By Anne Kauranen, Johan Ahlander
LATHE, Finland/KARLSKRONA, Sweden (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – High above a railway bridge spanning a bubbling river just outside the Arctic Circle, Finnish construction workers are hammering away at a project that will streamline links from NATO’s Atlantic coast in Norway to its new border with Russia.
“We’re going to remove about 1,200 of them one by one,” says site manager Mika Hakkarainen, holding up a rivet.
Until February 2022, the €37 million ($41 million) electrification of this short stretch of railway – the only rail link between Sweden and Finland – simply promised locals the ability to take a night train until the lights bright Stockholm.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, things changed.
Finland is now part of NATO and Sweden hopes to join soon.
As the alliance reshapes its strategy in response to Russia’s campaign, access to these new territories and their infrastructure opens the way for the Allies to control and contain Moscow, and an unprecedented ability to deal with the whole of northern Europe West as a bloc, nearly two dozen diplomats and military and security experts told RockedBuzz via Reuters.
“PUT RUSSIA AT RISK”
The Finnish railway improvements around Tornio on the Swedish border are one example. Expected to be completed next year, they will make it easier for the Allies to send reinforcements and equipment across the Atlantic to Kemijarvi, an hour’s drive from the Russian border and seven hours from the Russian nuclear bastion and military bases near in Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula.
Among the forces based there, Russia’s Northern Fleet includes 27 submarines, more than 40 warships, about 80 fighter jets, and stockpiles of nuclear warheads and missiles, data compiled by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs show. (FIIA).
In a military conflict with NATO, the main task of the fleet would be to secure control of the Barents Sea and stop ships bringing reinforcements from North America to Europe through the waters between Greenland, Iceland and the UK .
This is something Finland can help NATO resist.
“It’s about containing this kind of capability from the north,” retired U.S. Major General Gordon B. Davis Jr. told RockedBuzz via Reuters.
In addition to opening up its territory, Helsinki is buying the right assets, particularly fighter aircraft, “to add value to (the) northeastern defense and, frankly, put Russia at risk in a conflict,” he said.
Sweden’s contribution, by 2028, will include a new generation of submarines in the Baltic Sea which, according to Fredrik Linden, commander of the Swedish 1st Submarine Flotilla, will make a big difference in protecting vulnerable seabed infrastructure and maintaining access – currently major security headaches, as the In September 2022 the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines was shown.
“With five submarines we can close the Baltic Sea,” Linden told RockedBuzz via Reuters. “We will cover the parts that are interesting with our sensors and with our weapons.”
Analysts say the change is not ahead of time. Russia has been actively developing its military and hybrid capabilities in the Arctic against the West, partly under the cover of international environmental and economic cooperation, FIIA deputy director Samu Paukkunen told RockedBuzz via Reuters. The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Paukkunen’s institute estimates that Western militaries are about 10 years behind Russia militarily in the Arctic.
Even with the losses Russia has suffered in Ukraine, the naval component of the Northern Fleet and strategic bombers remain intact, Paukkunen said.
NATO member Denmark phased out its submarine fleet in 2004, part of a move to scale back its military capabilities after the end of the Cold War, and has yet to decide on future investments. Norway is also on order for four new submarines, with delivery of the first scheduled for 2029.
“It seems to me that we have to catch up, because we haven’t done it properly for the past 25 years,” said Sebastian Bruns, senior maritime security researcher at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy.
“ONE WHOLE PIECE”
Both developments show how the enlarged alliance will reshape the European security map. The region from the Baltic in the south to the far north can almost become an integrated area of operations for NATO.
“It’s very important for NATO to have the whole northern part now, to see it as a whole piece,” Lt. Col. Michael Maus of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation told RockedBuzz via Reuters. He chaired the working group that steered Finland’s military integration into NATO.
“With (existing) NATO nations Norway and Denmark, we now have a whole bloc. And thinking about potential defense plans, it’s a huge step forward for us to look at it as a whole area now.”
This became clear in May when Finland hosted its first Arctic military exercise as a NATO member at one of Europe’s largest artillery training grounds, 25km above the Arctic Circle.
The nearby city of Rovaniemi, known to tourists as the home of Santa Claus, is also the base of the Finnish Arctic Air Force and would serve as a military hub for the region in the event of a conflict. Finland is investing around 150 million euros to renovate the base to accommodate half of the new fleet of 64 F-35 fighters, due to arrive from 2026.
For the maneuvers in May, nearly 1,000 Allied forces from the United States, Britain, Norway and Sweden filled the sparse highways joining some 6,500 Finnish troops and 1,000 vehicles.
US Army Field Artillery Officer Captain Kurt Rossi led a battery carrying an M270 multiple rocket launcher.
It was first shipped from Germany across the Baltic Sea, then trucked nearly 900km north.
“We’ve never been so close (to Russia) and we haven’t been able to train in Finland before,” said Rossi.
If there were a conflict with Russia in the Baltic Sea area – where Russia has significant military capabilities in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad – the sea route used by NATO for that exercise would be vulnerable. Finland relies heavily on shipping for all of its supplies – customs data shows that nearly 96% of its foreign trade is through the Baltic.
The east-west rail link through the far north will open up an alternative, which could prove crucial.
“I think the Russians can disrupt sea freight quite easily, so basically this northern route is the only accessible route after that,” said Tuomo Lamberg, head of cross-border operations at Sweco, the Swedish company that plans electrification. .
“NOTHING BEATS THEM”
But even this risk could decrease when Sweden joins NATO.
Below the waterline of the Baltic Sea, the commander of the Linden submarine shows a reporter the captain’s quarters of the Gotland, one of four submarines currently in the Swedish fleet, which will bring NATO’s total in the Baltics to 12 by 2028.
The Kiel institute expects Russia to add one to three submarines in the coming years, to bring its total of Baltic submarines to four, along with its fleet of about six modern warships. Its capabilities in Kaliningrad also include medium-range ballistic missiles.
“This may be the loneliest place in the world,” says Linden, who captained the ship for many years. On a typical mission, which lasts two to three weeks, there is no communication with headquarters, she said.
Gotlands, like modern German Type 212 submarines, will be among NATO’s most advanced non-nuclear submarines and can stay out of port for much longer than most other conventional designs, researcher Bruns said.
“I would say, without a doubt, that the Gotland-class and the German Type 212 are the most capable non-nuclear submarines in the world,” Bruns said.
“There’s nothing that beats them, literally. In terms of how quiet the motors they use, they’re especially quiet and very manoeuvrable.”
In submarine warfare, Linden said, the main question is where the adversary is. An inattentive crew member dropping a wrench or slamming a closet door can lead to detection.
“We talk quietly on board,” Linden said. “You shouldn’t believe … movies where orders are shouted.”
Gotland is based in Karlskrona, about 350 km across the Baltic from Kaliningrad. With an average of 1,500 ships a day trafficking the Baltic according to the Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe, it is one of the busiest seaways in the world and there is really only one way out, the Kattegatt Sea between Denmark and Sweden.
The shallow, crowded sea can only be accessed through three narrow straits that submarines cannot pass through undetected.
If any of the straits were to be closed, the maritime traffic of goods to Sweden and Finland would be severely affected and the Baltic states would be completely cut off. But with Sweden in the alliance, that becomes more preventable, because Swedish submarines will add to NATO’s listening powers.
Linden says Gotland’s crew can sometimes hear Russian ships. The extent of the sound journey varies in part according to the seasons. In winter, she said, she feels right up to the island of Oeland, just a little further than the distance between London and Birmingham in the UK.
“You can lie outside Stockholm and hear the chain rattling on the northern mark of Oeland,” Linden said. “In the summer you can hear maybe 3,000 meters.”
By 2028, when Sweden takes delivery of a new ship model, this capacity will increase. The new design, known as A26, will allow submarine crews to deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), combat underwater or autonomous systems of some kind without putting the submarine or crew at risk, Bruns said.
“Depending on the mission it could be an ROV safeguarding an oil pipeline or a data cable, it could be a combat diver going ashore in the cover of darkness, it could be almost anything.”
This capability will increase Sweden’s ability to control the comings and goings across the Baltic.
“If you count all the forces, with Germany leading the way and Sweden and Finland on board, all of these have really shifted the balance in the Baltic quite significantly,” said Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
“It would make it very difficult for the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet to operate in a free manner,” he said. “But it could… still be a challenge for NATO.”
(Anne Kauranen reported by Tornio, Johan Ahlander from Karlskrona; additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen and Sabine Siebold in Brussels; edited by Sara Ledwith)