(Note: This article is written from the Swedish perspective, since we spend much of each year on the Island of Gotland, Sweden, in the Baltic Sea.)
Last August, 2014, we visited Lithuania with Swedish relatives who know that nation quite well. I could not help but note the strong Russian presence, first on the overnight ferry to Lithuania, where Russian was a predominant language, and then in the Klaipeda area of Lithuania, where large new German cars with Russian license plates were usually parked in two spaces, as if to announce their presence. On my birthday, August 29, we drove up to the Russian border, a very serious border station indeed, with troops present as we turned around.
Reportedly, on the morning of April 30, 2015, the captain of the fishing trawler Emanuel sent an alarming message to the Dutch operator of the trawler. "The Russian Navy is back," he stated, adding that Lithuania had also sent a warship to the area, a patch of shallow water off the port of Klaipeda. According to reports in the June 11 international edition of The New York Times: The encounter passed without violence, and the electric cables, being built to connect Lithuania to Sweden's electricity grid, were left undisturbed. But the intrusion, one of four this year by Russian warships into the cable-laying zone, was yet another round in what has become a nerve-rattling test of wills between Russia and the West over former Soviet lands since the conflict in Ukraine started last year. Russian ships and submarines have been reported off Gotland, Sweden also, making us Gotlanders rather nervous, to put it mildly.
Now, just why should Mother Russia care if Sweden is hooking Lithuania up to the Swedish power grid? Might it be that the Baltic region's dependence on Russian energy -- long one of Moscow's main levers to pressure its neighbors and achieve outcomes favorable to Russia -- has become central to the struggle between Russia and the European Union, and beyond that to the Russian goal of pressuring the United States to back off from sanctions over Ukraine. Moscow has made crystal clear that it considers sanctions and other pressures, both financial and geopolitical, to be a major threat to the inflated global Russian aspirations of Mr. Putin.
Thus, its show of Naval force to discourage electrical connections, which include the pair of 250-mile-long underwater cables between Klaipeda, Lithuania, and the Swedish city of Nybro, as well as an electrical cable now under construction from Lithuania to neighboring Poland. These projects will free Lithuania once and for all from Russian energy sources -- and major resulting political and economic pressures, which help to keep Baltic States connected to the former Soviet Union supportive of Russian policies. Mr. Putin has made that goal very clear.
Again, according to the international New York Times: Lithuania's energy minister, Rokas Masiulis, said he believes Russia is simply "flexing its muscles" -- rather than preparing for a direct strike on the cables, which are due to start carrying electricity from Sweden by the end of 2015. Russia has been conducting nearly nonstop naval exercises in the Baltic Sea -- including on 26 of 30 days in April, according to Lithuanian officials -- and it is regularly entering Baltic airspace with its warplanes. Other displays of Russian strength, or at least audacity, include the cross-border abduction of an Estonian intelligence officer last year .
To fully understand the role of energy sources in these issues in the Baltic region, consider that a huge floating factory, to convert liquefied natural gas from Norway into the burnable variety, arrived off the coast of Lithuania last October, securing independence from Russia for natural gas. Lithuania hopes that by now installing undersea cables for Swedish electricity, another major step towards full energy independence will be taken. Lithuania currently imports 60 percent of the electricity it needs from Russia and from its fellow Baltic nations, far too much.
The United States is also making its presence felt, and it held its annual naval exercises in the Baltic Sea last week with an unusually large number of ships, aircraft and personnel from NATO countries, including Lithuania, as well as nonmembers like Sweden. Russian vessels shadowed American ships as they left the port in Poland. Swedes living on Gotland, the Swedish outpost island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, are particularly conscious of the risks, and particularly concerned over the heightened tensions. What can be done about recent Russian provocations, and others which are likely soon on their way to the Baltic region?
Two clear approaches present themselves. First, the United Nations (called the FN in Sweden) should be much more involved in Baltic region concerns and issues than it has been up until now. While the Russian invasion of regions of Ukraine produced at least some firm steps by the United Nations, that august body appears to have a blind spot regarding the Baltic states. Perhaps part of the reason for that blind spot is the failure of directly-affected nations, such as Lithuania, to bring their concerns forcefully to the world body. While Russia of course has a veto in the Security C0uncil, that does not prevent issues being raised there, and even though not as powerful, the General Assembly can and should speak out forcefully on these matters.
Second, it is time for Sweden to seriously consider joining NATO: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The longstanding Swedish tradition of neutrality is likely to become obsolete under Twenty-First Century conditions. The world has shrunk in so many ways, and no longer is it feasible to try to stay above the fray. Were Sweden to join NATO, a clear signal would be sent, to Russia and to the world, that all necessary and proper self-defense steps were being taken. All NATO nations, including most of Western Europe and the United States, are bound by both law and tradition to defend each other against any and all threats to their sovereignty. It has never been more true of the Free World, than it is today, that: if we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately.