No, Don’t Call the Baltic a ‘NATO Lake’

Strategic waters: Sweden and Finland's anticipated accession to NATO will leave Russia as the only non-member bordering the Baltic Sea. Image: 1xpert / Adobe Stock

The increasing use of the term ‘NATO lake’ in the context of Sweden and Finland’s accession is unhelpful and could have a number of undesirable consequences.

Sweden and Finland’s decision to join NATO is truly a big deal, and both their application and their likely admission are indeed worthy of being called a sea change – or Zeitenwende – in terms of security policy. The process, however, has been accompanied by an improper attribution: the idea of the Baltic Sea becoming a ‘NATO lake’ on Sweden and Finland’s accession has been mentioned extensively, be it in international media outlets, by research institutions, or on other relevant platforms.

First off: yes, the strategic situation in the Baltic Sea region and on NATO’s northern flank is changing radically. NATO and the two Scandinavian countries have already substantially increased their cooperation towards greater interoperability and operational effectiveness in recent years, including common exercises and even host nation agreements. Yet, the presumed acceptance of both into the alliance as full member states will create a new picture in the region. Actions, structures, organisation and basing will become more integrated around the Baltic Sea, corresponding to NATO’s approach of increasing defence in the Euro-Atlantic area. Enthusiastically calling the Baltic a ‘NATO lake’ in light of such developments is of course also a semantic exaggeration, and does not necessarily have to be meant literally. In addition, it is tempting to underline the idea of an enormous strategic miscalculation by the Kremlin, which had probably not anticipated such a rapid development in its Scandinavian neighbourhood as a consequence of attacking Ukraine in February.

So, what’s the issue? Designating the Baltic Sea as a ‘NATO lake’ is fatal in many ways. Besides the fact that, following such logic, it would already have been an ‘EU lake’ for some time, the use of the term suggests that the Baltic could be handled more or less exclusively by NATO, as an inland sea (which it almost is, politically), leading to the subsequent fallacy of complete sea control (which is certainly not the case). It is true that Russia’s denial capabilities and its infamous anti-access/area denial bubbles have been successfully demystified and put into perspective. In addition, the assessment of Russia’s armed forces in light of the current war in Ukraine has changed some previous assumptions. Yet, Russia’s denial capabilities have a purpose and, more significantly, they remain in the region: in Kaliningrad, in Russia’s west and in Belarus. Therefore, it is still possible to hinder the unrestricted manoeuvrability of NATO forces in the region: perhaps not in the entire Baltic Sea, and perhaps only for a certain period of time – but it is certainly possible. This still has to be considered, for instance regarding the defence of the Baltic states, even if an officially allied Sweden and Finland would diversify the possibilities of operating in the region.

Even with all countries bordering the Baltic Sea (besides Russia) joining NATO, it remains a sea that can be traversed by any vessel or seafaring nation

Additionally, as my GIDS colleague Tobias Kollakowski pointed out to me, the idea of controlling seas physically (analogous to land forces controlling territories) often originates from continental land powers. It allows them to make further claims based on such assumptions. Andrew Lambert describes a similar approach as the ‘continentalisation of maritime space’. Therefore, language is important, and strategic communication is vital for NATO. Start saying the Baltic Sea is a ‘NATO lake’, and others will go further and call the Baltic mare nostrum (our sea). From there, just a few steps remain to adopting the idea of a mare clausum (closed sea) – a concept opposed successfully by Hugo Grotius’s mare liberum (free sea) as early as 1609. The wording ‘NATO lake’, not to mention a mare nostrum, increases the room for misinterpretation, both internally and externally. External actors might read such statements as NATO claiming a sphere of influence in European waters – the kind of approach the West legitimately criticises in other parts of the world. Internally, the public and even political decision-makers who are not familiar with the details of the strategic situation might be deceived by the false sense of safety implied by such a term: if it is a ‘NATO lake’ already, why bother?

What would happen in the case of conflict is another story. For now, NATO, scholars and journalists alike should be mindful of using terms without considering the deeper implications. Even with all countries bordering the Baltic Sea (besides Russia) joining NATO, it remains a sea that can be traversed by any vessel or seafaring nation – be it the Russian, Chinese or Iranian navy. Calling it a ‘NATO lake’ is not constructive in terms of either internal or external communication.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Julian Pawlak

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