With relations between the West and Moscow at a post-Cold War low point, Russia’s closest EU neighbors are turning to tougher military and financial measures to send a message to Vladimir Putin.
By – politico.eu
At a White House meeting last week, the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania asked Donald Trump to do more to deter Russia by bolstering U.S. forces in Eastern Europe.
Trump didn’t give a clear answer. He praised the Baltic countries’ robust defense spending in recent years and said that “nobody has been tougher on Russia” than his administration. But, as he has done repeatedly despite opposition in Congress and among his own advisers, he also professed a desire for better relations with the Kremlin.
“Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said. “Now, maybe we will [get along] and maybe we won’t.”
“There’s a position in the government to draw a line in the sand and tell Russia that its actions will have consequences” — Michael Aastrup Jensen, Danish MP
The Baltic countries and their Nordic neighbors — particularly Sweden, Denmark and Finland — are increasingly betting on the latter scenario.
The poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. last month — for which Britain, the EU, the U.S. and others have placed the blame squarely on Moscow — has put Russia right back at the top of the foreign policy agenda for major Western powers. But that’s a position it has already occupied for years among the Nordic and Baltic countries on Russia’s periphery.
Those countries would be on the front line of any military conflict with Moscow and have grown more and more anxious about the Kremlin’s actions in the region.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark and Finland all took part in the internationally coordinated expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats in response to the Salisbury attack, dismissing Russia’s claims of innocence. And policymakers in the region are already working on further measures to bolster their defenses against Russia and hurt Putin and his allies.
Next month, the Danish government will begin parliamentary hearings on passing a national version of the Magnitsky Act, a set of biting sanctions designed to target the assets of Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses.
“There’s a position in the government to draw a line in the sand and tell Russia that its actions will have consequences,” said Michael Aastrup Jensen, a Danish MP and the foreign affairs spokesperson for the ruling Liberal Party.
Relations between Copenhagen and Moscow have deteriorated in recent years. In 2015, the Russian ambassador to Denmark said that if the country joined NATO’s missile defense shield, Danish warships would become “targets for Russian nuclear missiles.” In 2017, the Danish defense ministry said Russian hackers had targeted and gained access to its systems. Copenhagen has also voiced objections to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will provide another avenue for Russian gas to Europe.
“The security situation is more complex and unpredictable than we’ve seen for decades” — Jussi Niinistö, Finland’s defense minister
“We’ve watched all this happening here,” Aastrup Jensen said. “That’s why the nerve agent attack in the U.K. was simply one step too far.”
The Danish government wants to build up momentum in Brussels to pass an EU-wide version of the Magnitsky Act but, should that fail, Aastrup Jensen says a national version of the law is extremely likely and has support across the political spectrum.
Similar movement is underway in neighboring Sweden, where the four-party opposition bloc led by the Moderate Party has backed a Swedish version of the Magnitsky Act and adopted it into their platforms ahead of a general election in September as the alliance looks to break the ruling Social Democratic Party’s hold on power.
“I’ve been visiting Sweden for many years and it’s a sea change in terms of the reception for the Magnitsky Act now,” said Bill Browder, the architect of the measure who recently addressed the Swedish parliament to lobby for the law.
The Magnitsky Act is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in custody in 2009 after he accused Russian officials of a massive tax fraud scheme, and was passed into law in the United States in 2012. Browder, a British investment fund manager who was Magnitsky’s employer, has transitioned from one of Putin’s defenders to one his fiercest critics while running a global campaign to lobby for tough measures against the Kremlin. The Russian government maintains that Browder himself is corrupt and tried him in absentia in 2017 for bankruptcy and tax evasion.
Since 2016, local versions of the Magnitsky Act have been put into law in Canada and the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
“We’re in a different world post [Skripal] where every government sees that it needs to come up with new means and tools to deal with Putin,” Browder said.
Russian military action in recent years has already prompted its neighbors to prepare for the worst. The annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine alarmed Nordic and Baltic countries back in 2014.
“If Sweden moves enough, that could lead to more movement in Finland” — Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council think tank
Also in 2014, Swedish authorities said an unidentified submarine had entered territorial waters near Stockholm. While some lawmakers accused Russia, no definitive evidence was produced and Russia denied involvement.
Moscow has also flexed its muscles in the air over the Baltic Sea. Russian jets buzzing — or in some cases violating — Nordic or Baltic country airspace has become common since 2014, raising the risk of an incident that could take the tense environment to an even more dangerous level.
Last year, NATO deployed four battalion-sized battle groups in the Baltic countries and Poland in an effort to deter the Russian military. Finland and Sweden, which are not members of NATO, have boosted defense spending and signed agreements allowing NATO to operate on their territory in the event of a conflict in the region. In another sign of concern at rising tensions, Sweden brought back military conscription in 2017.
“The security situation is more complex and unpredictable than we’ve seen for decades,” Jussi Niinistö, Finland’s defense minister, told POLITICO in an interview. “[The Skripal attack] is just one sign of the changing times.”
Beyond conventional military strategy, officials have increasingly moved to shore up their defenses against a wide array of new threats, from protecting against cyberattacks to guarding against election meddling, to educating their populations to be less susceptible to propaganda and fake news.
Latvia’s ministries of defense and education are currently working out how to improve the country’s school curriculum to emphasize media literacy and critical thinking, while Sweden has trained hundreds of election workers to spot and deter foreign influence in the country’s upcoming vote.
As Finland’s defense minister, Niinistö has pushed for measures to protect against a new generation of warfare. In July 2017, the Finnish Border Guard was given new powers to fire upon soldiers without insignia, such as the so-called little green men that Moscow used in its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Legislation is also being crafted to restrict ownership of property near strategic areas, like military bases or even broadcast towers, or reclaim such property from foreign owners.
Currently, Niinistö is focused on pushing for a law that would restrict dual citizens from serving in the military. Yle, Finland’s state broadcaster, reported last January that the Finnish Defence Forces have been closely monitoring enlisted Finnish-Russian citizens.
“This seems to be a new normal,” Niinistö said of the unpredictable security situation in the region. “So, maybe we need to get used to it.”
Waiting for September
Despite the flurry of activity, managing relations with Russia is an extremely tricky issue for its neighbours, where both political leaders and the public are divided on how to handle Moscow.
In Finland, for instance, a recent poll found that while 46 percent of Finns were in favor of closer military ties with NATO and the United States to help deter Russia, only 17 percent of the public wanted to actually join the alliance. Similarly, after announcing the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from Helsinki for the attack in the U.K., Finnish President Sauli Niinistö (no relation to the defense minister) balanced the decision by saying that dialogue with Moscow would continue.
One development that could shift that balance is Sweden’s September election. In addition to backing the Magnitsky Act, the four-party opposition bloc is also supporting NATO membership for the first time in what is shaping up to be a close election.
“If Sweden moves enough, that could lead to more movement in Finland,” said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Support for joining NATO has increased in Sweden, with a January poll for the daily Aftonbladet showing that 43 percent of Swedes were in favor, with 37 percent opposed (and 20 undecided). Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson, a potential prime minister if the opposition bloc wins, has said he would like to gain the backing of the Social Democrats before applying to NATO. If he does secure that support, or decide to go ahead without it, that could have a knock-on effect in Finland.
“[Sweden and Finland] don’t conduct politics very fast,” said Wieslander. “But if the leadership decides, then the people would probably follow.”
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Read more: From 2017/12/01