ABOARD THE USS KEARSARGE in Stockholm Harbor – If there was ever a powerful symbol of how much the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed Europe, the sight of this massive warship littered with 26 fighter jets and 2,400 Marines, Sailors and Between moored for pleasure craft and pleasure boats calling at this port, it certainly would.
“No one in Stockholm can fail to notice that there is this big American ship right here in our city,” said Micael Byden, the commander-in-chief of the Swedish Armed Forces, standing on the deck of the amphibious assault ship in the shadow of an MV-22 Osprey beneath a clear sky Saturday. “There are more skills on this ship,” he marveled, “than I could gather in a garrison.”
In this perpetually neutral country that’s suddenly not so neutral, the USS Kearsarge, which emerged just two weeks after Sweden and Finland announced they were seeking NATO membership, is the promise of what that membership would bring : Protection if President Vladimir V Putin of Russia turns his anger on his Nordic neighbors.
But the ship is also warning Sweden and Finland of their own potential obligations should a conflict ensue, General Mark Milley, America’s top military commander, made clear during a visit on Saturday.
“The Russians have their Baltic fleet,” said General Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but NATO would wrap its own band of member countries around the Baltic once Sweden and Finland join. In essence, the Baltic Sea would become a NATO lake, with the exception of St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad.
“From a Russian point of view, that would be very problematic for them militarily,” General Milley said.
Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden, who appeared alongside General Milley in a press conference on board, attempted to emphasize NATO’s defensive nature.
But military experts say there is a clear expectation that Sweden and Finland joining the alliance would mean they would contribute to any maritime strangleholds NATO might establish in the event of a war with Russia in the Baltic Sea, a potentially major challenge for the historically non-aligned countries.
Both countries want security guarantees, particularly from the United States and other NATO allies, during this transition period while negotiations with Turkey hold up their formal membership in the military alliance. Sweden’s Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told reporters in Washington two weeks ago that the Pentagon had pledged several interim security measures: US Navy warships steaming in the Baltic Sea, Air Force bombers flying over the Scandinavian skies, armed forces training together, and American specialists helping to thwart such actions Possible Russian cyber attacks.
But while President Biden has pledged that the United States would help defend Sweden and Finland before they join the alliance, American officials have declined to say specifically what form that assistance would take, beyond what General Milley Joint military exercises described as a “modest increase” on Saturday.
A NATO country’s refusal to send actual troops to Ukraine, Nordic officials conceded, lays bare the difference between promises of military aid to friendly countries and those under a Senate-ratified treaty that says an attack on an attack is an attack on all is – NATO’s famous Article 5.
Still, the Kearsarge is in the Baltic to take part in exercises designed to teach NATO, Swedish and Finnish troops how to conduct amphibious assaults – storming land captured by Russia, for example. It’s an extremely complex type of warfare operation – think of the D-Day landings during World War II – that requires coordination between air, land and naval units in what military planners refer to as a “combined arms” mission .
If the drills go according to plan, thousands of marines, sailors, pilots and other troops from 16 different countries will garrison a bridgehead in the Stockholm archipelago.
It’s exactly the kind of military operation Russia has yet to conduct in Ukraine, and that inability to do so is a big part of why Russia failed to take the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa, according to military experts.
Pentagon officials note that when thousands of Russian marines landed on February 25 in southern Ukraine on the coast of the Sea of Azov to attack Mariupol, they did so about 43 miles east of the city to avoid an actually embattled amphibious assault.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
On the ground. As airstrikes mounted in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, the main focus of the Russian attack, street fighting raged in the embattled city of Sievierodonetsk. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, warned that the conflict appears to have turned into a “war of attrition” and advised allies to prepare for “the long haul”.
Along with breaking with the notion that Russia’s military is an efficient machine, Sweden’s and Finland’s bid to join NATO is perhaps the greatest unintended consequence of Mr Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Instead, Mr. Putin now faces the prospect of a NATO military alliance that is not just on his doorstep, but surrounds part of the house.
The NATO accession of Latvia and Estonia in 2004 extended its Baltic border with Russia by just over 300 miles; Finland’s entry into the alliance would add another 830 miles and bring St. Petersburg almost within artillery range.
Sweden, on the other hand, shares a maritime border with Russia, as does Finland. Within a day of Finnish leaders announcing that their country should apply for NATO membership, the Kearsarge, named after a Civil War Union sloop known for sinking Confederate ships, was on course to join the Finnish and Swedish Join the Navy for training.
In fact, NATO has planned many shows of force with Sweden and Finland. “A whole series of exercises that weren’t on the drill schedule are here now,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a military expert at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs in Helsinki.
The resulting partnership is not a one-way street. For NATO, the accession of Sweden and Finland, apart from wrapping the alliance around Russia’s western border, allows military planners to re-imagine all of northern Europe’s defences. In the past, the Alliance had to make compromises about where to concentrate troops, headquarters, and command and control to gain the best advantage.
All of this will no doubt incur the wrath of Mr. Putin, who has long complained about the military alliance expanding into his own sphere of influence.
“There will be an almost continuous presence of non-Finnish military units in Finland,” Mr. Salonius-Pasternak said. “Are they the key to the Finnish defense? no But it probably adds to the calculus of our eastern neighbor.”