Author: Timo Hellenberg


On 21st May, Russian authorities decided unilaterally to change the country’s maritime borders with Lithuania and Finland in the Baltic Sea, according to a draft government decree published on the legal acts portal. The document, prepared by the Russian Defense Ministry, says that Russia intends to declare part of the waters in the eastern Gulf of Finland and territory in the Kaliningrad region as its internal waters. To achieve this objective, Russia has changed the geographical coordinates of the points that define the baselines from which the width of Russia’s territorial sea and the adjacent zone along the coast and islands are measured.

The Estonian Internal Security Service just recently released its annual report on ‘International Security and Estonia 2024,’ according to which the militarization of Russian society is ongoing at all levels, and the regime is progressively adopting a totalitarian character. The war in Ukraine is the key driver of Russia’s internal political dynamics. This conflict, enduring in intensity, increasingly aggravates domestic political and societal strains, adding to the burden on Putin’s regime.

Indeed, Russian security services have detained an alarming number of foreigners and Russian nationals on allegations of working with foreign intelligence since launching its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This operational mode is set to intensify in the Russian regions, which are considered especially geostrategically important, among them Karelia and Primorsky kray.

Europe aims to increase its arms production by 2027, with a total of 1.5 billion euros in subsidies and tax incentives paid from the EU budget. The EU member states should set themselves the goal of spending at least 50 percent of the funds planned for arms procurement in the European internal market by 2030. Almost 80 percent of the funds currently go to countries outside the EU, and 60 percent to the United States alone. In Estonia, the ECDI (Estonian Center for Defense Investments) signed a deal worth around 200 million euros to order both 4×4 and 6×6 vehicles from Turkey.

The first ever European Defense Industry Strategy (EDIS) outlines not only the challenges currently faced by the European Defense Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB), but also the opportunity to tap its full potential, aiming to facilitate cross-border cooperation for arms production, purchase, and ownership, and to create an EU market for defense, with an immediate need for a 100-billion-euro fund to boost overall defense cooperation.

The European Defense Industry Program (EDIP) was presented by the EC as a new legislative initiative that will bridge from short-term emergency measures, adopted in 2023 and ending in 2025, to a more structural and longer-term approach to achieve defense industrial readiness.

The European Council decided on March 18th to allocate €5 billion under the European Peace Facility to support Ukraine militarily. This decision increases the financial ceiling of the European Peace Facility (EPF), and establishes a dedicated Ukraine Assistance Fund (UAF). The UAF will focus on increasing joint procurement from the European defense industries, and on maximizing the EU’s added value. The Estonian Ministry of Defense suggested that allocating €120 billion a year to military aid to Ukraine is a ballpark figure for what should be enough for Ukraine to triumph. Eurobonds could be used to finance part of this amount.


The Baltic Countries

Today, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are taking their commitment to forklift the Baltic regional security to the next level with the establishment of a “Baltic Defense Line.” This network of hundreds of bunkers and other defense installations along their eastern borders will create a mutual defense zone and a framework for joint use of weapons systems.

As part of this effort, Estonia will allocate €60 million to construct 600 bunkers along its 294-kilometer border with Russia, each capable of holding up to ten people, and designed to withstand a direct hit from a 152-millimeter caliber projectile.

The Baltic countries and Poland border the Russian territory and the “Suwalki Corridor” between Belarus and Kaliningrad, and, as a result, they have kept defense spending consistently above 2% of GDP for years. Latvia is currently at around 2.1 percent and Poland is at 2.42 percent (aiming for 4). Lithuania is aiming to increase its defense budget to 3.5 percent, with Estonia following close behind with some 3 percent.


Central and Northern Europe

Among NATO members, it is Poland that allocated the largest part of its GDP to defense in 2023. “Warsaw spent 54 percent of the country’s military budget on the purchase of equipment alone – only Finland can match this with a similar indicator (51 percent)” – notes Rzeczpospolita.

Not only does Poland spend the most on defense in relation to GDP – 3.92 percent – but also its spending on the purchase of equipment is proportionally the largest. In 2023, Poland spent 54 percent of its military budget on defense equipment.

Finland (joined in April 2023) is one of NATO’s largest gross-financiers, as the Northern Lion spends about 2.4 percent on defense.

Sweden is set to launch two new A26 attack submarines, Blekinge and Skåne, in 2027 and 2028. These 66-meter-long diesel-electric subs will patrol NATO’s eastern reaches under the Baltic Sea.

Other NATO countries are also investing in new submarines. Norway has ordered four from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, while The Netherlands has received bids from TKMS, Saab Kockums, and France’s Naval Group for four submarines. Denmark is also considering reversing its move to dispose of its fleet.

At the same time, Berlin is taming the bear back into the family of European nation-states with independent defense capabilities. “In just five or eight years, Germany could be at war with Russia”, the defense minister Boris Pistorius warned recently in a Die Welt interview.

The Federal Minister of Defense is working on various models to increase the number of personnel in the Bundeswehr. There are three options to choose from for a return to military service, and it has been decided that a peacetime scale of at least 230,000 German soldiers is appropriate and realistic. In addition, a reserve of at least 100,000 men integrated into the active troops is needed, half of which is a permanent reserve unit with compulsory military service.

Meanwhile, Lithuania is planning to increase its defense budget to 3.5% and a total of 5,000 German soldiers – a German brigade – will be transferred to Lithuania. Technical details will be agreed during 2024 (including host country support services, funding and operations), but it is known that the core of this brigade will consist of five battalions, which includes tank and artillery battalions.

The Arctic

Global tensions are on the rise in the Arctic, raising concerns about military activities and the potential for conflict. Russia has stated that in order to protect its national interests, it may reconsider its participation in the UNCLOS in part of the Arctic. “If you look at the Arctic from above, 64% of the circumference belongs to Russia. We have consolidated all this and are obliged to protect everything that our ancestors passed on to us,” Nikolai Kharitonov, Chairman of the State Duma Committee for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic, told Izvestia on 18th March.

Following the latest enlargement, NATO now has ever-more strategic interests in the High North and Arctic, with five Nordic NATO countries and all together 7 Arctic states as NATO members. Yet, in addition to the so-called Suwalki Gap on the border between Poland and Lithuania, the Arctic is likely to be NATO’s second Achilles’ heel in the event of a war with Russia, as the area is difficult for Western troops to reach – and the defense of the Norwegian fjords can only succeed if NATO controls the Barents Sea. But that could be a challenge. According to its own military doctrine, Russia wants to be “the leading power” in the Arctic, and claims the 5,600-kilometer Northern Sea Route for itself. The Kola Peninsula is home to the Russian Northern Fleet- in addition to large missile battlecruisers, this also includes several nuclear submarines, which are intended to ensure maritime nuclear second-strike capability in the event of an attack.

A case in point is Spitsbergen, a Norwegian territory that has been home to Russian settlements for almost a century. Die Welt reports that hundreds of Russian citizens are allowed to stay legally on Spitsbergen, 650 kilometers from the Norwegian mainland, thanks to the “Spitsbergen Treaty” of 1920, which Russia seems to interpret much more broadly than Norway. However, the real incentive for the Kremlin is not just mining, but existential control of the Strait for nuclear second strike capability. If a conflict arises, are we prepared for Arctic warfare where the other party is willing to put everything on the line?

The most popular war scenario assumes that the Russians will prioritize cutting the Suwalki Corridor that runs between northwestern Belarus (around Grodno) and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to prevent NATO from reinforcing or supplying the Baltic States, while Russian armored and airborne units seize the Baltic States themselves. This scenario also assumes that the Russians will seek to prepare and attack fast enough to avoid giving NATO time to bring in large reinforcements- it would take three weeks even for Polish enforcements to reach Vilnius. It also considers a Russian invasion force largely drawn from units in the newly-reestablished Leningrad and Moscow Military Districts, as those forces could move to attack positions and launch an invasion much more rapidly.

If Russia defeats Ukraine, NATO will face tremendous challenges in defending its northeastern members. The Russians would also impress hundreds of thousands or even millions of Ukrainians into military service, along with the industrial defense base Ukrainians are now constructing, significantly increasing Russia’s military and economic potential.

In this dire scenario, NATO would face huge Russian conventional forces along its entire border, from the Black Sea to the Arctic.

This threat would pin NATO forces in southeastern Europe and would draw additional forces from the US and Western European NATO states to southern and central Europe. These NATO troops, inexperienced in fighting modern mechanized war, would be staring down a battle-hardened Russian military, emboldened from its victory in Ukraine.

Russia could use this as a pretext to deploy troops to the region via its Zapad 2024 exercise, involving 50,000 troops in western Russia and Belarus from September.

Medium-range missile systems deployed to its exclave of Kaliningrad could allow Russia to exploit the interim period after the U.S. election and repeat its 2014 invasion of Crimea, but this time on NATO territory.

By December 2024, border conflicts and “unrests with numerous casualties” are then highly possible in the “Suwalki Corridor” between Belarus and Kaliningrad, along the Polish-Lithuanian border.