Within hours of Russian missiles striking cities in Ukraine at the start of the conflict, German naval commander Terje Schmitt-Eliassen was told to sail 5 warships under his command to Latvia in order to help protect the most vulnerable part of NATO’s eastern flank.
The naval dispatch was part of a German strategy to send “everything that can swim out to sea,” as Berlin’s navy’s top boss phrased it, as Germany scrambled to defend an area military strategists have long viewed as being the weakest link in the military alliance.
In the coming days, a total of 12 NATO warships with nearly 600 sailors on board are scheduled to start a mine-clearing operation in the coming days.
For Europe, the war in Ukraine appears to be a return to the past with potentially a new Iron Curtain falling across Europe. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001 and the disorderly US exit in 2021, NATO had struggled to find a new role in the post-Cold War role until now. With Ukraine’s purported application to join NATO which triggered its invasion by Russia, NATO is back fighting its original nemesis.
This time its different however. China, a rising power which is increasingly challenging US global hegemony, has refused to condemn the invasion and has towed Moscow’s line of it being a “special military operation.”
The old Cold War blueprints no longer work since NATO has expanded and now includes former Soviet states including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Prior to the invasion, in early February, Russia and China had issued a joint statement rejecting NATO’s expansion in Europe and challenged the Western-led international order.
Any direct confrontation between Russia and NATO could trigger a Third World War.
“We have reached a turning point,” said retired German general Hans-Lothar Domroese. “We have China and Russia acting in concert now, boldly challenging the United States for global leadership … In the past, we have been saying deterrence works. Now we have to ask ourselves: Is deterrence enough?”
The issue here is access. In the good old days of the USSR, NATO could have moved to contain the Russian move by blocking the western entrance of the Baltic Seam, which would have sealed the Russian Baltic Fleet from reaching the North Sea from where its warships could attack U.S. supply convoys.
Today the roles have been reversed. Russia could encircle NATO’s new Baltic members, and cut them off from the alliance. The three ex-Soviet countries have a combined population of around 6 million people, and have a single overland link to NATO’s main territory. A corridor of some 65 km (40 miles) is squeezed between the heavily armed Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the west and Belarus on the east.
Schmitt-Eliassen’s goal is to keep the waterway open for maintaining a supply line. Furthermore, the bed of the shallow Baltic Sea is believed to hold millions of tons of mines, ammunition and chemical weapons, which are a legacy of two World Wars.
Mines, regardless of whether they are old, unexploded or freshly laid, have significant impact beyond just destruction, said Schmitt-Eliassen. Just the mere sighting of a mine or even a rumoured sighting, can close harbours for days while the area is swept. Such an event could cause “supermarket shelves to remain empty.”
For the Baltics, a land link between Kaliningrad and Belarus, called the Suwalki Gap, is of critical importance since its seizure would cut the Baltic states off.
“Putin could quickly seize the Suwalki Gap,” opined Domroese, a retired German general while adding, this is unlikely to happen in the near future, “but it could happen in a few years.”
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, over the last three decades, Russia had conveyed to the West concerns of NATO’s expansion on its borders. NATO, as an instrument of the United States, was building up its military on Ukraine’s territory in a way that threatened Russia.
On March 11, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the West was beefing up military forces close to Russia’s Western borders. Putin asked Shoigu to prepare a report on how to respond.
It “has gone from being a normal peaceful area, to an area where you tread carefully,” said Peter Sand, chief analyst at Xeneta, an air and ocean freight rate benchmarking platform.
According to Xeneta’s data, demand and logistics have been disrupted. The fees shippers pay to move cargoes from Hamburg to Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad are down by 15% following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“NATO has some responsibility to do more than just trying to keep Russia out,” said Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO.
“It’s about the management of an unavoidable strategic instability.”
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