Northern Europe is geopolitically relevant due to its shared border with Russia and its dominant position in the Baltic, Norwegian and North seas. The region’s prominence in the Geopolitical Futures model varies depending on how Russia’s and the West’s competing interests intersect over Northern Europe’s strategic position. Although the region has played a minor role in Russian affairs for the last 25 years, recent military posturing along the shared border and in the Arctic has set the stage to make Northern Europe a more active region in our model.
- Northern Europe’s high latitude and surrounding seas create a fundamentally different dynamic with Russia than it has with other countries on the European Plain.
- Because of Northern Europe’s proximity to St. Petersburg and the maritime choke point that Northern Europe creates in the North Sea for Russian vessels, Russia remains vulnerable.
- Given increased tensions and increasingly navigable waterways in the Arctic, both the West and a resurgent Russia are re-evaluating their relationship with Northern Europe.
Our work at Geopolitical Futures is driven by a model that helps us identify the factors that matter in a given geopolitical situation and the elements that can shift the balance of power in a region or change its geopolitical realities. That a country or a region does not figure prominently in our model does not mean that the country or region is excluded from it. Rather, it means that events in those locations are less likely to singularly cause any shifts in the model. As a case in point, this article will explore the geopolitical relevance of Scandinavian countries, which have not received much coverage in our published works to date. Even so, these countries are very much a part of our model given the buildup of NATO troops in the Baltic states, missiles and other military hardware in Kaliningrad and more frequent reporting of Russian moves in the Arctic. And so we use this week’s Deep Dive to more closely examine Scandinavia’s role in the geopolitical system due to its border with Russia.
HMS Visby and two minesweepers lie moored at the jetty at Berga marine base outside Stockholm on Oct. 22, 2014. FREDRIK SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Defining Northern Europe
First, let us define in geopolitical terms the region in question. The Nordic countries have been defined broadly to include Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. The term “Scandinavia” refers to countries based on their linguistic roots and consists of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. However, neither of these groupings suffices for geopolitical analysis. To discuss this area of the world in geopolitical terms, we group together Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland based on their geography and label them “Northern Europe.”
When Geopolitical Futures examines the European Peninsula, we divide the landmass into four geographic regions: Atlantic, Central, Eastern and Northern. These distinctions are based on geography since proximity to key features – the Atlantic Ocean and Russia – dictates the constraints facing each country and the dynamic each region has with the others on the peninsula and beyond. Eastern Europe primarily concerns itself with the ever-present threat of Russian influence or outright aggression. Meanwhile, Atlantic Europe served as the historic power center of the peninsula prior to World War II and does not view Russia as an immediate threat to its existence.
As with any geopolitical assessment, we turn to geography to help guide our understanding as we ascertain a location’s significance. Northern Europe is surrounded by the Baltic, North and Norwegian seas. Norway and Sweden gain strategic value in that they are in a position that allows them to influence and guard passage through the North and Baltic seas. Meanwhile, Norway and Iceland flank the Norwegian Sea and the route to the Atlantic Ocean. Other countries bordering these seas – Denmark, Poland and Germany – also have this same strategic geographic placement that enables influence over the sea routes. Northern Europe’s land boundary consists of an approximately 830-mile border between Russia and Finland as well as Norway’s 120-mile border with Russia at the northern tip of Norway.
Russia’s Relationship to Northern Europe
Northern Europe’s proximity to Russia merits further analysis given Russia’s prominent role in our model. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been undergoing a reorganization process that includes establishing buffer zones and expanding spheres of influence. This is occurring in three main theaters of operation: the Caucasus, Central Asia and Europe, particularly the Baltic states. Our long-term forecast for Russia foresees a resurgence prior to the country’s destabilization, which we predict will occur by 2040. Russia is currently in the resurgence phase, which is marked by precursors to an economic crisis. Moscow currently seeks to legitimize its political regime to its citizens, who suffer economically, by internationally demonstrating Russia’s power without meaningfully exercising it. The goal is to limit actual engagement but assert its influence in some of its traditional borderlands when the opportunity arises. Within the European theater, Russia prioritizes having influence in Ukraine above all else to create a land buffer between Moscow and the rest of Europe; this priority is followed by responding to and countering Western influence in Baltic countries and those along the European Plain, the traditional invasion route for Russia. The value of Northern Europe to Russia is that Russia can show power there with a low chance of military engagement compared to Ukraine and other countries on the European Plain. In other words, Northern Europe serves as a location where Russia can demonstrate power with a low likelihood of having to exercise it.
Northern Europe does not figure directly into what Geopolitical Futures defines as the European theater for Russia. This theater extends from the Baltic Sea south to the Black Sea through a string of countries dubbed “the Intermarium.” Despite Finland being part of the Russian Empire at one point and Helsinki being particularly close to St. Petersburg – the cities are only about 240 miles apart by land – the Intermarium line does not extend upwards along the shared border. Geography explains why. This border extends through latitudes that mark environments inhospitable for living. The population density of both countries becomes sparser further north of St. Petersburg and Helsinki. Finland’s population is highly concentrated in the country’s southern tip. A 186-mile radius concentric circle with Helsinki at its center is home to about 75 percent of the Finnish population. Secondly, the Karelian Isthmus, a narrow, 70-mile-wide stretch of land joining Russia and Finland, is riddled with forests and lakes. It would be much more difficult to pass through this terrain during an invasion than traversing the easy-access route offered by the European Plain. Lastly, there is a comparative lack of infrastructure development along the Russian-Finnish border, especially on the Russian side. This stems directly from the fact that the inhospitable climate and limited natural resources discourage the formation of large population centers and economic activity.
Sea access is where Northern Europe prominently plays into Russia’s geopolitical reality. A country’s access to the sea can greatly influence its economic and political strength. A maritime power can engage in international trade and naval warfare in a way that a landlocked power cannot. Russia’s access to the world’s oceans, aside from the Arctic, is limited, and the access it does have is blocked by other countries. However, access is necessary for Russia to use maritime trade routes and deploy naval forces. One route to open ocean via the Mediterranean Sea is through the Black Sea and the Bosporus, a narrow waterway controlled by Turkey that can easily be closed to Russia. Another is from St. Petersburg, where ships can sail through the Baltic Sea, but NATO forces could easily block this passageway, and Sweden and Finland could also attempt a blockage. The third route is the long Arctic Ocean route, starting from Murmansk and crossing over into the Norwegian Sea; passage could be made extremely difficult here if Norway, Iceland and the U.K. engage in a coordinated effort. European Russia has three potential points from which to access global maritime trade, and Northern Europe can influence passage through two of them.
The case of Northern Europe helps illustrate how a region’s relevance or importance to the international system can oscillate over time. Geography does not easily change and therefore marks the foundation of a region’s geopolitical reality. However, the world is not a stagnant place. Analyzing geopolitics means understanding that multiple processes are constantly underway and realities slowly shift over time. A change in circumstances can bring a peripheral region like Northern Europe into the forefront of events and then allow it to fall into the background once again.
Northern Europe held great geopolitical significance for Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom at the onset of World War II. The Soviet Union invaded Finland on Nov. 30, 1939 because of the strategic value gained from holding Finnish territory. After the joint German-Soviet invasion and division of Poland, the Soviet Union needed to prioritize guarding its Baltic flank. After reaching agreements with Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, the Soviets turned to Finland. They needed to push their borders with Finland westward to help keep St. Petersburg secure from attack or invasion. It was necessary for the Soviet Union to occupy a series of islands, along with the Finnish city of Hanko, to guard the Gulf of Finland, which provides the only sea approach to St. Petersburg. It was also necessary to bring the entire Karelian Isthmus under Soviet control to create a land buffer large enough to keep St. Petersburg out of the range of heavy artillery. Lastly, taking over Fisher Peninsula in the north of Finland helped to further protect Murmansk. During World War II, Finland gained geopolitical relevance due to is role in creating a buffer to protect one of the Soviet Union’s most important cities.
During the following year, 1940, Norway and Sweden gained geopolitical importance as Allied and Nazi powers jostled for control of both the northern seaways and iron ore mines. Initially, both sides were reluctant to open a battlefront in Northern Europe. However, a series of wartime actions – laying naval mines, political manipulation, maritime pursuits, and so on – escalated to the point that the ability to respect Norway’s neutrality was put into question. After much restraint, Germany took action to occupy Norway before the British did. Norway provided key ports for the execution of Germany’s submarine campaign, and it also allowed the Nazi powers to have greater control of maritime passage. For Germany, access to the Atlantic via the North Sea was essential for carrying out its naval warfare component during World War II. Occupying Norway also gave Germany easy access to iron ore from Gällivare, Sweden. This ore helped fuel industrial production in Germany throughout the war. The U.K. militarily contested Germany’s presence in Norway but ultimately failed to drive it out. However, the U.K. successfully sent troops to occupy Iceland almost immediately after Germany occupied Norway. Holding Iceland became necessary to protect British trade and military routes with Norway in German hands.
With the end of World War II, the establishment of NATO and the fall of the Soviet Union, Northern Europe’s role in geopolitics no longer took center stage. However, this does not mean that nothing of importance is happening in the region. While Russian resurgence focuses primarily on Ukraine and the other Intermarium countries, this resurgence can also be observed along the border with Northern Europe in Murmansk, which is home to Russia’s Northern Fleet. Russia’s Northern Fleet resides at Severomorsk Naval Base with several auxiliary units based along the land border with Northern Europe. Russia maintains its 200th Independent Motorized Infantry Brigade in Pechenga Valley near the Norwegian border. In 2014, Russia also began reconstruction plans to enable reactivation of the Alakurtti air base along the Finnish border. This base’s location provides a good jump point for striking Finland’s critical air bases, and it also provides a defensive position for repelling potential air attacks both on St. Petersburg from the north and on Severomorsk Naval Base from the southwest.
The Severomorsk Naval Base serves as the primary home to the Northern Fleet, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of the Russian navy. Though it is located just off Arctic waters, this fleet is responsible for much of Russia’s international naval activity, including trips to the Atlantic and Indian oceans and operations in the Mediterranean. The base houses the latest S-400 long-range surface-to-air missiles and a batch of Su-30SM multi-role fighter aircraft that can be armed with cruise missiles and engage air and surface targets. Most recently, the Northern Fleet is in the process of constructing an updated version of the Yasen nuclear-powered, multipurpose attack submarine, the K-560. Other planned upgrades for the fleet include repairs on the lone aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and the installation of early-warning Voronezh radars for long-distance monitoring of airspace against ballistic missiles and aircraft.
Though Northern Europe is not the focal point of Russia’s resurgence, related activity in the region has not gone unnoticed by the West. Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg said in June 2016 that the “increasingly unpredictable neighbor to the east, which is strengthening its military capacity and showing willingness to use military force as a political tool” is forcing Norway to boost military expenditures. In April 2015, the appearance of an underwater vessel in Finland, suspected to be a Russian submarine, prompted the Finnish navy to fire its first depth charges in more than 10 years. Finland, which is a member of the European Union but not of NATO, has maintained close relations with Russia, because Russia is still its fifth-largest export destination despite U.S. and EU sanctions following the Ukraine and Crimea crises in 2014. In December 2016, however, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä said that Finland had become “more negative towards Moscow,” considering Russia’s intervention in Syria. Sweden – also an EU member but not a NATO member – has also elevated its concerns about a more resurgent Russia. In October 2014, an unidentified vessel was spotted from Stockholm and has increased suspicion about Russia’s spying on the country. A recent report by Sweden’s most respected foreign policy institute, the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, cites empirical evidence that “Russia since 2014 has moved towards a preference for active measures towards Sweden” to influence the country’s decision-making process. Sweden increased cooperation with NATO in 2016 when lawmakers formally backed an agreement last May to allow the alliance to operate more easily on Swedish territory during training or in the event of a conflict or crisis.
By nature, Geopolitical Futures is forward-looking, so it would be remiss not to discuss areas where competing interests are already emerging and laying the groundwork for potential confrontation in the future. Strategic interest in the Arctic is growing as sea route navigability continues to increase. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence projects that there will be increasingly long periods of open-water shoulder season in the Arctic from now through 2030 due to a reduction in both the amount and duration of ice coverage. Increased navigability will enable greater and more frequent transit of vessels. Strategic and competing interests in the Arctic will be the subject of a future Deep Dive. For the current discussion, however, we will stick with the basics. The Arctic Circle is one of the most untapped areas of the world and holds promising economic value. In addition to enormous reserves of hydrocarbons and other minerals, the seaways throughout the region also provide the shortest path for transporting goods from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Russia, the United States and other nations along the North Sea and Arctic Circle have already begun reacting to this opening of the Arctic Circle. Moscow is building or significantly upgrading six military bases on islands and coast along its Arctic rim, which spans some 3,500 miles. In 2016, the Russian military also announced plans to deploy two new coastal defense formations along the coast of the Northern Sea Route with the aim of better integrating this route with developments in the Arctic zone. Similarly, the U.S. has placed renewed emphasis on increasing cold-climate training for multiple branches of its military. Furthermore, the U.K., U.S., Iceland and Norway have been reviving Cold War-era agreements to monitor Russian activities in the Norwegian and Barents seas. Last year, the U.S. began negotiations with the Icelandic government to resume use of the Keflavik air base, from which all U.S. assets and personnel were withdrawn in 2006. The U.S. Navy would like to update hangars at the base for its P-8 Poseidon aircraft, which patrol northern waters for Russian submarines. Norway has also established a new company-sized ranger unit of about 200 troops, while 300 U.S. Marines arrived in Norway earlier this month for a six-month deployment, marking the first time since World War II that foreign troops have been stationed there. At this point, the movement of U.S. and Norwegian troops along the Norway-Russia border is largely posturing and symbolic. The presence of more than 500 troops is small compared to the Russian resources near the same border. However, continued training in this environment suggests that a conflict in this region is on the list of potential battle scenarios contemplated by the West, albeit not at the top. The growing interest in the Arctic and potential for future conflict in the region means that Northern Europe could once again find itself playing a more prominent role in the geopolitical system.
Since the end of the Cold War 25 years ago, the border between Northern Europe and Russia has remained relatively calm compared to the shared borders along the Intermarium. However, Northern Europe has maintained its geopolitical relevance, which is grounded in its strategic position in the Baltic, Norwegian and North seas. Rising tensions between Russia and the West, and the potential emergence of increasingly navigable Arctic waterways, could eventually lead to the region once again being in the crosshairs of the major powers’ calculations. It is when Northern Europe finds itself in the crosshairs that its geopolitical significance will assume a more active role in our model.