship to Luleå, suggests that Sweden should also play a central role in handling logistics for ground and air operations in the High North. 

The list above gives a rough indication of the "Capability Targets" that NATO should set with regard to Swedish capabilities in the High North.[xxii]


The Baltic region

The Baltic region can roughly be divided into the following areas: the northern Baltic Sea with the Gulf of Bothnia[xxiii], Åland and the Gulf of Finland, which require certain specific military capabilities, and the southern Baltic Sea, where the defence of the Baltic States govern NATO's need for capabilities.

Northern Baltic Sea

The importance of the Bay of Bothnia is primarily constituted by the need to be able to operate maritime traffic between Sweden and Finland if ship movements on the Baltic Sea proper become too risky. The possibility of maintaining shipping between both countries is of great importance for Finland's import and export of all kinds of goods, but also for receiving military reinforcements and supplies. Carrying out similar transports by land would be more time-consuming, and not allow the movement of equal quantities of goods and would probably also be affected by Russia’s almost certain attempts to knock out the north-south connections in Sweden. Sea transport via the Gulf of Bothnia is also a way of supplying forces in northern Sweden, Norway and Finland, if land connections to the north of Sweden are interrupted. 

The importance of Åland is a function of the need to protect the maritime connections in the Gulf of Bothnia, as the possession of the archipelago is crucial when it comes to hinder Russian submarines to enter the Gulf of Bothnia. If Russia were to succeed in occupying the archipelago and deploying long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship systems there, all shipping to southern Finland and the northern Baltic States would be seriously impeded. In addition, both Swedish and Finnish air operations would be negatively affected. Apart from having to fly detours to avoid the risk of coming to close to Russian air defence systems, there could be a threat to nearby air bases in both Finland and Sweden. The distance between Mariehamn (on Åland) and the Arlanda or Uppsala airbases is about 130 kilometres, and it is about the same distance to Turku. Not an impossible distance for a modern air defence system like the S 400, nor for a rocket artillery system like the Russian Tornado, provided that target data can be obtained.[xxiv]   

The Gulf of Finland can be blocked to surface ships fairly easily by deploying anti-ship missiles on Finnish and Estonian territory. Both countries have such systems.[xxv] The short distance between Finland and Estonia, and the shallow waters, makes the use of mines an attractive option to block the bay from ship movements both on and below the surface. The bay is only 48 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. Kronstadt's former importance as a naval base has thus diminished considerably. However, shipbuilding and repair activities are still going on there.[xxvi] The base therefore still has military significance. In a case of war, it could perhaps be used as a base for submarines that may have some opportunities to get in and out through the Gulf of Finland. Despite extensive German and Finnish minefields during World War II, Russian submarines were not prevented from entering the Baltic Sea until a submarine net was stretched from Naissaari in Estonia to Porkkala in Finland.[xxvii]

The Southern Baltic and Baltic States - strategic importance

The strategic importance of the Baltic States is to a very large extent linked to NATO's credibility as a defence alliance. NATO must make it credible that the Baltic countries can and will be defended. Should the alliance fail to create the required deterrence capability, seen with Russian eyes, the risk increases drastically that Russia's imperial ambitions will once again include the Baltic countries. The consequences of such a failure would likely have repercussions both regionally and globally. In Europe, some states might begin to pursue a policy of appeasement, out of fear, or focusing on purely national interests, without regard of the security of its allies. The survival of the alliance would be threatened. As already mentioned, linked to the need to maintain sea connections across the North Sea to the Nordic-Baltic area, the consequences of failing to defend the Baltic States could be that American allies such as South Korea and Japan started to doubt both American will and ability to contribute to their defence, starting to consider nuclear weapons programs. Incidentally, such ideas have already been aired cautiously in both countries[xxviii], in fact also in Germany.[xxix] How NATOs, and thus by extension an American failure in the Baltics, would be interpreted in Beijing, is difficult to predict. However, the likelihood that Taiwan's security would increase is probably small.

NATO's security strategy from 2022 also points to the need to stop an aggressor early to avoid the civilian population in occupied parts being exposed to terror and persecution similar to what has happened in Ukraine in recent years.[xxx] A moral aspect that is intimately tied to the values the alliance was once created to protect.

Russian operational perspectives

From a Russian point of view, a military operation aimed at the Baltic States is a relatively straightforward undertaking. The countries have a long land border with Russia, in relation to their size. The distances are short, it is usually only about a hundred to two hundred kilometres before a Russian attack reaches vital objects such as capitals or ports and airfields. The latter being crucial when it comes to receiving reinforcements from other members of the alliance.

Bringing large forces forward quickly before an attack is facilitated by a well-developed rail and road network on the Russian side of the border. A legacy from the time when the Baltic states were part of the Soviet Union, and before that the Tsarist Russian Empire. For example, Latvia's border with Russia and Belarus is crossed by about twenty reasonably good roads, and three railway lines.[xxxi] Large parts of the countries' territory, together more than fifty percent of their combined area, are also within artillery range from Russian or Belarusian territory.[xxxii] The use of drones also benefits from the relatively short distances. The basing of NATO air assets in the Baltic States and also the use of ports will be associated with great risks, unless effective countermeasures are introduced.

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, together with Belarusian territory, provides good possibilities for creating flank protection for a Russian operation in the Baltic States. Creating hard-to-penetrate defence lines in Belarus and Kaliningrad can be done long before a possible attack on the Baltic states. On the other hand, blocking the so-called Suwalki Gap, the joint Polish-Lithuanian border, can only be done in connection with the start of an attack. However, the gap is only 60 km wide and can probably be taken, and partly blocked with mines, among other means, before NATO has had the time to act with larger forces. In addition, the entire area can be covered, from the very beginning of a campaign, with artillery fire from Kaliningrad and Belarus. The distances also allow the use of large numbers of simple drones. Altogether, it will not be easy for NATO to reinforce the Baltic states by land from central Europe.

The fact that the Baltic States have a land border with Russia provides good opportunities to protect the initial parts of a Russian operation against from air attacks with air defence systems deployed on Russian and Belarusian territory. Much like as right now in Ukraine, and where the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973 is the classic example.[xxxiii] The possibility to use its own aircraft will also be fairly good for Russia, as its air bases will be close to the area of operations.

The problem of isolating the Baltic States from the outside world in connection with a military operation directed against one or more Baltic countries is, from a Russian point of view, mainly linked to how to prevent reinforcements from being brought to the area by air or by sea transport across the Baltic Sea. To possess the Swedish island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea for deploying sensors and long-range air defence and anti-ship systems would be a great advantage. It would become more complicated and hazardous for NATO to bring reinforcements to the Baltic States. The Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa would also offer similar advantages as the possession of Gotland, but with the disadvantage that they would be more exposed to artillery fire and drone attacks from the Estonian mainland. It would also be easier for NATO to reconquer those islands than Gotland. This said, if left undefended they of course become obvious targets.


NATO - operational perspectives

The Baltic countries' own armed forces are very small in relation to the threats they face. In approximate numbers, Estonia has two brigades and four territorial defence battalions. There is also a British-led battalion within the framework of the NATO Forward Land Forces (FLF) concept. The majority of the units are reasonably well equipped: some high-priority units have CV 90s, tracked artillery and rocket artillery.[xxxiv]; Latvia has a standing brigade that today also includes foreign components from FLF units, in addition there are local defence units organized as four territorial brigades[xxxv]; Lithuania has three brigades and six territorial defence battalions, the German battalion in Lithuania will be converted into a permanently stationed brigade by around 2027.[xxxvi]

In all three Baltic countries, extensive rearmament and modernisation programmes are underway, including the acquisition of modern artillery systems, armoured vehicles and air defence systems. The foreign units that are in the Baltic States within the framework of the FLF, and which today constitute approximately one battalion battle group per country, will in the future be expanded to constitute one brigade per country. But the brigades will in case of an emergency have to be filled up with parts that are not in place in the host country (often the main part of the brigade will be stationed “at home” but earmarked for a war time assignment in one of the Baltic states).[xxxvii]


Since the Baltic countries' combined land border with Russia is in the order of seven hundred kilometres long, and that the aggressor is numerically superior with the ability to create threats in several directions at the same time, and also is the one who can choose time and place for an attack, he will only have to face limited parts of NATO's resources in the Baltics at the places where he chooses to attack. The forces that normally are in place in the Baltic States will in most cases be insufficient to repel a Russian attack if they cannot be reinforced. Above all what is needed are units that can launch counterattacks in the direction or directions where the attacker makes his main effort. What also will be crucial assets are air defence systems to meet the full range of air threats: drones, missiles of various kinds and qualified attack aircraft.

The problem with sending ground combat units to the Baltic States is threefold: the general lack of such units in the alliance, especially among its European members; the problems connected with bringing them there and the time aspect, they must not come too late.

Since the time aspect largely determines how and when any Swedish reinforcements in the Baltic countries can be of greatest use, here is a brief summary of how the Swedish Defence Commission views the possibilities for other countries, primarily the United States, to reinforce the Nordic-Baltic region. In its report of 26 April 2024, the Defence Commission assesses that the following time conditions apply with regard to the arrival of more substantial assets: air assets, days to weeks; naval forces weeks to months and ground forces months.[xxxviii]

To generate and lead reinforcements by land, there are several alternatives. The Multinational Corps Northeast (MCNE), headquartered in Szczecin, in northern Poland, could be an instrument for handling reinforcements to the Baltic States. As a rule, a corps does not have a fixed organisation, it is provided with resources according to task. However, the need to coordinate what is happening in the Baltic countries right now, including the setting up of three divisional staffs and integrating existing units in those structures, means that the MNCNE currently is focusing on unit development and war planning in the Baltic States. We are talking about creating a corps structure in the region of three reduced divisions with two or three brigades each and limited divisional resources.[xxxix]  In case of war, the corps could be reinforced. At present, in 2024, it could possibly be reinforced by a Polish and a German division, provided that they have been given a month or so for preparations before the war breaks out.[xl] Depending on the situation and the time available for preparations, it should not be ruled out that the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) also might have a role in this geographical area.[xli] This is to relieve MNCNE but also to send a signal in a crisis situation that the alliance means business. Within the framework of NATO's operational planning, it is likely that American units also can have a role in this area, but it will take time before any of these units can be in place.

In the longer term, around 2030, NATO's resources in Eastern Europe will have increased. Poland is estimated to have six divisions by that time.[xlii] Poland has also recently set up a corps staff.[xliii] However, it is questionable whether any corps, wherever it comes from, and even if it has several subordinated divisions and has a fairly high level of readiness, could reach the Baltic States from Poland before it is too late. To succeed in this, it must first break through the Suwalki Gap, which Russia probably will try to block as the very first thing it does when attacking any Baltic country.

In addition to physically blocking the gap itself with mines and ground forces, the entire gap can be covered with indirect fire, artillery, from both Kaliningrad and Belarus. Not only will it be difficult and time-consuming to get through the gap, but it will also has to be kept open so that thousands of vehicles, most of them unprotected trucks, can continuously cross the gap to supply the fighting units that will have to advance several hundred kilometres in a northerly direction. It is about 250 kilometres, as the crow, flies from the Polish border to Riga. It is doubtful if this is possible unless the artillery and drone systems in Kaliningrad and Belarus have been eliminated.

It is therefore likely that both Kaliningrad and nearby parts of Belarus must also be taken as part of an operation that will enable larger forces to advance through the gap. A task that can be both difficult and time-consuming. The fighting in Ukraine over the past two years has clearly shown the difficulties of knocking out even improvised defences supported by indirect fire and drones. Something that should not be as surprising as it sometimes seems to be in the debate. It is rare for campaigns to have a course similar to the Six-Day War of 1967 or the Kuwait War of 1990, when rapid advances on the ground led to the collapse of enemy resistance within days. Altogether, there are strong reasons to consider solutions other than an advance through the Suwalki Gap to support the Baltic States with ground forces in the early stages of a conflict.

The alternative, if the Suwalki Gap is a doubtful option, is to move reinforcements across the Baltic Sea by air or ship. The threats to such a solution also seem more manageable. The Russian Navy's bases in the Baltic Sea, Baltisjk and Kronstadt are both difficult to use after the outbreak of hostilities. Any assets in Kronstadt are effectively trapped in the Gulf of Finland. Possibly with the exception of submarines that might be able to bypass the Finnish and Estonian anti-ship missiles and mines that are intended to block all traffic in and out of the Gulf of Finland.  The problem, if it really is such a great problem, is the Russian naval forces in Baltisjk, in Kaliningrad. But even there, it can be questioned what chances Russian ships have of surviving both in harbour and if they try to get out into the Baltic Sea. The naval port of Baltisjk is located less than 40 kilometres from Polish territory and can thus, without major problems, be reached by artillery fire. This with both conventional and precision guided shells. The entire Frisches Haff is located less than 50 kilometres from the Polish border and thus does not offer any sheltered anchorages. The distance to Baltisjk from the Lithuanian border is less than 120 kilometres, beyond normal artillery range but well within the range of rocket artillery, such as HIMARS. A system which is being procured by the Lithuanian Armed Forces with delivery in 2025.[xliv] [xlv]

It is also difficult for ships, including submarines, to get out into the Baltic Sea from Baltisjk, as it can only be done through a canal about four hundred meters wide. It is not only Russian submarines that can lay mines, so can those belonging to NATO members.[xlvi]

The overall conclusion regarding the threat to NATO's shipping in the Baltic Sea is that Russian surface forces will have extremely limited possibilities to attack seaborne reinforcements heading for the Baltic states, if they have not gone to sea before the outbreak of hostilities, knowing that they will never return to port. However, an eventuality that must not be neglected, could be a coup aiming at occupying Gotland or Åland. Sacrificing a number of ships could perhaps be a price worth paying if it gave a clear operational advantage. Russia's means of influencing the movement of reinforcements and supplies by sea to the Baltic States will most probably consist of submarines and land-based and airborne missiles, but also submarine-laid and air-dropped mines.

If one weighs together the Russian perspective and NATO's consequential needs to deter Russia from military adventures and, if necessary, to defend the Baltic states, a list of desirable capabilities in the Baltic Sea region would be roughly as follows:

-         In the Baltic States, create a concept and capabilities making it possible to delay a Russian advance with a combination of peacetime preparations (fortifications etc) and counterattacks (in a broad sense - mechanised units, indirect fire, drones), forcing an attacker to time-consuming and costly attacks already close to the border. Thereby creating the time needed for reinforcements from other allies to arrive.

-         To be able to protect infrastructure that is essential to receive reinforcements, both against an enemy on the ground, and against a very wide range of air threats.

-         That foreign support and reinforcements can be delivered in several stages, according to the principle "rather a little on time, than much that is delivered too late". The order of supporting actions could then be: fast/immediate air and missile operations; a first batch of ground forces that have their equipment stored in the Baltic States are flown in; early arrival of heavier units from the immediate neighbourhood who can fight to gain time until more distant reinforcements can arrive.

-         To be able to defend the islands in the Baltic Sea: Gotland, Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Åland against a coup that might be the beginning of hostilities in the Baltic Sea region.

-         That the naval forces in the Baltic Sea have good anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities to be able to protect shipping, and also have good mine-clearing capabilities to keep sea lanes and ports open.

-         Offensive ground combat capability in Poland and Germany that is powerful enough to be able to carry out an offensive into the Baltic States with high set goals, as retaking territory that might have been lost earlier. 

Several of the capabilities sketched above are presently being developed, including: fortification measures on the Baltic states' borders with Russia, development of the countries' ground forces to be able to protect areas important for receiving reinforcements, pre-positioning of equipment so that units that are part of the FLF can be quickly reinforced with personnel arriving by air. What is missing are additional air defence and ground combat units that, at an early stage, can reinforce the FLF and national units in place, while waiting for larger reinforcements, mainly from the United States, to arrive. There is also a shortage of naval assets to protect shipping across the Baltic Sea, especially in the early stages of a conflict.

Some conclusions for Sweden regarding the defence of the Baltic Sea region

Sweden has good possibilities to contribute to the defence of the Baltic States, and thus also increase NATO's deterrence capability. The strategic consequences of the alliance failing to defend the Baltic States means that Swedish contributions must be assessed from a strategic point of view, and not just seen as an operational matter. The following list of capabilities might therefore have a disproportionate impact on the security of Northern Europe.

Sweden should:

-         Have make extensive preparations for early deployment of other countries' air forces on Swedish bases.

-         Be able to carry out extensive, and early, operations with ground forces in the Baltic States, some brigades with necessary supporting assets, to cover the time gap between a possible Russian attack and the arrival of reinforcements from more faraway places, mainly the US.

-         Be able to contribute to the defence of coastal areas on the other side of the Baltic Sea, such as the Estonian islands Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.

-         Have a good ability to protect shipping in the Baltic Sea against submarine and air threats.

-         Be able to carry out operations with Swedish submarines to both hunt Russian submarines and to hinder Russian naval forces leaving their bases.

-         Already in the very early stages of a crisis, without extensive extra preparations, be able to defend Gotland against a limited Russian attack.

Here it is important to remind ourselves of the old truth that also just credible planning to deploy reinforcements/be able to intervene often has a quite high deterrence value.

Making it clear that Sweden can and will contribute with substantial resources to the defence of the Baltic States is therefore perhaps Sweden's most important contribution to continued stability in the Baltic Sea region.  


Sweden's and Finland's accession to NATO has significantly improved the alliance's ability to defend the entire Nordic-Baltic region. The defence of the High North can be coordinated, and it will be easier for the countries' armed forces to support each other. Norway can thus more clearly concentrate its resources on the strategically crucial task of helping to keep the sea routes to Europe and Scandinavia open. This is by making it more difficult for the Russian Northern Fleet operate in the Barents and Norwegian Seas. The joint role of Sweden and Finland in countering a Russian ground offensive in the High North is clarified and joint operations can be prepared. Finland's operational depth for conducting air operations will increase and the protection of sea and air connections can be coordinated with Sweden.

The fact that Swedish territory can be used, and preparations can be made to support the Baltic countries will increase the alliance's ability to defend them against a Russian attack. A clear strategic/operational task by SACEUR to the Swedish Armed Forces to help to cover the time gap that exists before ground forces from more distant countries can arrive would further contribute to increase the alliance's deterrence capability in the region.  

At present, all countries in the region, with the possible exception of Finland, have serious gaps in their ability to fight a war. The problems and shortcomings that exist can be corrected, to some extent it is already happening, but the next few years are cause for concern.



All searches on the internet referred to here have taken place during April 2024.

290622-strategic-concept.pdf (

Berben Paul, Iselin Bernard, Die Deutschen kommen, Christian Wegner Verlag, Hamburg 1969

Boulégue Mathieu, The militarization of Russian polar polities, Chatham House, June 2022

Breaching the Bar-Lev Line | Proceedings - October 2003 Vol. 129/10/1,208 (

Defence Cooperation Agreement Sweden – USA

Majority for several new US military bases, NRK, News Centre Nordland, 12 Feb 2024

Defence of Peace and Freedom, NOU Norway's public reports 2023: 14,

Henricsson Ulf, C PS letter 34/91 to the Supreme Commander, CA and others

HIMARS | Lockheed Martin

Igor Delanoe, The Russian Navy and the Arctic, Network for Strategic Analysis, 23 June 2023  Network for Strategic Analysis (NSA) (

Kalibr (missile family) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Map, Baltic States 1:600 000, Jana Seta Map Publishers, Riga LV, ISBN 9984-07-281-9

Marine corps prepositioning program norway hi-res stock photography and images - Alamy

NATO - Topic: Defence Planning Process

NATO - Topic: NATO's military presence in the east of the Alliance

NATO ARRC | About us

Northern Fleet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Petsamo–Kirkenes offensive - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The project SV-A-R: Sweden in the EU and NATO – Deterrence and Resilience – ROYAL SWEDISH ACADEMY OF WAR SCIENCES (

Pål Jonson participates in the Trøndelag meeting in Norway -

Strengthened defence capability, Sweden as an ally, Ds 2024:6, Ministry of Defence

Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2023 Part I: National Capabilities Report No. FOI-R--5527--SE

Where does the EU ́s gas come from?

Yamal project - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia



[i] Here, the Nordic-Baltic region is roughly defined as the Nordic and Baltic countries, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea, the Arctic Ocean and the White Sea. However, geographical boundaries when it comes to military activities will always be fluid, partly because different weapon systems can operate at very long distances, such as cruise missiles.


[ii] What is referred to in the article as the High North roughly includes: the Norwegian Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea, the White Sea, Norway (including Spitsbergen), Sweden and Finland north of the 65th parallel.


[iv] Defending Peace and Freedom, page 78


[v] The Russian Northern Navy is the strongest of the Russian navies and comprises approximately the following number of ships: 7 strategic nuclear submarines; 20 attack submarines both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric; 10 larger surface combat ships type frigates; 7 smaller surface combat ships type missile boats; 6 air regiments with long-range aircraft for reconnaissance and anti-ship operations, attack aircraft, fighter aircraft, etc.; 5 anti-aircraft regiments with a mix of long-range and short-range systems; 1 coastal artillery/missile brigade;  3 naval infantry regiments (of which, however, large parts are currently assessed to be in Ukraine); many different types of special units for sabotage, electronic warfare, etc. The information on the number of vessels of different types is uncertain in view of the fact that some may constitute a reserve, be in shipyards, etc.  Northern Fleet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[vi]  In 2020, the Yamal fields produced 20% of Russia's gas, and the fields were estimated to account for 40% of Russia's gas production in the long term, by 2030. Yamal project - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


[vii] Boulégue Mathieu, The militarization of Russian polar polities, article, Chatham House, June 2022

[viii] Igor Delanoe, The Russian Navy and the Arctic, Network for strategic Analysis, The article states that six Project 0636.3 submarines will be added to the Northern Fleet.


[ix] Kalibr (missile family) - Wikipedia, the system comes in several different versions and can be fired from many different platforms.

[x] GIUK, Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom


[xi] Defence Cooperation Agreement Sweden – USA, agreement between Sweden and the United States regarding the stationing of American forces and storage of supplies in Sweden, where, among other things, 17 sites have been made available for this purpose.


[xii] Majority for several new US military bases, NRK, Nyhetssenter Nordland, 12 Feb 2024, the agreement also applies to garrisons and naval bases, in addition to the mentioned air bases.


[xiv]  alternative with, for example, South Korean nuclear weapons will probably not to be hampered by political disagreements in South Korea, over 70% of the population is in favor of national nuclear weapons according to "War and peace in Asia", The Economist, April 13th 2024, page 49.


[xv] Where does the EU ́s gas come from?

[xvii] Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2023 Part I: National Capabilities Report No. FOI-R--5527—SE, page 72, the Finnish Army alone comprises 185,000 personnel, in total the Finnish Armed Forces consist of approximately 250,000 personnel, in addition to which there are additional trained reserves of several hundred thousand persons.

[xviii] For example, the distance from Rovaniemi in northern Finland to Alta in Norway is about 400 km.


[xix] Square kilometers: Troms 25,876, Finnmark 48,631, Sweden Lapland 109,702, Norrbotten 26,671, Fi Lapland 92,666, Germany 357,592, Estonia 45,226, Latvia 64573 and Lithuania 65,286.


[xx] Henricsson Ulf, C PS handletter 34/91 to the Supreme Commander, CA and others


[xxi] Berben Paul, Iselin Bernard, Die Deutschen kommen, Ch Wegner Verlag, Hamburg 1969, p. 40

[xxii] In the NATO planning process, military capability targets are prepared for the alliance's members every four years. A process based on the Alliance's Strategic Concept and the political orientation of the various countries for their role in the Alliance. NATO - Topic: Defence Planning Process


[xxiii] Here, the Bay of Bothnia is used as a collective term for the Bothnian Sea, the Kvarken and the Gulf of Bothnia.


[xxiv] This is not to say that it would lead to the cessation of all flight operations at Arlanda, but flying with large transport aircraft would become more risky. From a Russian point of view, the big problem would probably be to get sufficiently good target data. Examples of air defense systems could be the S 400 Triumph, the S-400 Triumph – Wikipedia and the long-range rocket artillery system "Tornado" 


[xxv] Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2023 Part I: National Capabilities Report No. FOI-R--5527—SE, page 76 regarding the Gabriel anti-ship missile in Finland, page 89 regarding the Blue Spear 5G anti-ship missile in Estonia

[xxx] NATO Strategic Concept 2022, item 21


[xxxi] Map, Baltic States 1:600 000, Jana Seta Map Publishers, Riga LV, ISBN 9984-07-281-9 "Reasonably good roads" should in this context be seen from a military point of view, i.e. useful for moving larger military units. They are not what you would consider a good country road, paved with at least two lanes etc. In several cases, it is a gravel road with acceptable load capacity.


[xxxii] Artillery range has been estimated as 50 km.


[xxxiii] Breaching the Bar-Lev Line | Proceedings - October 2003 Vol. 129/10/1,208 ( "The Egyptians used the advanced surface-to-air missiles to make Israeli pilots fly closer to the ground and into the range of the air defense artillery. So effective was the Egyptian air defense concept that Tel Aviv ordered its pilots not to fly within ten miles of the canal."

[xxxiv] Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2023

Part I: National Capabilities Report No. FOI-R--5527—SE, pp. 91, 93


[xxxv] Ibid, pp. 99, 101


[xxxvi] Ibid, pp. 111, 116,


[xxxviii] Strengthened defence capability, Sweden as an ally, Ds 2024:6, Ministry of Defence, page 105

[xl] Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2023 Part I: National Capabilities Report No. FOI-R--5527—SE, pp. 129, 148

[xli] NATO ARRC | About us ARRC is a mainly British Corps Headquarters that is intended to be moved at short notice virtually anywhere to lead extensive land operations, leading several divisions. The corps has no fixed allocation of units.


[xlii] Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2023 Part I: National Capabilities Report No. FOI-R--5527—SE, page 130


[xliii] Ibid, page 130


[xlv] Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2023 Part I: National Capabilities Report No. FOI-R--5527—SE, page 113


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