A U.S. RC-135U flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea was intercepted by a Russian SU-27 Flanker June 19, 2017. Due to the high rate of closure speed and poor control of the aircraft during the intercept, this interaction was determined to be unsafe. (Master Sgt. Charles Larkin Sr./U.S. European Command)

Freedom of Navigation in Baltic Sea at Risk Amid ‘Real and Growing’ Russia Threat

The threats faced by the U.S. in the European Command area of responsibility and Baltic Sea are “real and growing,” the deputy commander of forces there told visiting members of Congress, as “Russia seeks to engage in a conflict of competition” and still “demonstrate a willingness to violate international treaties and disregard for the national sovereignty of their neighbors.”

“We have shifted significant U.S. forces in the Baltic Sea area region by adopting changes in operation Atlantic resolve,” Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty told the the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in a field hearing. “Where previously there was one U.S. company on a six-month rotation in the Baltic nations, we now support a periodic exercise-based presence in the region, in addition to undertaking lead nation response abilities for the NATO enhanced forward presence battle group in Poland.”

In a first for the 43-year-old Helsinki Commission, lawmakers, military officials and regional leaders convened Tuesday fewer than 80 miles from the Russia border in Gdańsk, Poland, for a frank discussion on Baltic Sea security and collaboration with Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia to meet security goals.

The U.S. and regional allies recently concluded the annual BALTOPS exercise, practicing high-end warfare, amphibious landing capability, and interoperability in the Baltic Sea.

“The challenge posed by Russia in the Baltic Sea region is real and concerning,” said U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to NATO Douglas D. Jones. “Russia treats the Baltic Sea region as its own domain, yet we must remember that six NATO countries and two key NATO partners in Finland and Sweden also border the Baltic Sea. The overall security of the Baltic Sea region is clearly an area in which the United States and NATO must play an important role.”

The Russian threat “has evolved beyond simply a military one,” he added, to include hybrid attacks, cyber attacks and influence operations targeting democratic institutions.

Twitty said that even though the ground threat from Russia is less dangerous, the situation over the past few years is “more dangerous from the standpoint of malign influence.”

That will “require a larger fleet” in the future, he said.

“We’re looking at two more additional destroyers that will come to Europe to allow us to be able to operate not only in the north Atlantic, but down through the North Atlantic in the Baltic Sea, in the Black Sea, and into the East Mediterranean,” the general continued. “If you look at the Russian maritime capability and what they are doing now, they are operating in those areas and we need to be able to extend our reach into those locations as well.”

Russia’s “probably got one of the best submarine capabilities out there” along with “significant space-based capability and counter space-based capability,” and improved air defenses and land capability — “a pretty serious modernization path that is a pretty capable force,” Twitty said.

In regard to Russian aircraft passing dangerously close to U.S. ships and aircraft in the Baltic, “it is my assessment that that they are probing our response time,” he noted.

“They are looking to see just how capable the U.S. and NATO are in terms of deterring and defending Russian capability. So they take an opportunity to assess us as they do these particular operations.”

Estonian Defense Secretary Kristjan Prikk told lawmakers that “NATO’s posture in the Baltic region has grown much stronger since 2014” including more allied maritime visits to regional ports.

“Their capability is that they can mobilize very quickly, as we have seen during the latest large-scale exercises,” he said, and “the problem is that the bulk of NATO forces is still far away and our ability to deploy forces quickly and sustain them has important limitations.”

“Today, Russia plans and exercises in the region exactly as they intend to fight, and we do not,” Prikk noted.

“Because of Russia’s interest in the region and as it is one of the busiest shipping areas in the world, the significance of the Baltic Sea region to European security has increased,” said State Secretary to the Swedish Minister for Defense Jan-Olof Lind. “Freedom of navigation and secure sea lines of communications are essential, not only for the countries in the region, but also for other nations.”

“Exercises in the Baltic Sea region signal shared responsibility for the security,” Lind added. “Maritime exercises like BALTOPS and Baltic Protector enhance our interoperability and strengthen our common maritime capability.”

Finland’s Defense Policy Department Director-General Janne Kuusela stressed that the “Baltic Sea is a tricky region for maritime domain warfare.”

“It’s shallow, rocky, has so many layers that make it tricky both for submarines and the surface combatants, and it takes a regional expert to wage war in that region,” Kuusela said. “And just to underline that, the security of supply by maritime routes is vital for a country like Finland. We are an island, basically, when it comes to security of supply, and that’s why the freedom of navigation in the Baltic Sea is a very big issue for us.”

Russia’s ‘Seabed Warfare’ Could Hit Vast Networks of Underwater Communications Cables

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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