HELSINKI ―The Kremlin is using diplomatic channels to calm unease among leaders in Nordic and Baltic states in the wake of first-ever joint exercises by Russian and Chinese forces in the Baltic Sea.
The weeklong exercises, called Marine Interaction 2017, ended July 28 and included submarines, surface vessels, fighter and transport aircraft, and helicopters. Marine Interaction 2017 was mounted from the Russian Baltic Fleet’s main base in Baltiysk, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
The exercises featured the Dmitriy Donskoi (TK-208), the Russian Navy’s largest nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. The arsenal of the White Sea-based Typhoon-class (NATO designation) Dmitriy Donskoi comprises 200 nuclear warheads and 20 long-range Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The view among some Nordic leaders is that the joint Russian-Chinese Baltic Sea exercise was linked to deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States, as well as a response by Beijing to U.S. military activity in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The Chinese naval vessels taking part in Marine Interaction 2017 included the guided-missile destroyer Hefei, in addition to the frigate Yunchen and the support ship Luomahu. The three warships paid a two-day “friendship” visit to the port in Helsinki, Finland, on Aug. 1.
Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to cool tensions among Nordic and Baltic leaders when he met with his Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinistö, in eastern Finland on July 27.
Putin refuted suggestions that the Joint Sea exercises were further evidence of saber-rattling by Russia to pump up tension in the Nordic-Baltic region.
“It is Russia’s intention to organize more military exercises with China, both on land and at sea. We do not view this as a threat to anyone. It is a stabilizing factor for the whole world. No third country should feel threatened. We are not creating a military bloc or alliance,” Putin told a joint news conference following talks with Niinistö, who is also the commander in chief of Finnish armed forces.
Putin described Russia’s cooperation with China as “strategic” and covering the full spectrum of political, military and economic common interests.
Niinistö, acknowledging the unprecedented spectacle of Chinese and Russian naval and air force exercises in the Baltic Sea, said military powers like Russia had a major role to play in working with the European Union, the U.S., and Nordic and Baltic states to reduce tension in the region.
“What we can also say about the joint exercises between Russia and China in the Baltic Sea, and situations like this, are a part of living in a world with military powers,” Niinistö said.
Finland has traditionally been a back channel for Russia in bridge-building efforts with Western powers. Moreover, and despite its support of sanctions against Russia in connected with the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in Ukraine, Finland has consistently advocated closer dialogue among the U.S., the EU and Russia.
To this end, Moscow has made repeated invites to nonaligned Finland to participate in a Russian-led initiative to enhance security in the Baltic Sea.
However, Finland has instead chosen to deepen military collaboration with NATO, the EU, and its Nordic and Baltic neighbors through the Nordic Defense Cooperation, the primary regional interstate collaborative military organization.