The Baltic Sea, a semienclosed northern sea, is one of the world’s most historic and important waterways for trade. The sea is 865 nautical miles (nm) long, with a maximum width of 104 nm and an average depth of 180 feet. The Danish Straits in the southwest restrict the flow of salt water from the North Sea, and, as a result, most of the water in the Baltic Sea is brackish—nearly fresh water with very low salinities in the northern and eastern extremities. The Baltic Sea’s northern and eastern reaches—the Gulf of Bothnia and Gulf of Finland (which extends to St. Petersburg, Russia)—are seasonally ice-covered. The sea ice, which can cover every Finnish port, requires close coastal state cooperation and operation of an advanced winter navigation system to facilitate maritime commerce.
Home to an estimated 85 million people in the surrounding watershed, the Baltic Sea is one the most stressed marine ecosystems on the planet because of agricultural runoff, overfishing, and intense marine traffic (during 2019, there were more than 1,800 cruise ship calls in Baltic ports). To address these serious pollution challenges, all Baltic Sea states signed the 1974 Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area, which constituted the foundation of the Helsinki Commission (HelCom)—a regional platform for environmental policy-making. An updated convention—signed in 1992 and in force since 2000—includes the European Union as a new member, Russia replacing the Soviet Union, and the three, newly independent Baltic states.
The environmental security challenges in the Baltic Sea will likely intensify in the decades ahead with increasing marine traffic and regional warming. HelCom requires unified objectives and pollution standards, and tighter national regulatory enforcement in response to a changing climate. How Russia engages in the work of HelCom will be a key factor in effectively responding to the region’s environmental challenges.
Since 2004, each Baltic Sea coastal state (Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, and Denmark), except Russia, has been an EU member. This has brought some cohesion of national interests beyond key economic ties and an enhanced awareness of the need for collective regional security, especially focused on protecting the three newest Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) from potential Russian aggression. A new geopolitical reality also will emerge with Finland and Sweden in NATO. With their accession, eight of the nine Baltic Sea states will be aligned with both the EU and NATO. The challenge will be to unify their capacities and interests to enhance security in the Baltic Sea.
Russia has strategic interests in the Baltic Sea region—notably, exporting oil by tankers and gas by pipeline, and projecting power with its Baltic Sea Fleet. Unrestricted access for commercial and naval vessels to the open ocean through the Danish Straits is paramount for Russia, and regional air, sea, and land control are among its most visible, proactive pursuits. However, the much-anticipated flow of natural gas in the undersea Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines has been cast in doubt by damage to three of four pipelines from an attack in September 2022 and by European economic sanctions. There are many suspicions about who carried out the pipeline attacks but no definitive smoking gun yet.
The maritime security challenges within the tight confines and complex coastal geography of the Baltic Sea include: cybersecurity, transnational crime, nonstate rogue actors, disinformation campaigns, terrorism, and more. Increasingly, improved monitoring and surveillance will be crucial. Real-time information creating enhanced situational awareness must be available and shared among the eight Baltic Sea states. Revised NATO doctrine should call for a credible naval presence in the Baltic Sea for deterrence and territorial defense. Large-scale naval and civil maritime exercises must continue, as well as joint training and intelligence sharing among the NATO Baltic Sea states.
The geopolitical map in the Baltic Sea is being redrawn while the future military security and environmental challenges remain hugely complex and highly unpredictable.