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After Nord Stream: Safeguarding Baltic energy security and supply

Some have dubbed the Baltic Sea a ‘NATO lake’ in the wake of Finland and Sweden’s recent accession to the alliance. It is manifestly not. 

Russia retains prime ‘lake-front’ real estate along the Gulf of Finland and the strategically located exclave of Kaliningrad (headquarters of its Baltic Fleet and a base for nuclear-capable Iskander missiles), and the increasingly paranoid Kremlin continues to make its military presence felt across the region, flexing its muscles on land, in the air, and at sea – all while probing NATO defences.

Alliance members on the eastern shore feel particularly vulnerable. By land, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are only connected to Poland and other European partners via the Suwałki Gap – a sparsely populated 104-kilometre (km) stretch of uneven terrain sandwiched between Kaliningrad to the west and Russian ally Belarus to the east. 

The prospect that this lifeline could be severed in the event of war is very real and a key motivation for the deployment of NATO’s American-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) ‘Battle Group Poland’ to the nearby garrison town of Orzysz to help secure this crucial corridor. This is one of eight EFP ‘tripwire’ battlegroups now guarding the alliance’s eastern flank in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Significant vulnerabilities also lie at sea. With highly integrated economies supporting almost 100 million people, the transnational Baltic Sea region is today one of the most economically competitive, prosperous, and developed in the world. Reflecting these interconnections, the Baltic is an important shipping route which is also crisscrossed by communications cables, energy pipelines, and other critical infrastructure vital for the countries surrounding it. 

These networks have been increasingly exposed to harm. In September 2022, explosions rocked the 1,200-km Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, rendering them inoperable and releasing 478,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere – the largest single methane-emitting event in recent memory. This apparent sabotage was followed in October 2023 by the rupturing of the 77-km Balticconnector gas pipeline between Finland and Estonia, which was taken offline for repairs until this month (an investigation identified the cause to be an anchor dragging along the seafloor, almost certainly belonging to the Chinese ship NewNew Polar Bear).

Damage was also reported in October 2023 to two telecommunications cables linking Estonia to Finland and Sweden, as well as to Russia’s 1,000-km Baltika telecommunications cable connecting St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad. Such networks are the lifeblood of economies and societies today, and their susceptibility to mishap, interference, and attack is a major cause for concern – especially in this new age of geopolitical competition and grey-zone conflict. The Baltic region is on the front line here. 

The energy security implications are especially worrisome. Recognising this, the August 2022 Marienborg Declaration adopted by Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Finland, and Sweden committed the signatories to strengthening cooperation in this area through improved sector integration and interconnections; increasing liquified natural gas (LNG) and liquefied biogas imports by sea; and boosting joint cross-border renewable energy projects.

Indeed, the Baltic has been identified as a prospective green energy powerhouse, with huge promise for supporting Europe’s low-carbon energy transition to Net Zero. Citing the region’s 93 gigawatts (GW) of ‘largely untapped potential for offshore wind’, the Marienborg Declaration set a goal of sourcing ‘at least 19.6 GW’ of offshore wind energy there by 2030 – seven times the current capacity. The stated objectives were diversifying and decarbonising national energy mixes to heighten the signatories’ resilience and security of supply, while decreasing their reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

This shift is being coordinated politically through the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), the Nordic Council (NC), the North Seas Energy Cooperation (NSEC) initiative, and the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan (BEMIP), with the latter uniting regional European Union (EU) member states (with Norway participating as an observer) around the goal of integrating electricity and gas markets, with EU funding support for (trans)national infrastructure ‘Projects of Common Interest’.

Such developments – including electricity interconnections like Estlink 1 (opening in 2006) and Estlink 2 (2014) between Estonia and Finland, the LitPol Link (2015) between Poland and Lithuania, and the NordBalt (SwedLit) interconnector (2015) between Lithuania and Sweden – are helping to improve links between the Baltic states and the rest of the EU, integrating them into European energy markets, synchronising their power grids (currently still synchronised with Russia and Belarus) with Continental Europe’s by 2025 (the largest interconnection grid in the world), and improving their security of supply. 

Gas infrastructure is also paving the way here, from the Balticconnector (opening in 2020) and Poland’s Świnoujście and Lithuania’s Klaipėda LNG terminals (2015 and 2014 respectively) to the modernisation of Latvia’s Inčukalns Underground Gas Storage facility (by 2025). Coupled with initiatives like the Gas Interconnection Poland-Lithuania (2022) and the Norway-Denmark-Poland Baltic Pipe (2022 – the first major pipeline transporting North Sea gas to the Baltic), they offer important stabilisers and flexibility while further decreasing the region’s dependence on energy imports from Russia.

All of this critical infrastructure will need protecting, especially from hybrid threats. The vulnerabilities are only increasing, as more offshore wind farms are constructed and thousands of kilometres of subsea power cables laid. Neither BEMIP, the CBSS, NC, nor the Nordic-Baltic 8 (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) have been able to devise a robust solution. 

The EU can help here, for example through its Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, involving Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden, working in partnership with the European Commission and other stakeholders. It is divided into 14 policy areas (PAs) and includes a ‘PA Energy’ and corresponding BEMIP Action Plan for Competitive, Secure and Sustainable Energy, which aims to improve security of energy markets and supply, among other goals. This can and should be updated and targeted to address the evolving threats facing the region today in this sector.

NATO is another major contributor to this effort. Besides building up its land forces in the region, the alliance has also increased air and maritime patrols around critical underwater infrastructure since the September 2022 Nord Stream blasts, and is promoting ‘technological innovation – including with drones – to better detect any suspicious activity.’ In February 2023, NATO further unveiled an Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell at NATO headquarters to map vulnerabilities and ‘deepen ties between governments, military, industry actors’ and the alliance.

This was augmented in July 2023 by a Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure, situated within Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), with NATO agreeing to ‘work towards identifying and mitigating strategic vulnerabilities and dependencies’ and ‘prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and nonstate actors.’

Yet another addition to this framework is the NATO-EU Task Force on the Resilience of Critical Infrastructure, launched in March 2023, which reinforces and is ‘fully embedded in the existing NATO-EU Structured Dialogue on Resilience’. This outlines how ‘NATO and the EU will continue to work towards making critical infrastructure, technology, and supply chains more resilient in the face of continuously evolving threats and risks’ (e.g. through ‘parallel and coordinated assessments’ and ‘action to mitigate potential vulnerabilities’). It also highlights energy, transport, digital infrastructure, space, and cross-sectoral challenges.

Together, the EU and NATO have also deepened cooperation in ‘dealing with hybrid threats, with a special focus on cyber defence, enhanced resilience, strategic communications, improved situational awareness and exercises.’ Through these and other potential initiatives – such as enhancing coordination with local stakeholders to intensify surveillance of energy and other critical infrastructure – they could significantly reduce the vulnerability of these vital networks.

To reduce risk further, NATO members could also consider updating existing incidents at sea (INCSEA) agreements with Russia where they exist (12 were signed between alliance members and the Soviet Union/Russia between 1972 and 2004), as Norway did in 2021, or enter into new ones where appropriate. Future agreements of the kind could target offshore energy infrastructure and unmanned underwater vehicles (i.e. drones), among other more recent and emerging technologies. For now, however, tensions remain high – along with the stakes, for all involved. Greater cooperation in the short-term will be difficult, but in preparing for a future Baltic which is safe and secure, all options must be considered.

This important basin, like so many other parts of the world, is reliant on the critical infrastructure which connects it, leaving its constituent nations especially vulnerable to unexpected shocks and pressures. If recent events are a guide, there is not a moment to lose in shoring up the security of their energy and other vital networks for the well-being of all who inhabit this region.

Trevelyan Wing is a fellow of the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and a Centre Researcher at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.

This article is part of a series of articles from British universities as part of the First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2024

The Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge is an interdisciplinary space created in 2015 by leading academics to consider today’s most pressing geopolitical questions within their historical contexts. The Centre seeks to strengthen the study of grand strategy and statecraft in Cambridge, offer innovative opportunities for collaboration with practitioners, and deliver impactful engagement with the wider world. To that end, it applies historical analyses, expertise in area studies and political science, and the experience of leading practitioners to major problems of conflict and world order (past, present and future) – contributing a deeper understanding of the origins of current geopolitical challenges, their potential evolution, and how they might ultimately be resolved.

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