Sea Change

This article was originally published at 3QuarksDaily.com.

The Finnish Capital

I

Russia’s war on Ukraine is realigning geopolitics everywhere you look. The Germans and French want the conflict to end immediately. Others won’t be heartbroken to see fighting continue to degrade Russian capabilities. The UK, Poles and Balts come to mind here. An idea is settling in that the US, too, doesn’t entirely mind fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian. There’s no denying the war is less painful from forty five hundred miles away.

Look north and if Finland and Sweden join NATO, overnight the Baltic Sea becomes the beating heart of European security. The shallow, enclosed Baltic hasn’t played such a heady role since the days of Napoleon. Vilnius and Riga never dreamed of such proximity to power.

In 2019 Mikhail Saakashvili, a previous victim of Russian aggression, predicted Russia’s next attack would come against Finland or Sweden. He was wrong, but he might not be wrong forever. That’s the fear that fuels an astonishing rush toward strategic realignment around the Baltic Sea.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö is two years shy of wrapping up his second six year term. The 73 year old son of a newspaperman and a nurse from Finland’s southwest coast, Niinistö consistently polls as the country’s most revered figure.

He was in Washington a week and a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, already working to insure the American administration’s blessing for Finland’s accession to NATO. The Finns hold their president in such regard that his backing of Finland’s coming NATO application should insure the peoples’ approval.

Niinistö put it this way: “Sufficient security is where Finns can feel that there is no emergency and there won’t be one.” Joining NATO, he said, would be “most sufficient.” 

Finland comprises a small, homogenous, linguistically unique space of five and a half million people. Its ethnicity is only recently beginning to be diluted, and not without incident, by the humanitarian welcome of mostly Arab and Somali refugees. Finns have a healthy self regard, a certain satisfaction with the place in the world they’ve staked out for themselves and how they’ve done it. A local word, sisu, sums up their perceived self-sufficiency, perseverance and grit.

Opinion there has taken a remarkable, historic and loudly proclaimed turn during the war on Ukraine. Support for joining the NATO alliance stood at a historically consistent 24 percent as recently as four months ago. After the period of “Finlandization,” a pejorative term for Finns, at the end of the Cold War they reckoned they’d worked out a modus vivendi with Russia and saw no need to upset the balance by joining a military alliance. Until now. Two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, support for joining NATO polls at a historic 68 percent.

Neither Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which caused the fall of Saakashvili, nor Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea moved Finnish public support for Nato membership out of the twenties. In the 2015 Finnish parliamentary elections, 91% of Social Democrat candidates were opposed to Nato membership.

In January this year, before the invasion of Ukraine, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, age 36, former city councilwoman, bakery worker and cashier in Finland’s second city of Tampere, judged it “very unlikely” that Finland would apply for a NATO membership during her current term. As it turns out, when she and her Social Democrats defend their coalition government in parliamentary elections next April, they all hope Finland will already be a NATO member. She explains the switch by declaring, “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was.”

“All of a sudden, it seems the Finnish population have decided: there is only one option. It’s a radical change, a huge shift in momentum,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, lead researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It now appears the Finns have convinced themselves that some version of their 1939 Winter War against Russia could happen again.

The Swedish Capital

It is a fateful decision, and not just for the Finns. Finland and its Swedish neighbor have historically made a show of binding their policies about NATO. The Swedes proclaim it explicitly on their government website: “Sweden’s most far-reaching defence cooperation is its cooperation with Finland. The two countries have similar security policies, and they both wish to expand their already extensive defence cooperation.”

Finland is carrying Sweden’s water here. It has always been understood any decision about NATO would be taken together. While Swedish public support for NATO has always run ahead of  the level in Finland, the Swedish Social Democrats have traditionally been opposed, and they head the current governing coalition.

In a statement Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said “Sweden has not witnessed the same spike in public support, despite traditionally having more public support for NATO than Finland.”

“I do not rule out NATO membership in any way, but I want to make a well-founded analysis of the possibilities open to us and the threats and risks… involved, to be able to take the decision that is best for Sweden.”

Her party held a six-hour meeting in Stockholm on Friday to begin deliberations on whether to change its position. A poll conducted last week by the newspaper Aftonbladet, which is close to the party, showed Swedish support for NATO at 57 percent. Most importantly, parliamentary elections are less than five months away.

Sweden hasn’t been openly at war with another country since the days of Napoleon, and today’s map is straightforward. Since Sweden has no Russian border, joining NATO ought to be easier for the Swedes than for the Finns. Because the Finns have jumped out front, Elizabeth Braw says Sweden has won the NATO lottery.

II

Americans are pretty proud of our opinions, and being Americans, we expect them to matter a whole lot. Trouble is, U.S. opinion reflects very little of the lived experience of the 65 million people living in the seven countries around the Baltic excluding Germany and Russia.

Here in the United States our idea of freedom, our brashness and swagger and gun culture and concealed carry laws and disdain for those who would protect us with masks, they’re not quite the same idea of freedom our frontline European allies have in this war. Here, freedom comes with standing with a gun and proclaiming it. There, freedom comes from standing with a gun and meaning it.

Where we make noise with fireworks on July 4th, to celebrate Finland’s freedom from Russia every December 6th Finns light candles in their windows. In December it’s dark by 3:30.

In contrast to the rambunctious American version of freedom, Matt Dinan describes a northern view, a view that also prevails in Nordic winter: “In Canada or the snowier parts of New England and the Midwest, winter travel always bears an implied asterisk. This small but meaningful restriction of freedom puts the lie to the dream of unbounded freedom or autonomy.”

Well meaning Americans like that “dream of unbounded freedom,” sort of an unlimited, abstract, all-you-can-eat freedom, but that’s not quite the type of freedom the Baltic nations are after. They want freedom from the very real threat of invasion.

The Finnish Capital

And so in the coming days Finnish Prime Minister Marin will set Finland’s formal NATO application process in motion. On April 15th Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) told state broadcaster YLE that if Finland is going to submit an application for membership, it will happen in the next six weeks.” That means by the end of May.  

The Finnish constitution endows the presidency with the foreign affairs portfolio. In President Niinistö’s shuttling between NATO capitals he will be asking for swift accession, hoping to forestall Russian belligerence in the interregnum between acceptance of Finland’s application and attainment of Article 5 protection.

How fast can they get it done? There’s no exact precedent, but Montenegro took about 18 months in 2017/2018, North Macedonia took 14 months in 2020 and Croatia and Albania, who joined together in 2009, took twelve.

None of these cases are entirely analogous to Finland’s prospective membership; Finland boasts a higher degree of interoperability with NATO allies and a longer track record of partnership. Given the current exceptional situation, the process could be remarkably quick.”

Until it is done, Finnish political leadership is trying to inoculate the public against inevitable Russian sabre rattling. Dmitri Medvedev declared that “There can be no more talk of any nuclear–free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Haavisto was dismissive. “Russia’s position on Finland and Sweden joining NATO has been common knowledge for a long time, and the reaction is therefore predictable and expected,” he said.

Besides, that really is all just so much bluster inasmuch as nuclear weapons have resided in Kaliningrad for at least several years. And Finland’s Santa Claus village near the Arctic Circle at Rovaniemi, which welcomes around half a million tourists each year, is something like 250 air miles away from the Gadzhiyevo naval base on the Kola Peninsula, “likely Russia’s most important location for naval strategic nuclear forces.”

The Foreign Minister’s “nothing to see here folks” stance doesn’t entirely calm the conspiracy-minded Nordic heart, though. Unsettling things do happen. Stories abound in communities in Finnish Karelia and Savo, near Russia, about suspicious Russian land purchases and general perfidy. The Carnegie Endowment has a list: “Mock attacks by Russian bombers in the middle of the night. Mysterious mini-submarines appearing in the waters outside Stockholm. A small private island in the southern Gulf of Bothnia bristling with satellite antennae and a heliport.”

III

Finland punches above its weight in part because it’s a small country with a largely homogenous population (like Sweden), that can act with more solidarity that a fractious, larger US or, say, France. This plays to its advantage in times of stress. It also has a certain national pride. It thinks it’s done pretty well as a small country unavoidably adjacent to a stifling giant. 

Finland will be unique from other Russia-facing NATO forces. It has demonstrated performance as a cohesive defensive force, it has no legacy of aging former Warsaw Bloc equipment and no legacy of former Soviet training.

The three Baltic NATO members and the former Warsaw Pact NATO countries are all undermilitarized for a real conflict and rely on symbolic US forces as tripwires. For example, through a rotating NATO group called Atlantic Resolvebefore the Russian invasion of Ukraine there were 1867 American troops in Poland, 1134 in Romania, 77 in Hungary, 55 in Estonia, 22 in Bulgaria, 18 in Lithuania, 15 in Czechia, 14 in Latvia and 12 in Slovakia.

Compare that to “The Warsaw Pact’s more than 3 million troops — most of them Soviet — [who] never fought their Cold War NATO adversaries, and the chief action they saw was in crushing popular anti-Communist movements inside member countries” as the Washington Post put it in a 1990 article marking the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution.    

We came to see the state of those Soviet troops as underfunded and desperate. As Warsaw pact troops pulled out, M. E. Sarotte writes that “Soviet forces smashed barracks, ripped out telephone lines, set off unannounced explosions, and left an environmental ‘mess’ including leaking oil barrels. They also started selling their weaponry, ‘including tanks,’ on the black market.” Such was the state of play from which Hungary, Poland,  Czechoslovakia and Romania were left to build their own sovereign defenses.

In the soon to be Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the task was more grim. I remember personally the head-shaking disgust with which newly sovereign Estonians described how retreating Russian soldiers pulled out and ran off with all the wiring in their barracks, to sell the copper at home.

From those desperate beginnings these impoverished newly independent states had to stand up their own armies, none of which have ever had to defend their countries against an assault, in contrast to the state of high readiness in Finland today.

For all that, there still comes the military question whether all NATO member governments would be keen to introduce 833 miles of new Russian border to the alliance. One argument is that “Unlike many NATO allies … Finland did not significantly reduce its emphasis on territorial defense in favor of expeditionary capabilities abroad.” Finland says it’s ready.

Viewed from some remove, it’s a bold and admirable thing that Finnish politicians are doing, audacious given their unique place in history, casting their lot loudly and publicly with democracy at no small physical risk to themselves and their people. That it is courageous there is no doubt. Whether it’s a profound mistake has yet to be seen.

Let us reflect on what Vladimir Putin has done with his invasion of Ukraine. With a future accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, he will have caused an expansion of the alliance by 300,000 square miles (an area almost twice the size of California) on 833 miles of his borderNATO will add 280,000 Finnish soldiers, Finnish artillery (the biggest artillery force in Europe), 200 Swedish jet fighters, 65 from Finland, and the Baltic Sea will become NATO’s inland sea. Says the Guardian, “by Nato’s Madrid summit in June, Nato will be on course to expand its population by 16 million, its GDP by €800bn and its land mass by 780,000 sq km.”

Putin’s actions have motivated interested parties he can’t control, whose own actions are already busy reshaping European security. Without solving the question of whether NATO is part to blame or whether Russia has brought all this on itself, we can be sure that the resulting sanctions, boycotts and the European decision to wean itself from Russian energy will wound Russia deeply. Here may be a more critical long term worry, peril from the wounded and howling giant. In time, who created a paranoid nuclear state may become less important than what to do about it.

Live Ukraine War Coverage

I’ve assembled a Twitter list you can follow for constantly updated news from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Click see the latest news, and if you’re on Twitter, please retweet the list.

Here’s What I Think

Monday, February 21, 2022: My brief opinion, modestly offered, because I think today is a historic day:

This is not Reagan v Grenada, Bush v Panama, Clinton v Serbia or Reagan or Obama v Libya. None of those men became known as wartime presidents. Even with Iraq, George W. Bush isn’t primarily remembered as a wartime president, but rather as the president at the end of the Cold War. This is the United States and NATO versus Russia in a war over territory in Europe. Blue collar Joe Biden has become a wartime president.

When Covid began no one expected the extent of disruption it would still be causing, now beginning year three. As Russia’s gambit to upend the European chessboard begins, we may fairly expect death, hardship, refugee flows, displaced people, redrawn borders and a whole roster of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.

Talking shops have spent entire careers talking over the last thirty years. For now they are talked out. Misery will ensue. I still have a hard time imagining the drafty old National Philharmonic Hall down near the Dnieper River in Kyiv, where my wife and I enjoyed an all Russian classical music concert three summers ago, ever being under assault by MIG fighters.

Unless there is an assertion by China, the European security question will predominate for years to come. The system of government – democratic or autocratic – that comes out on top in the battle for primacy beginning tonight will make gains worldwide and for years to come.

Autocrats will strive to make gains in the immediate meantime (looking at you, Beijing, Pyongyang, the Sahel). Either the post Cold War order will be patched together to hobble along for a little while longer or it will yield to the rise of an entirely new ordering of the world. Starting right now.

One man has made the calculation that he can reset the European security conversation. However successful his pursuit of war turns out to be, he is surely right about that.

The Real World Intrudes

Kyiv, Ukraine

Saturday, February 19th, 2022. Far more important real events actually happening in the world have hijacked my attention for now from my comfy online home here, this blog about travel.

During what I think is a really fateful period with import not only for Ukraine but for the broader world, and for the long term, I’ve assembled a list of about 100 Ukrainians, officials, ambassadors, OSINT sources, people from think tanks, people from neighboring countries, reporters and others that I find useful in following events in Ukraine, and you might, too.

If you’re trying to keep up, follow my list, and make suggestions about how to improve it. It’s real world stuff out there that’s really happening, and I promise, it’s riveting: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1467909429534380034

I’ll be back here soon.

New 3QD Column about Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Here’s my most recent monthly column at 3QD, as it ran on January 31, 2022. Please read it through and let me know what you think.

On the Road: Crunch Time

Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukraine is surrounded by 100,000-plus miserable, freezing, foot-stamping Russian soldiers who are Chekov’s gun on the table in Act One of our new post-Cold War epic. We’ve moved from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” It’s the moment when Wile E. Coyote has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out every thing but the most immediate, every body but family. Shocked by the viral invader’s audacity, we scrambled around in a new, unfamiliar world. Everything was frightening. We had precious little time to reflect. 

Now comes the malign intent of a real-life invader. Unlike Covid, Ukraine isn’t exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months. The US president has had time to commit high profile gaffes about any U.S. response. Russian landing craft have moved clear around Europe from the Baltic Sea to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. We’ve had ample opportunity to reflect.

So far the west has performed a pretty nifty feat – defying physics. Specifically Newton’s third law, the one about for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Only now, at last, comes a grudging rumble from the big American reaction machine.

If a Quisling-in-waiting sleeps in Russkiy Mir tonight, if Russia installs a Minsk-style puppet in Kyiv, if Russian military hardware further enters and remains in Ukraine, it will be the design of a violent nationalist leader. Threatening sanctions is the response of a technocrat, but at least it’s a response.

Everybody is playing the Vladimir Putin ‘will he or won’t he’ parlor game and opinion is genuinely divided. Those who think this is all elaborate Russian respect-seeking may be right, but I’m skeptical, and here’s why. Watching battle gear arriving from as far away as Khabarovsk (on the Amur River border with China), Ulan Ude (east of Lake Baikal) and Primorski Krai (which is eight time zones from Kyiv and borders North Korea), and then a perfectly timed and well scripted further deployment across Belarus for ‘exercises’ involving 200 trains moving hardware day and night,persuades me that going to all this trouble is more than just saber rattlingIf all this is just standing shaking a fist and shouting stay off of my lawn, what’s at stake could turn out to be one mighty costly lawn.

Russia has been moving hardware for weeks. Those hoping this is all a great feint say what’s lacking, if they really mean t0 do it, is field hospitals. During a pandemic, even an autocrat may find it hard to pull medical personnel from civilian hospitals for a training exercise, they say. But over the weekend it was widely reported that the military buildup now includes “supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties.” That sounds real.

After weighing Talleyrand’s advice to Napolean that “My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” the U.S. president, who has plenty of bayonets, having taken his precious time surveying his options, has begun to fulfill the basic Leader of the West job description, maintaining dialogue, mustering allies, bolstering defenses, polishing strategies.

(And oh lordy don’t you know Jens Stoltenberg is the most relieved man in the house. The NATO chief’s number one mission has to be, don’t be the hapless Nordic fellow who lost Europe. And the most relieved woman must be Ursula von der Layen, the face of the thoroughly sidelined E.U., who as German Defense Minister never met a crisis she couldn’t evade.)

Germany’s new coalition has yet to declare quite how much of a Putinversteher it wants to be, but the answer looks like pretty much. Sympathy is due to new Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, whose government is only fifty days old. His SDP party’s greatest hit is ‘Ostpolitik,’ working with Russia, after all.

Signs are not good. Last week von der Layen’s successor, the new German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, declared that Germany “will deliver 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, as a very clear signal, we stand by your side.” As full of élan and camaraderie as it may have looked on the minister’s keyboard, Ms. Lambrecht’s tweet hasn’t exactly been taken as a token of undying solidarity. Yet even that was too much for some German politicians: 

Translated, that’s roughly “Delivering 5,000 safety helmets to Ukraine is a bad sign. Germany must play the role of mediator and must not side with one another in a biased manner. The federal government is wandering around aimlessly in terms of foreign policy – stop this saber-rattling!”

With chalk poised above a blank slate, Scholz’s government has so far squandered the opportunity to set the table for its leadership role in a 2020s Europe. The UK disdainfully shook its metaphorical head and simply flew around Germany to deliver anti-tank weapons to Kyiv rather than be held up by paperwork.

•••••

Memories of the Soviet Union are aging but they’re not gone yet. Americans of a certain age will remember civil defense markings on the AM radios in their cars. In the event of, say, a Cuban missile crisis, children would duck and cover and drivers would tune to the triangle on their car radio for guidance. When my wife and I spend summers in Finland, we still hear the civil defense test sirens, sounded at noon on the first Monday of every month.

Civil preparedness is mostly a memory for many of us. But consider lived experience in the new NATO Baltic states. Because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuana were Soviet republics into the 1990s, much of the population speaks Russian and watches Russian TV.

Latvian journalist Kristaps Andrejsonssays while “clowns such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known figure in Russia’s ‘controlled opposition’ who has called for the immediate bombing of Kyiv—might be ignored in the Western media, in the Baltics, he and people like him are watched closely.” In the same way that even Donald Trump finds supporters, Russia finds support in the Baltics, because if you live in the Baltics, the threat of war is already in your house.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Consider lived experience in Ukraine right now. American former soldier and Kyiv resident Nolan Petersonwrites:

“If an attack is imminent, Kyiv’s air raid sirens will alert residents to tune in to emergency service announcements. Cars equipped with loudspeakers will also patrol the streets to announce important information.

“The Kyiv City Council has posted an interactive online map, which shows the locations of the roughly 5,000 official locations where residents can shelter from a military attack.

“(For example) From ground level, a nondescript metal door opens into a staircase that descends multiple stories underground. The shelter has a special air ventilation room (originally intended to protect against radioactive fallout) and is connected to the city’s water main…. Daily deliveries of food and medical supplies would sustain occupants in the event of a drawn-out Russian bombardment or siege.

“Known as dual-use facilities, the remaining 4,500 shelters include basements, underground parking lots and passageways, as well as Kyiv’s 47 metro stations.

“Should Russian forces target Kyiv … city officials will order a mass evacuation. To that end, a citywide evacuation commission has already been established, as well as regional evacuation commissions in each of Kyiv’s administrative districts.

“Each citizen should prepare an “emergency suitcase” ahead of time…. This should be a backpack with a capacity of at least 25 liters, a little more than 6.5 gallons, containing ‘clothing, hygiene items, medicines, tools, personal protective equipment, and food.’ The service also recommends carrying important documents and cash in the backpack.”

•••••

Kyiv, Ukraine

Russia is forcing a conversation the US doesn’t want to have, at least not right now and not on Russia’s terms. If Russia strikes further into Ukraine, one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. The first day of renewed conflict will be a fateful, life-changing day for entire nations. Its effects will last the rest of many peoples’ lives. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

Should conflict come, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania could, like Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, become frontline border states. Russian malign intent will have to be be assumed.

Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine in a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening neighbor. Any military move in Transnistria will be meant to intimidate not only Moldova but neighboring NATO member Romania as well.

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that won’t simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can those countries, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s Russian border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across conflict-embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

Doomsday warnings are cheap for hand-wringing punditry, that’s true. But if some of this stuff does come to pass, world changing ramifications follow. As Sweden’s FM Ann Linde says, “it can still go completely to hell.”

As Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, hold on to this moment, the way things are right now, how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

The last two years haven’t been years to love. But now I wonder if we might stop to appreciate even early 2022 the same way. Here we may be, in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenty-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, while our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.

•••••

[Radio dial image from Auto Universum, used with permission]

Crunch Time

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv ordered American family members to leave the country on Sunday. 

Realization shifted last week from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” This is that moment when Wile E. has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out everything but the most immediate, everybody but family. The viral invader’s audacity shocked us. We scrambled to adjust to new facts, all unfamiliar. We couldn’t turn away from the ugly, daily blow-by-blow. Everything was frightening. Events gave us little time to reflect. 

This week we see the malign intent of a different, non-viral, real-life invader. Except unlike Covid, Ukraine is not exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months, and today the majority of all Russian Battalion Tactical Groups surround or are nearing Ukraine. There’s been enough time for the US president to commit high profile gaffes about Ukraine. Russian landing craft are halfway around Europe en route from the Baltic to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. 

The moment we’re in this week, our current reactive moment, will pass. It won’t even last long. We’ll muster allies, defenses, polish our strategy, ready our readiness. Today the US is floating new troop deployments to Europe. We’ll react, and one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

If Russian military hardware enters and remains in Ukraine then Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania will join Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as frontline, newly hostile border states. Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine, a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening border. 

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that will not simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can they, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across war embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

As the Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, remember how things are right now, hold on to this moment, to how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

Now I wonder if we might not ought to stop and appreciate early 2022 in the same way. Here we are in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, when our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.

People Need Maps

Trouble’s brewing around the borders of Ukraine. People who don’t make eastern Europe a daily concern need context, and maps help. It’s beginning to look like we’ll be talking about Ukraine for some time to come, so to help orient yourself, and get briefed up on what may be the coming storm, here are a few maps. First, Ukraine itself:

Ukraine borders Russia to its east, Belarus to its north, and to its west, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Russian troops occupy the Donbass region in the east and Crimea in the south.

Here, Ukraine and its northern neighbors:

Note Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. It’s an exclave of Russia, a heavily armed artifact of WWII. The short border between Poland and Lithuania is called the Suwalki Gap, an area of vulnerability for NATO, as a Russian move to close that gap between Kaliningrad and Belarus would cut off the NATO Baltic states.

Belarus is increasingly a satrapy of Russia and as of the week of January 17, Russian troops have been moving into Belarus. The presence of Russian forces in Belarus is ominous not only for the Suwalki Gap, but also because Russian troops are taking positions along the Belarus/Ukraine border, ahead of coming war games with Belarusian troops promised for February 10 – 20.

Here is a map from the Belarusian Ministry of Defense showing the locations of the planned war games. Note in particular that the tank maneuvers anticipated in Belarus’s west (arrow) border the Suwalki Gap:

As you can see in the map below, the border area Russia occupies in Ukraine’s east, the Donbass, is much farther away from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv than is the Belarusian border. Kyiv (this is the spelling in the Ukrainian language. In Russian it’s Kiev) is mostly on the west bank of the Dnieper River, so an incursion from Belarus would allow Russia to avoid having to cross the river, although they’d likely to go around to the west of Chernobyl. Nevertheless, the travel time between Kyiv and Chernobyl is scarcely more than an hour.

Now here is Ukraine’s south and the Black Sea:

Russian landing craft recently set out from the Baltic Sea Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. These are now apparently en route to the Black Sea, having been escorted out of the Baltic Sea on Wednesday, January 19th. Transit time to the Black Sea, estimates are plus or minus eight days.

Besides in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region there are three so-called “frozen conflicts” around the Black Sea where Russia has troops:

Chances are we’ll refer back to these maps in the days to come.

A Land War in Europe?

Monday, 17 January, 2022: Vladimir Putin’s sustained and aggressive muscle flexing forces attention to the real possibility of a coming war in Europe. Not to amplify the beating of Russian war drums, but it is important to be awake to what’s before our eyes, as real events are coming fast and furious. There is plenty out there to see.

The newest of news is today’s arrival in Belarus of Russian military vehicles on railcars owned by the Russian state railway, accompanying Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s announcement that “joint military maneuvers will be held with Russia in February close to the borders with Ukraine as well as eastern NATO member states,” as RFE/RL has it.

Add this to the 100,000-plus Russian troops, tanks, drones and artillery that everybody knows are camped on Ukraine’s eastern border. Then there are Moscow’s demands for NATO’s unilateral disarmament and retreat. And there is a whole body of open source video showing substantial military hardware moving west from as far away as Khabarovsk (opposite China on the Amur River) and Primorski Krai (where Vladivostok is, in Russia’s far east). It’s hard to imagine moving war materiel like tanks and rocket launchers across the entire Asian landmass is intended as nothing more than a bargaining tool. 

As all this plays out we’ll have time to talk at length about what it means for Ukraine, but today let’s look at a few recent events in northeastern Europe that are not specifically between Russia’s Putin and Ukraine’s Zelenskyy. Developments all around the Baltic Sea are adding to the general tension. 

Last week we saw the jarring images of Swedish tanks rolling through the streets of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland, which Sweden had left unmilitarized from 2004 until as recently as 2017. Since then the pace of events has only quickened.

The Swedish Capital

– Last Friday, January 14th, the AP reported that “Sweden, which is not part of NATO, has among other things noticed a number of landing craft from Russia’s northern navy which have been entering the Baltic Sea.” The next day all three Russian Baltic Fleet Ropucha-class heavy landing ships departed Baltiysk (a port in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, on the other side of the sea between Lithuania and Poland). These landing ships can each land 25 armored personnel carriers. 

– Over the weekend “Police in Sweden deployed patrols and helicopters to the Forsmark nuclear plant to hunt for a large drone seen flying over the site late on Friday,” and SAPO, Sweden’s spy agency, said today it has taken over the investigation, now into drone incidents at three nuclear plants,  Forsmark, north of Stockholm, Oskarshamn, and “Ringhals, which is the largest of them and sits on the country’s western coast,” Euronews reports.

– On Saturday, “the police became aware that a drone had also flown over central Stockholm.” Dagens Nyheter quoted the police’s spokesperson as saying “Since there are protected objects in central Stockholm, we have initiated a preliminary investigation into violations of the Aviation Act and violations of the Protection Act,” while declining to connect the incident to the drones over nuclear plants, or to name a suspect.

The flight of RU675

– Also on Saturday, a Russian cargo aircraft flew a curious route from Moscow to Leipzig. Helsingin Sanomat, the country’s main newspaper says that after flying straight north toward Murmansk, the flight turned and flew from Oulu, Finland across the country “to Turku on the Finnish side.”

I’m using Google translate for all the following quotes: “Normally, flights from Moscow to Leipzig run south of the Baltics…. The Boeing 747-8HVF, which flew from Russia to Germany, is owned by AirBridgeCargo, whose route network … center is Moscow. The company says it is the largest air cargo company in Russia…. Finland is not currently part of the company’s route network…. According to a security expert, exceptional flights are normally identified and photographed by a (Finnish) Hornet fighter jet…. The Air Force has not said whether the fighter went to identify this aircraft…. The Air Force doesn’t want to comment on the flight….” 

Finnish military types are playing this down, even though the flight crossed the entire southern half of Finland, even though (Google translate again) “The Jyväskylä garrison in Tikkakoski, where the Air Force headquarters and part of the Finnish Defense Forces’ intelligence department are located, was close to its route. Along the route was also Hall’s military airport in Jämsä.” 

It’s also notable that the flight had a bird’s eye view of the entire length of Gotland.

UPDATE: The Finnish state broadcaster YLE has an English article dated January 18th that’s a little clearer than Google Translate. Quoting the article: “The cargo plane took off from Moscow at about 7.26pm Finnish time on Saturday evening and flew towards the city of Murmansk in northwestern Russia. However, the flight turned over the White Sea, a southern inlet of the Barents Sea, at roughly the latitude of the city of Oulu and instead flew to the German city of Leipzig.

The plane’s route therefore took it over Finland from Suomussalmi in the east to Turku in the southwest, passing Tikkakoski near the city of Jyväskylä, where the Finnish Air Force headquarters and part of the Finnish Defense Forces’ intelligence department are located. The cargo plane also passed close to the Halli military airport in Jämsä, Central Finland.”

•••••

The Finnish Capital

Belligerent tweeters in the west, who have little local knowledge, are performatively encouraging Finland and Sweden to join NATO. They are full of swagger: hell yeah, we’ll get Finland and Sweden to join our club, that’ll show those Russian SOBs. 

There is a lot going on right now and things are quite a bit more complicated than that. In the first place, real people in two sovereign countries bring their own opinions formed by their own lived experience to the question of NATO expansion. They actually live there and it is their decisions that matter. No one is served by the virility-for-show that clogs the shallow end of social media, and I wish they’d stop it. Fortunately, no one who makes actual decisions gives them a second glance.

On the more important question of what in the world will happen next, we’ll need to look at topics like the other, southern shore of the Baltic, the vexing problem of Kaliningrad and the Suwalki Gap and of course, Ukraine itself and the fundamental question, is a land war coming to Europe? Quite a bit more to come. 

Belarus Flight Map

In response to Belarus’s state-sponsored air piracy, a bold move by the European Union, like, say, blocking Belarus’s connection to the SWIFT payments system in EU countries, would be shocking. But it appears even the EU’s tepid recommendation that airlines avoid Belarusian airspace has been effective. And Bloomberg estimates air transit fees are the source of $60-70 million a year for Belarus.

Have a look at my archive of Belarus posts for how Minsk felt when I visited in 2010 (Hint: pretty creepy).

Quotes: Sunday Protests in Minsk

First, I dress carefully, in case I end up spending a night or two in the detention centre. Second, I intensively water dozens of my plants. Third, we leave our cat enough food for a few days. (One of my friends says that her cat has become fat with all these Sunday rallies.) Fourth, we take passports and a bottle of water. It’s important, too, to clear the history of your mobile phone, as these are often checked in the detention centres.

– Quoted in FT.com