Responding To Russia’s Threats In The Baltics Is Like Playing ‘Whack-a-Mole’

October 22, 2014
Swedish minesweeper HMS Kullen patrols the Stockholm Archipelago October 19 2014, searching for what the military says is a foreign threat in the waters |Reuters

Not long after an Estonian counter-intelligence (KAPO) officer was kidnapped and paraded before Moscow TV cameras, Sweden is now playing its own version of “whack-a-mole,” with its navy hunting for phantom objects after reports suggest a Russian submarine or mini-sub is stranded in its waters.

It is not clear exactly what is happening. Reports have come out that Sweden has intercepted an encrypted distress signal from the sub,and  a grainy looking photograph was released which purported to show the sub while there were rumors of a black-clad man wading ashore.

Yet the strangest part of the whole tale (besides Russia trying to say that it was a Dutch submarine which was was actually safely docked in full view of the city of Tallinn, Estonia) was a Liberian flagged oil tanker, NS Concord, zigzagging across the oceans in no apparent direction or order, almost as if it was searching for something missing on the ocean floor. Adding to the intrigue is that the Concord is owned by Novo Ship, based in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, which is in turn owned by Sovcomflot, a state-owned oil transport company whose CEO is Sergei Frank, a rumored close associate of Vladimir Putin.

Almost as if on cue, and to add even more intrigue to the matter, a Russian research vessel sailed from St. Petersburg towards Sweden trailed by Dutch warships, but curiously turned off its location transponder when it approached the region.

Despite the scattered and sketchy information, it does appear that some sort of Russian mini-submersible was or is still in the waters around Stockholm. And this is not the first sign of Russian interest in Sweden. Last year two Russian TU-22M3 bombers escorted by two SU-27 fighters carried out a mock bombing run on Stockholm. Last month two SU-24 jets violated Swedish airspace seemingly to test its air response (The Swedes scrambled two Jas-39 Gripen fighters but could not reach the intruders before they returned to Russian airspace), and Russian fighters recently buzzed a Swedish surveillance plane. Not to mention a large and very public military exercise in the Kaliningrad enclave, Zapad 2013.

All of this is indicative of Russia’s new found assertiveness, especially in the Baltics. Sweden, while nominally neutral, has always skewed towards NATO and Moscow has never been under any illusions as to which side Sweden would look to in a confrontation.

The Small, But Growing, Baltic Fleet

The pressure of the situation has been increased due to the fact that the Russian Baltic Fleet is based a short hop across from Stockholm, with its main fleet at Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad enclave (a smaller portion of the fleet is at the Leningrad Naval Base in St. Petersburg and Kronstadt). Despite the initial worry that a sub from Russia’s Baltic Fleet (BF) is dangerously close to Stockholm, the BF is primarily a coastal defense force (really more of a flotilla than a fleet) as opposed to the true blue-water aspirations of its larger and better equipped neighboring Northern Fleet. The BF has not benefited from increased defense spending compared to its Northern or Black Sea Fleet brethren. The Baltic Fleet is also hamstrung by its location and deteriorating infrastructure in the surrounded Kaliningrad enclave.

The Baltic Fleet consists of four large (ish) warships: two project 956 (Sovremennyi class) destroyers, Nastorchivyy and Bespokoinyy; and two Project 11540 frigates, Neustrashimyy and Yaroslav Mudryy. It has also acquired three new Project 20380 corvettes, and operates two Project 877 (kilo) class diesel electric submarines (the kind perfect for shallow coastal operations, although these are most likely too big for Stockholm and its surrounding islands). Beyond this rather modest force the BF operates a host of landing craft, minesweepers and missile corvettes. The BF also hosts a rotation of vessels and ships from the Northern Fleet for training (The Leningrad Navy Base trains almost all officers for the Russian Navy) and is slated to receive several new vessels in the coming years either for sea trials or training before going to other fleets (and is sure to try to retain a couple for itself). These include six Project 636 Improved Kilo Class (Varshavyanka) submarines, six Project 11356R Improved Talwar Class frigates (for the Black Sea Fleet), several new Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov class) frigates, Project 20385 corvettes and Project 677 submarines. (One can note the plans for large amounts of frigate class vessels. The Russian naval production industry is not materially capable of producing much bigger and a frigate is essentially the largest class of ship it can effectively produce).1[1. 1. Most figures come from the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.]

Russia Testing NATO Response in the Baltics

The Baltic Fleet’s weakness aside, the Kremlin is increasingly comfortable relying on displays of its improving military might to impress upon the Baltic states that Russia is the dominant power in the region and that NATO’s help may not be as reassuring as previously thought (one possible motive for the abduction of the Estonian intel officer several days after a visit by President Obama is that Russia may have wanted to reinforce exactly this notion). Sweden is also not the only nation to face air incursions. Scrambles by NATO’s Baltic Air Mission for violations of Latvian airspace have gone from five in 2010 to more than 180 in the last year, while Lithuania has seen the incursions rise from four to 132, and even Finland has registered five incursions this year.

These aggressive actions, resembling the game of “whack-a-mole” due to the sudden appearance and disappearance of the Russia aircraft with little or no comment from the Kremlin, have not gone unnoticed by the countries in the region. Sweden has already committed to increasing its defense posture after years of decline, and the Baltic States are at the forefront of trying to establish a NATO rapid reaction force for fear of “little green men” showing up uninvited.

This aggressive signaling is a key component of Russia’s foreign policy strategy. So much so that the Kremlin is committed to efforts to modernize its military even as its economy hemorrhages capital. Russia has posted its lowest growth rates since 2009 and the price of oil, upon which the economy of Russia relies, has dramatically dropped in price to around $90 a barrel. Sanctions have not helped the situation, with the ruble hovering around 40 rubles to a US dollar, the lowest it has ever been, and capital flight continuing to plague the country. Despite this, Russia has announced increases to its military budget. The State Duma Defense Committee recently gave its support to increase spending in 2015 to 3.36 trillion rubles ($84.19 billion), increasing defense spending to 4.2% of GDP from 3.4% in 2014, 3.2% in 2013 and 3% in 2012. Defense expenditures will now account for 20.8% of the budget, up from 17.6% in 2014. But military modernization plans come at the expense of economic growth and social investment. The increasingly unsustainable military expenditures have even led Finance Minister Anton Siluanov to call for a rethink of such large expenditures, “A new defense program will be prepared now, and in its framework we want to reconsider the amount of resources that will be spent from the budget in order to make it more realistic,” he said.

The Politics of Militarism

The increased expenditures also have an explicitly political aspect to them. Rather than being spent to qualitatively improve the conditions of military life and to incentivize more professional troops, almost all of the increases in spending will be spent on acquiring new, modern equipment to fulfill the requirements of providing the military with 70% new equipment by 2020. As Alexander Golts noted, “…in 2015 the money would primarily go toward upgrading existing weapons and for ‘new models of weapons and military and specialized equipment.”

The rationale for this has more to do with social subsidies than actual qualitative military improvement. The monolithic Russian Defense industry employs vast amounts of people and close Putin associates own or operate associated companies and industries that benefit from the largesse and budgetary spending on military equipment. Golts notes that, “of course, this is no accident. Close Putin associates already hold control over all of Russia’s major assets, including the production of oil, gas and steel…And now, despite the country’s economic crisis, Putin’s desire to confront the insidious West creates an opportunity for his associates to pocket a few more billion dollars.”

In fact spending on improving the conditions of troops and professionalizing troops will actually decrease in coming years according to State Duma defense committee chairman Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, “The public part of funding for the armed forces’ operational costs in 2015 will total only 807 billion rubles [$20 billion], down 61 billion rubles [$1.5 billion] from 2014. In 2016 and 2017, spending will total 844 billion rubles [$21 billion] and 770 billion rubles [$19 billion] respectively.”

It ultimately seems likely that some revision of these policies is inevitable if economic trends continue, not to mention the fact that the Russian defense industry is incapable of fulfilling the planned contracts to meet qualitative standards.

That is why the Baltics should be more worried about hybrid threats, such as cyber warfare (which Estonia learned to fear during a large 2007 cyber-attack and, as a result, now hosts a NATO cyber research center), informational warfare, unconventional troops, and the occasional air incursion intended to destabilize, all of which may pose more of a threat than the Baltic fleet. While there are few safe bets when analyzing Russia, my money is on more of these “whack-a-mole” situations in store for the Baltics.