Denmark, the Baltic Sea, and Soviet Power
I denne artikel beskæftiger lektor Erik Beukel, Odense Universitet, sig med Sovjetunionens voksende maritime styrke og dennes interesse og aktivitet i relation til de danske strande. Artiklen er oprindelig skrevet for »National Security Series«, der udsendes af Center for International Relations, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Den bringes derfor i den originale engelske version.
During the last 15—20 years much more attention has been paid to the idea that military means have consequences for international relations even without being used in violent conflicts, i.e. they are also important in times of peace. Concerning strategic atomic weapons, especially in the Unites States there have been developed very sophisticatd theories of deterrence, and theories about the importance of both superpowers possession of second-strike capabilities. In the situation of strategic parity or balance of terror which has developed since the beginning of the 60s, special attention has been paid to the significance of conventional military means. Researches have pointet out that naval power in particular has a flexibility and a mobility that makes it particularly applicable for the promotion of political goals in times of peace1). There is agreement among researchers and other observers that there is a close connection between a state’s capacity for influence and its possessin of military means. Or, as it is often expressed, between the capacity for influence and the perceived possibilities for the use of military means in specific situations. However the more specified character of this connection has been particularly difficult to fix. The existence of a military capacity must be assumed to effect the expectations of states as to each others’ behaviour, and from this simple assumption it follows that military weapons have consequences in time of peace.
It can be very difficult to estimate the military forces of states and the possible effects of their use in violent conflicts. But it is even more difficult to go on to theorize about the meaning of military wepons in times of peace. This is probably part of the explanation for the fact that more attention has been paid to the outcomes of conceivable military conflicts of the changing naval activity of the three Warzawa-pact countries in the Baltic Sea, rather than the consequences for political developments in peacetime. But even if it is very difficult accurately to evaluate those consequences, it is nevertheless very im- portnt to consider them now and in the future. Different reasons can support the hypothesis that it is in this sphere, the so called “grey lever’, that one can expect to identify the most important results of the changing naval balance in the Baltic Sea.
The purpose of this article is to look at the following:
1. The interests of the Soviet Union in the Danish straits;2)
2. The changing pattern of naval activities og the three Warsawa-Pact coastal states (GDR, Poland, and the Soviet Union) in the Baltic Sea;
3. Political consequences up till now of the changing naval behaviour — if any can be ascertained;
4. Possible consequences in the future both in normal peacetime and in crises.
Analyses of the naval policy of the Soviet Union can roughly be divided according to two different approaches used: a “defensive” and a“offensive” interpretation of the forward deployment of the Soviet navy. The “defensive” interpretation considers the Soviet navy as still fundamentally for coastal- defence and in a supporting role to the army. In this view it is shaped by the defensive outlock prevailing in the Soviet military and in the Soviet leadership. Forward deployment is still primarily considered as a rection to the actions of other sates, i.e. as a response to the American Polaris-submarine threat in the early 60’s. This interpretation stresses the fact that the Soviet Union (still) lacks the carrier task force necessary to project power far from the Soviet Union. On the other hand the “offensive” school considers forward deployment as an attempt to obtain a global political influence by a peacetime presence on oceans traditionally dominated by Western great powers; this school especially emphasizes that even if the forward deployment was originally the reaction by a traditionally defence-minded state to the Polaris-threat, it is now more relevant to consider the forward deployment as an attempt to gain peace-time influence.3)
More pejoratively observers have spoken of a “realistic” versus an “alarmist” interpretation of Soviet naval policy. “Realist” observers express the opinion that the very extended “alarmist” interpretations of Soviet naval policy (which may have been advanced with the intention of alerting Western governments to new threats to fundamental Western interest) actually please the Soviet leadership, because they contribute to a strengthening of image of overwhelming Soviet (naval) power. This creates the desired background for a political use of the navy in peacetime. Put differently, there has been a tendency to forget that here too there is strategic interaction: the observers and researchers have become actors. If the original reason behind the forward deployment was a desire to neutralize the Polaris-submarines, the “alarmist” may have given the Soviet leadership new ideas.4)
The critique from some “realists” concerns the analyses of the global Soviet naval policy. The question is, if similar considerations are relevant for an analysis of Soviet naval policy on the regional level, i.e. in the Baltic area. Put another way: will a discussion in itself of possible peacetime consequences of the naval behaviour of the three WP-countries create the desired background for a political use of the naval strength. It is principally relevant to consider such arguments. The conclusion is, however, that it is vey easy to overstimate both the positive and negative importance of “alarmist” writings. The perceptions of decision makers may not be so easy to influence. At any rate an eventual critique must concern the reliability or validity of an evaluation of Soviet naval strength, and not that it should be unfortunate, altogether, to consider this problem. However, it is very important not to commit the mistake which according to Michael MccGuire and others, is typical of “alarmist” analyses of Soviet naval policy, namely to set forth a “theater-tactical” analysis, as if it were a “political-strategic” analysis.
The Soviet interest in the Danish straits is a funtion of the expectations of the importance of the straits in military conflicts on different levels. Because of its composition compared to the three other Soviet navies, the Soviet Baltic fleet must be assumed to have relevance solely on the conventional level, not for conflicts or deterrence of conflicts on the strategic nuclear level. However, six Soviet Golf-2 submarines were transferred to the Baltic Sea from the Northern navy during the autumn 1976. These were built 1958—62, and were the first Soviet submarines built to carry ballistic missiles. Each Golf submarine is armed with three nuclear missiles with a range up to 600 nautical miles, i.e. from the Baltic they can reach large parts of Western Europe.
The missiles in the Golf submarines are not counted in the SALT-1 agreement on limitations of offensive missiles due to their relatively old age and short range, and they are likely soon to be replaced by more modern systems. Since the Soviet Union already has about 600 MRBM and IRBM directed towards Western Europe, they are not very significant in the theatre nuclear balance. The straits are unlikely to gain strategic importance on this account. It is unlikely that the placing of the Golf submarines in the Baltic is the first “innocent” step towards the permanent deployment of strategic ballistic submarines in the Baltic.
In estimating the conventional situation in the Baltic Sea, observers have underlined the naval superiority of the WP, and the significant build-up of amphibious forces. The WP naval force in the Baltic are superior to NATO in the proportion 5:1; only west of the island Bornholm do the NATO navies play a significant role. Amphibious forces include a Soviet and a Polish division, in all about 11.000 men. Almost half of this force can be carried in one lift by landing vessels to the Danish islands. It gives the WP a good possibility for a surprise action (perhaps supported by paratroops) to control the straits or parts of Denmark. Denmark is inside the range of the landbased tactical Soviet air force, and hence the traditional Soviet naval weakness — the lack of carriers — is without relevance in the estimation of the situation in the Baltic.
The Soviet naval dominance in the Baltic has during the recent years been countered by occasional visits by the Standing Naval Atlantic (STANAV- FORLANT). However, these visits are becoming rarer because the Parliaments of Netherland and Canada raised doubts over the interests of the two countries in operations in the Baltic. STANAVFORLANT has in any case confined its few cruises in the Baltic to the Western parts. Units from the U.S. navy have also pais visits to the Baltic on a few occations during the recent years. These visits have very little effect on the naval balance in the area, but they do have an important symbolic value. They underline the fact that the Baltic is an open sea and that “deterrence by involvement” covers this area too although the changing naval balance could cause an increasing doubt about the credibility. The constant preoccupation with the problems of the central front at expense of the problems of the flanks could also lead to a lack of interest in the Baltic.
The Soviet Union has interests in the straits as one of the few exits to the oceans from Russia and as a barricade against the traditional seapowers entrance into an area of importance for her. In order to provide against a closing of the straits by the NATO-powers, the Soviet Union would have to control the Danish isles, the peninsula of Jutland, and probably the southern part of Norway. The straits can be made into a barricade by a much more limited action.
The importance of the straits as a passage in a conventional conflict is estimated in different ways by the different observers. Since 1960 the number of warships through the straits have fallen; from this it might be deduced that the Soviet Baltic navy primarily has tasks in the Baltic. It would then follow that the straits will be less important in a military conflict. However it seems probable that at least a part of the Soviet navy in the North Sea and the Atlantic is based in the Baltic. Behaviour in execises during the last ten years confirms this. The Soviet Union might then try to secure control of the straits in a rapid surpriseaction, particularly if a conventional conflict of longer duration was expected. But in such a case the Soviet Union might try to take the ships through the straits before the outbreak of hostilities. This possibility is increasingly relevant, because technological development nowadays is favourable to the defense. Laying mines to block the straits would be easy and it might be costly to force a way through.5)
If the purpose solely would be to get control over some NATO-areas, perhaps in order to get a “bargaining chip” as an element in a crisis somewhere else, the Danish island Bornholm and a few other Danish isles in the Baltic are obvious candidates. If the action could be carried out rapidly — and the strength of the WP navy in the Baltic suggest that it could — NATO would face a “fait-accompli”, and would either have to assume responsibility for an escalation in an area where it is definitely inferior in strength, or escalate in another geographical area. This possibility is clearly attractive to the Soviet Union and a greater danger than any actions related to Soviet interests in securing the straits as exits to the oceans.
What is the normal behaviour of the three WP navies in the Baltic Sea, and in what ways has it changed in recent years? First, there has been a significant expansion of the supervision of the entrances to the Baltic through the Danish straits. This began in 1956 and by 1958 the two first permanent patrols were established — a Soviet south of Trelleborg in Sweden and an East-German in the Fehmarn Belt. In 1968 a Polish patrol between Rugen and the Danish island of Moen was added. In 1970 a Soviet patrol was deployed opposite Skagen on the border between Kattegat and Skagerak although until now it has only been functioning from May to September or when NATO exercises and other NATO movements in these sea-areas have been watched. In 1973 yet another patrol (north of Rugen) was added from May to November manned alternately by GDR, Poland, and the Soviet Union. With these patrols the WP is capable of controlling all navigation through the straits. In the autum 1977, when a NATO exercise took place in Denmark, the WP expanded its patrolling in the seas to the south of Denmark and increased naval activities elsewhere in the Baltic.
Second, units from the three WP navies often sail around Zealand. In the years since 1960 the number of such circumnavigations have gone up sixfold and there are now about 30 a year. It is assumed that the purpose is primarily to make the personnel acquainted with the Danish waters. More recently these have been performed by units from GDR and Poland.
Third, in recent years the geographical location of the WP-exercises has changed significantly from the eastern parts of the Baltic to the areas directly to the south of Denmark. The first large Soviet amphibious exercise took place about 20 years ago along the Estonian coast at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland. Today exercises take place far to the west. These activities have especially attracted attention in Denmark and they have been rather dramatically covered in the Danish press.
Fourth, a significant number of warships pass the straits each year bound both for WP shipyards in the Baltic and for patrol duty outside the Baltic although the number of passages have decreased significantly since 1960. This lends support to the view that the Baltic fleet today primarily has its tasks in the Baltic. On the other hand, about 50% of the Soviet shipyard capacity lies in the Baltic, and many tenders to the ships in the Atlantic and the North Sea have their bases here.
Fift, since 1969 the air activities of the WP countries have expanded especially in the western Baltic area. Formations af about 40 strike bombers often carry out flights from the Leningrad area to within minutes from Danish air-space.
These activities (especially the amphibious naval exercises and the flights) have strained the Danish military alert system. An activity which a few years ago would be quite abnormal is today a regular occurrence and this contributes to slowly creating the image of the Baltic as a Soviet lake or a sea characterized by Soviet dominance. The image of the decision-makers of the power relations in the area and of what can be done in crises have been changed. The changed WP activities can be connected with the verbal assertion of the Soviet Union that the Baltic Sea is a “mare clausum”. Soviet juridical view has devised a threefold categorization of the seas: internal, closed, and open seas. Internal seas are seas that are surrounded by the territory of one state and are consequently subject to its exclusive jurisdiction. Closed seas, which are enclosed by the territories of at least two states, are seas which either have no or limited communication with the open sea. The jurisdiction of the closed seas is a matter of concern of the littoral states exclusively. The Baltic Sea belongs to this group. The open seas are all those not within the first two categories.
Soviet juridical view accepts that merchant ships from non-littoral states have a right of passage through straits to closed seas, but this right is denied to warships from non-littoral states. This juridical views is contrary to common international law, which conceives closed seas as “mare liberum”. To accept the Soviet juridical view would mean a legalization of the Soviet actual dominance in the Baltic, and acceptance of Soviet participation in the control of the traffic through the straits. However, practically the Soviet Union has treated the Baltic Sea as an open sea.That is in accordance with the view that the Soviet Union has two different objectives with regard to the Baltic Sea: a realistic and current in accordance with common international law and a long-term one in accordance with the Soviet juridical view. The current objective is to secure free passage through the straits. The long-term object is to obtain control of the straits. The slowly changing routine behviour of WP navies in the Baltic is in accordance with the Soviet juridical view on the status of the Baltic Sea.
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