2. 2011




: : , , , . XVII XIX . 28 2011 .

Map of the Baltic region

The aim of my presentation is to discuss the history of the Baltic region from a geopolitical perspective. When we are discussing the history of a region a geographical area it comes natural to discuss the role of geography in shaping that history. There are many important ways in which geography have shaped the history of societies around the Baltic Sea: the structure of agriculture and social stratification in the countryside, the patterns of industrialization, and trade cannot be understood without reference to geographical factors. However, I will not have time to discuss any of these interesting aspects in my talk, but will stick to what is traditionally understood with the term geopolitics: the relationship between geography, state power and inter-state relations. First, I will shortly recapitulate the traditional narrative on geography, trade and power in the Baltic Sea a tale of hegemonic powers succeeding each other through the centuries. I will then point out some other lessons which geography can tell us, pertaining primarily to my own field of specialty which is military history and conclude by discussing the future relevance of geopolitical perspectives in analyzing developments around the Baltic Sea.

The traditional narrative, which I have been teaching myself to military and as well as to civilian students for the last fifteen years, emphasizes the geographic position of the Baltic Sea between the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Eurasian continent in the east. The Baltic Sea holds a dual status: it is both a prolongation of the oceans and a secluded inland sea. Since ancient times, the flow of trade between the maritime civilizations of Western Europe and the continental civilizations of Eastern Europe and beyond has been passing through the Baltic. The dividends of that trade have created wealth and resources, and been the cause of rivalry and wars between local powers in the region.


When you tell this story, the first chapter as a rule is about the Vikings. In the early middle ages, when Arab conquests and piracy had diverted Mediterranean trade northwards to the Black Sea and the rivers of Russia, the Baltic Sea came to play a crucial role in east-west trade. The profits from this trade yielded enormous resources to various Scandinavian chieftains and enabled the Vikings to expand territorially over Western Europe. This accumulation of resources also contributed to state formation in both Scandinavia and Kievskaya Rus during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Danish empire, Teutonic Knights and Hanseatic League

The next chapter is usually about the Germans. The crusades in the twelfth century opened Mediterranean trade again and the importance of the Baltic round-a-bout decreased. Although Scandinavian influence in present day Estonia and Latvia continued during the thirteenth century represented here by Lauritzens picture of the Danes receiving the Dannebrog from heaven in the battle of Lyndanisse in 1219 it was the crusading Teutonic Knights who came to dominate the area of the present Baltic states during the Middle Ages. In their wake came German merchants, and the Hanseatic League came to control trade between the Baltic region and Western Europe during the middle ages. The German merchants came to make their imprint on city planning and architecture around the Baltic Sea and gave an everlasting contribution to the formation of a Baltic identity.

Early modern period: Swedish-Danish-Russian struggle

The third chapter is about Sweden, at least when told to a Swedish audience. When told to Danes or Russians, other interpretations may be more appropriate. The dissolution of the Realm of the Teutonic Knights in Livonia in the mid-sixteenth century triggered a fierce, century-long competition between Sweden and Denmark to fill the ensuing power-vacuum. To some extent this struggle involved Poland, and later it definitely involved Russia, which in the early eighteenth century would become the leading power on the Baltic Sea.

Exports from the Baltic region changed character in the sixteenth century. Having consisted mostly of fur, wax and dried fish during the Middle-Ages, the rise of trans-Atlantic shipping after Columbus discovery of America created new demands. In order to construct ocean-going sailing ships, timber, tar, hemp and flax from the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic provinces became vital commodities. In addition, there was a demand for grain from Poland and Prussia to feed the growing urban population in the Netherlands and the British Isles. As a consequence, Baltic trade not only became profitable, but also strategic in nature. Danish historian Knud V Jespersen has even compared the Baltic Sea in the seventeenth century to the Persian Gulf in the late-twentieth century. In both cases we have a region exporting raw-materials vital to the economy and security of the leading global powers, and therefore regularly prompting intervention by the navies of these powers to avoid local actors from acquiring hegemony. The Dutch supported the Swedes against the Danes in 1643, then the Danes against the Swedes in 1658 and then again the Swedes against the Danes in 1700. For similar purposes, the British Royal Navy intervened in the Baltic no less than twenty times before 1814, mainly to prevent Russian domination.

Post-Napoleonic Europe: low tension

During the Napoleonic Wars, when the gap in resources between different actors in the international system increased dramatically, both Sweden and Denmark were reduced to small-power status. They could no longer play an active role in the European system. Moreover, at least by the mid-1800s when steam had replaced wind as the main source of propulsion at sea, and steel had replaced wood as the principal building-material in warships, exports from the Baltic region lost the strategic and economic significance they had held for at least three centuries.

Wars of nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Since the Napoleonic Wars, the Baltic Sea stands out as a low-tension region in Europe. Since then, wars and periods of military confrontation in the region have as a rule been reflections of great power rivalry rooted outside the region: The British-Russian rivalry until 1890, the Russo-German rivalry until 1945 and the US-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War. This may even be true of the wars between Denmark and the German states in the mid-nineteenth century, which must be analyzed within the wider context of German unification and Prussian-Austrian rivalry in Central Europe.

The tactical-operational geography of the Baltic region

There is however, another geographic dimension which is crucial in understanding the possibility for governments to assert their power in this part of the world and that pertains to military geography: how has the landscape and terrain around the Baltic Sea influenced the option of using military force in the region?

Now, we move from the old familiar story which begins with the Vikings and ends with NATO and EU, and turn to the physical realities of warfare. We will find that these have changed surprisingly little through the centuries.

The Baltic Sea region is not a densely populated part of Europe. It is dominated by pine forests and swamps, minor plateaus and some mountains. Roads are few, and the few built-up areas are located along coasts and rivers. Winters are long. Before industrialization, these sparsely populated lands offered limited possibilities to supply armies. Military operations on land normally consisted of sieges or small-scale raiding across borders. Only in Denmark and the southern parts of Sweden, large plains can be found similar to those in the Ukraine, Germany, Flanders, northern France and northern Italy, where the classical European theaters of war are located.

When Charles XII prepared to invade Russia, the Baltic provinces and Finland were too poor to serve as his logistical base-area. During the Russo-Swedish War over Finland in 18081809 there were at most some 60,000 soldiers engaged, counting both sides. An operational theater covering all of Finland and northern Sweden well comparable in size with all of Germany or all of Italy could hardly feed a force equivalent to two army corps in Napoleons Grande Armée. Not until the twentieth century, after railways and motor-vehicles had revolutionized land transport, major military operations became at all possible.

The difficult terrain with forests and swamps favors the defender. This was demonstrated time and again during the Second World War. In 1939-1940 and in 1944 in Carelia, in Estonia and Latvia in 19441945, Soviet forces attacked with great superiority in numbers, mobility and fire-power. Still, the Finish and German defenders managed surprisingly well in slowing down and eventually stopping the Soviet advance by exploiting the terrain. The Red Armys superiority was of little use in a battlefield covered by forest, where there were few good roads allowing encircling movements. The Germans in the Kurland Pocket in Latvia remained until May 1945. Also, the German troops along the Arctic coast could probably have delayed the Red Armys Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation in October 1944 for a considerable time, had they not been retreating already at the time of this Soviet offensive. The attacking Soviet forces had but one supply route. Provisions had to be transported by reindeer, dropped from the air in parachute or carried on the backs of the Soviet soldiers who struggled under burdens of fifty-sixty kilos.

Naval warfare

The introduction of mines, torpedoes and aircraft in naval warfare during the twentieth century has made the narrow Baltic Sea a dangerous environment for large surface warships. Nonetheless, in this theater of operations, ground forces have always relied on artillery and logistical support from warships. In a country where there were no roads, sea transport and close interaction between naval and ground forces became crucial to military success. Since only small vessels have the mobility and operational diversity required along the island-clad coasts and archipelagos of the Baltic Sea, this has required a highly specialized amphibious capacity with small mobile vessels and well-trained naval infantry.

Sveaborg and amphibious warfare

In ancient times these functions were secured through the use of oared galley fleets, which closely followed the movements of armies along coasts and rivers. It was only in the early eighteenth century, after Peter the Great had created a galley-fleet in the Baltic Sea, that Russia could conquer Swedens provinces in present day Estonia, Latvia and Finland. The fall of the fortress of Sveaborg outside Helsinki in the spring of 1808 secured Finland to the Russians not because the fortress itself was so important but because the Swedish archipelago fleet some 110 vessels was captured at the same time. Without these small ships, the Swedish army in Finland could no longer operate.

During the wars of the twentieth century, amphibious forces were also important. Among First World War amphibious operations, the German landing in Riga Bay in the autumn of 1917 was second only to the allied landing in Gallipoli, and a great deal more successful. Likewise, during the Soviet offensives in Carelia and the Petsamo-Kirkenes area in 1944, the lack of suitable roads on which to conduct encircling movements forced the Soviets to make several landing operations in the flank and rear of their opponents. During the Cold War, the threat of landing operations ensured that Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway would preserve their fixed coastal artillery batteries until the end of the twentieth century, long after such military installations had been deemed outdated in other countries.

Post Cold War Order

It could be argued that since the end of the Cold War, the Baltic region has been firmly encapsulated in the West through organizations such as the EU and NATO. Almost three hundred years of Russian dominance has been broken. On the other hand, the Baltic Sea has now regained an economic role for Russia which it has not had since the nineteenth century. The EU is Russias most important economic partner and a substantial part of Russias export today consists of oil and of gas, which is either shipped out through the Gulf of Finland or pumped out through the newly constructed Nord Stream gas pipeline.

Still, very few of us expect the growing importance of Baltic trade to lead to wars in the future, like it did in the seventeenth century. The ongoing economic integration between modern states has made the distinctions between foreign and domestic policy increasingly blurred and the thought of war between modern states seems more or less absurd. In does not mean that rivalry and conflict between governments have ceased, only that the cost for not having peace and stable flows of goods and capital between markets have become unbearable. In the modern world, military force still remains an important asset to a government. The display of military force is a way to secure prestige and to participate in international cooperation, but war or the threat of force can no longer be an efficient instrument for state policy the way it used to be. I believe that there will still be room for geopolitical perspectives when trying to understand in international politics in the future. However, in a world where people, goods, money and information move around in faster and increasingly global circuits, geographical space will also expand. For the historians of the future, a European sub-region like the Baltic may no longer be a relevant framework of analysis.

We, dear Colleagues, with our special knowledge of Baltic problems, may be among the last of a dying species of historians. This of course, only increases the value of this conference and our work here during the coming days. Thank you for your attention!

. 2000 2011, .

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