Russia's Northwest Strategic Direction

By Kipp, Jacob W. | Military Review, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

Russia's Northwest Strategic Direction


Kipp, Jacob W., Military Review


Russia's military crisis has raised security challenges in the [Baltic and Barents region], causing a different subregional dynamic in Europe. Here the ethno-national tensions and ecological dangers challenge neighboring states as much as conventional military threats.

A UNIQUE SET of security issues has emerged from Russia's northwest strategic direction in the post-Cold War era.1 The conjunction of Russian transformation and crisis has recast security issues in the Baltic and Nordic regions, reducing the risk of military conflict but raising a host of issues associated with Russia's Baltic relations, especially the status of the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia and the dangerous legacy of a nuclearized Kola peninsula. The Western response to these issues, particularly in the Nordic countries and international institutions, has introduced a new subregional security system in Europe.

Given other European crises, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, one could ask whether the issues associated with the northwest constitute a hot spot in the absence of open hostilities and military confrontation. The sensitive Baltic issues make the case. There is potential for linkage to other concerns, notably the proposed union of Russia, Belarus and Yugoslavia, which sophisticated Russian commentators have labeled a "hysterical" response that does not reflect Russian long-range interests in the region or in Europe.2 In a recent essay the eminent historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis, asserts that the post-Cold War world is noteworthy for the shifting tectonic plates of international security. Gaddis suggests that a "geological" approach, reading the past history of seismic events, could help us to foresee where likely "earthquakes" would shape 21 st-century geopolitics. He suggests that we are all now "living in Candlestick Park," alluding to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.3

While Gaddis focuses on the macro aspects of geopolitics and past patterns, his point also applies to regional security problems, especially those offecting Russia and the successor states. These new shifts are best examined in their regional context and not from a global or ideological context. In the new geopolitical context, hot spots may include overt tensions and also ecological challenges that threaten peace and stability. With NATO involved in its first large-scale combat operations in Yugoslavia and the ensuing chill in relations between Russia and the West, the northwest may not seem a serious issue on a global or even European scale. Closer examination shows that such subregional security issues will have their own profound impact on European security and global stability. Indeed, the muchtouted military exercise, ZAPAD 99, which the Russian Ministry of Defense and General Staff initiated on 22 June 1999, explicitly linked the threat of regional conflict in this region with nuclear escalation in response to the threat of mass, precision strikes against military targets in the theater.

For the first time in a decade, Russian super-sonic, cruise-missile-armed Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers streaked down the coast of Norway while Tu-95 "Bears" probed Iceland's airspace. As Minister of Defense Igor Sergeyev noted, "The exercise tested one of the provisions of Russia's military doctrine concerning a possible use of nuclear weapons when all"other measures are exhausted." Russia's militry-risis has raised security challenges in the northwest direction, causing a different subregional dynamic in Europe. Here the ethno-national tensions and ecological dangers challenge neighboring states as much as conventional military threats.

With the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia finds itself in a complex and protracted process of internal reform and international adjustment. The threats that gave structure to the Cold War military confrontation across Europe have disappeared, but new challenges have emerged.

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