As Sweden boosts its military presence in Gotland, Finland should be having a discussion about how to defend the Åland Islands against possible Russian provocation.
That's the conclusion of Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, speaking on HSTV's weekly English-language current affairs show Newsmakers.
”There's not another country in the world I would say, and definitely not a larger power, that would accept the idea that their legally bound to defend a piece of their territory, but they cannot make appropriate preparations to defend it”, says Salonius-Pasternak.
”It's an insane thing we've agreed to”.
The Åland Islands were first demilitarised in the 1850s after the Crimea War, while still part of the Russian Empire. But Salonius-Pasternak thinks those historical treaties are now outdated, and the discussion over demilitarisation should be revisited.
”I think there needs to be a conversation about look, this idea of Åland demilitarization hails from the last Crimea War, we're now 160 years from there, lots of things have changed from military technology, range of weapons, the politics of the region”, says Salonius-Pasternak. ”And I think on that basis, we should absolutely open it up” to discussion he says.
In recent weeks, the Swedish government announced it would increase its military garrison on Gotland, a large island in the Baltic Sea considered geographically strategic because of its positioning near Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at a 'choke point' in the Baltic.
Back in 2013, Russian warplanes targeted Gotland as part of a war games simulation. Russian bombers and jets came within a few dozen kilometres of Swedish airspace after apparently staging dummy bombing runs on island targets. The war games caught the Swedes by surprise, and NATO jets were scrambled to intercept the Russians.
The Swedish military deployments come at a time of heightened tensions in the Baltic Sea region. Last week, Russian jets briefly entered Finnish airspace twice near Porvoo on the south coast; and Russia announced it would temporarily station Iskander missiles - capable of carrying a nuclear payload - in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak thinks the Russian incursions into Finnish airspace were a calculated move. ”The way they're flown it's hard to imagine they're a complete mistake twice in the same day, in the same way”, he says.
”It doesn't cost Russia anything. It gets to remind one of it's neighbours hey, we're here, we're a super power - or we think we're a super power - we can do what we like, norms, rules don't really apply to us. They also get to see how society reacts, how politicians react, and how the defence forces react.”
Salonius-Pasternak thinks the Finns also showed the Russians that they anticipated the moves and were ready to meet the challenge. ”It was probably a good reminder to Russia [...] to say we knew what you were about to do even before you did it.”
The case of the Iskander missiles is a different category of sabre rattling however. The ballistic missiles have a potential range of 700km - depending on payload and type of fuel used according to researchers - and their deployment sent alarm bells ringing in Baltic capitals this past week.
”Of course they have an impact”, says Salonius-Pasternak. ”Of course ballistic missiles travel quickly, so you can reach around the neighbours very quickly. Does it by itself give Russia a great advantage it didn't already have in the region? Probably not. A nice addition, but it's not a game changer as it were.”
Still, the Senior Research Fellow reckons Russian military moves in the Baltic region might help draw attention away from missteps in Syria, where Russia has been largely isolated in the international community over its involvement in bombing civilian targets in Aleppo.
However, the consequences of possible nuclear missile deployments in Kaliningrad - which break Russia's nuclear treaty obligations - are likely to be limited, or none, according to Salonius-Pasternak. He also speculates that Russia is asserting its perceived natural authority on the Baltic region as a way of making mischief during the US Presidential election campaign, just to remind them this is Moscow's back yard.
”The Kremlin is probably at its best when it can keep the initiative”, he concludes.