The UK’s role in Nordic-Baltic security has been growing over the past decade. The region is key to core British strategic interest and engagement, and UK threat assessment closely aligns with long-held regional perspectives – the 2021 Integrated Review defines Russia as ‘the most acute threat to our security’.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK’s strong stance towards Moscow and the concrete steps taken to assist Ukraine and strengthen defence and deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank have been widely appreciated in the Nordic-Baltic region.
The UK is seen as a reliable partner but, for it to continue to deliver in the region, difficult choices must be made with regards to UK defence spending and military capabilities, and London’s more global ambitions.
The UK is a major contributor to NATO’s deterrence posture on the eastern flank, serving as a framework nation for NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) battlegroup in Estonia, and contributing to another battlegroup in Poland.
UK remains crucial to regional security
Coupled with its contribution to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission and maritime forces in the area, the UK is a crucial security partner both in the region and in a broader arch across Europe.
Over the past decade and a half, the UK has been developing a dense network of bilateral and minilateral relations in the region which are major assets in the current security environment.
It leads the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) which is a military cooperation format highly valued for its flexibility in responding to the needs of the participating nations – including non-NATO Sweden and Finland – and is increasingly focused on the North Atlantic, High North and wider Baltic areas. The UK has also seen increased bilateral defence cooperation with Norway, Denmark, Estonia, and other regional allies and partners.
There are reasonable expectations that Germany or France may at some point assume a greater role in this part of Europe, building on France’s participation in the EFP in Estonia, and Germany’s lead of the EFP in Lithuania.
However, while Paris remains more focused on NATO’s southern (and south-eastern) flank and building the European Union’s defence role, Berlin often underperforms as a leading or an organizing power of collaborative efforts across Europe.
Both also have a credibility problem in the Nordic-Baltic region due to their past policies towards Russia that occasionally reappear when discussing military support to Ukraine or how to treat Russia in the post-war European security order.
By contrast, the UK offers military capability, strong political will, a long-standing tradition of engagement in the Nordic-Baltic area, and fast decision-making.
The latter is exemplified by the bilateral security guarantees provided to Sweden and Finland during their accession to NATO, and the surge of assets sent to the region in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine such as an additional battlegroup and Chinook helicopters to Estonia, as well as forward-deployed elements of the Standing Joint Force Headquarters to Latvia and Lithuania as part of the JEF.
Such pragmatic and resolute engagement help substantiate the UK’s post-Brexit claim that although it left the EU, it did not leave Europe. London also understands and facilitates the pivotal role that the US plays in European security – a shared perspective with the Nordic-Baltic partners.
Only the US – which has just recently decided to step up its military presence in the Baltics – has a greater appeal than the UK as a major ally. But Washington’s truly global responsibilities make it more difficult for it to play a regional leadership role.
With the context of the war in Ukraine, the centre of gravity of European security is moving east. The Nordic-Baltic region is likely to feature more prominently in the upcoming refresh of the UK’s Integrated Review, as the war in Ukraine and NATO’s new forward defence approach will focus UK attention and military capabilities on Europe for the foreseeable future.
But the UK still has limited resources and, despite the worsening security environment, there is currently no commitment by the Rishi Sunak government to increase defence spending beyond two per cent of GDP, as set out in the recently-published Autumn Statement.
This difficult fiscal reality contrasts UK ambition to also increase its footprint and engagement in the Indo-Pacific, a region highlighted by Rishi Sunak in his first foreign policy speech. London is already confronted with increasing expectations from its Nordic and Baltic partners, which are rattled by Russia’s aggression and seek more engagement and commitments from larger and more resourceful allies, and are insisting on prompt implementation of NATO’s new defence and deterrence plans.
This all comes on top of the resources that further assistance to Ukraine will require in the coming months and years. Balancing competing priorities and demands from partners is routine for a major power with global ambition but, in the current context, if the UK government fails to prioritize and increase resources, over-extension is in sight for its armed forces.
The war in Ukraine confirms that, beyond the rhetoric around the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, the Euro-Atlantic is – and will remain – the priority theatre of engagement for the UK. To keep delivering in the Nordic-Baltic region and remain a reliable partner, UK ambitions should be set clearly, and expectations managed with regional partners.
A good example is the recent UK-Estonia joint statement and defence roadmap, which is an attempt to reconcile London’s vision of modern deterrence with Tallinn’s preference for ‘more boots on the ground’.
The joint statement also clarifies initial misunderstandings regarding the upcoming withdrawal of the second UK battlegroup deployed to Estonia in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – support Tallinn expected to continue ‘as long as necessary’ but London saw as temporary. It offsets the poor political ‘optics’ of the withdrawal while providing solid ground for deepening the common agenda in the near future.
By the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, progress on implementing the roadmap will be a crucial measure of success for the bilateral relationship, and for the UK’s broader regional role. It should serve as an opportunity for the UK to reflect on its force development priorities and balance, with Baltic partners arguing in favour of the UK rebuilding some mass in its armed forces and providing more resources to the land component.
Much to gain for the UK
The UK gains many benefits from deepening and widening its engagement in the Nordic-Baltic region, and not only by showcasing its regional leadership at a time of dire need or having more weight in Europe and across the Atlantic in strategic debates about future security architecture.