Concerns in region as Russia begins Baltic military drill

Russian naval exercises in the Baltic Sea have caused security fears among countries in the region, including Poland, and marine traffic disruptions.

The Russian navy began its exercises near the Polish and Latvian coast on Thursday in the latest bid to demonstrate its military prowess.

In the light of the latest diplomatic crisis in the wake of the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, NATO members are keeping a careful eye on the Russian naval drill, despite having an advantage over the Russian navy on the Baltic Sea.

The exercises, conducted by the Russians in international waters, has forced Sweden, Poland and Latvia to reroute some of their air traffic to avoid possible incidents. Shipping, including the Stena Line ferries operating from the Polish seaport of Gdynia and the Swedish port of Karlskrona were likewise forced to change course in order to avoid straying into the Russian exercises zone.

Polish authorities have set up a buffer zone with a width of 3.5 nautical miles around the site of the military drill, declaring it off-limits to any civilian aircraft in order to prevent any dangerous situations from occurring. The Russian maneuvers are taking place about 25 km from Polish territorial waters.

The Russian navy has also asked the Latvian authorities to close off their airspace within approximately 40 km of the Latvian coast, due to missile testing. Latvia responded with a statement saying that the maneuvers were “a demonstration of force” posing a threat to air and marine traffic, although they admitted the exercises are being carried in accordance with international law.

The exercise also caused concerns in Sweden. Some of the testing is being conducted just 50 km from the city of Karlskrona, where a Swedish naval base is located. This proximity to Sweden’s coast is “unusual”, a Swedish defense analyst told the Polish Press Agency, adding that Russia most likely wants to show off their military capabilities.

The German Die Welt daily notes the general nervousness caused by the Russian operations among its neighbors. However, author of the article points out that while Russia keeps “testing NATO” in the Baltic Sea region, as evidenced by previous incursions reported by Sweden, Finland, and the Baltics, the threat posed by the Russian navy is “relatively minor” since it remains outnumbered by the combined forces of Sweden, Finland, and NATO. Nevertheless, Russia is likely to continue “meddling” in the Baltic Sea region, the author concludes.

Recent years saw an increase in Russian military activity, with numerous incidents involving Russian aircraft being reported in the Baltic Sea area. Russia has also relocated its nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its bases in Kaliningrad and carried out various military drills near NATO borders. The establishment of a permanent presence of NATO forces in Poland and the Baltics in the wake of the 2016 summit in Warsaw is seen as a response to the increasingly bold attitude taken by Vladimir Putin in the region.