At about 3 A.M. local time last Tuesday, ships of the Finnish Navy dropped depth charges into the waters near Helsinki in the vicinity of what has been reported to be a possible Russian submarine. The Finns initially refused to confirm that this "possible underwater object" was in fact a submarine, let alone a Russian submarine, and a spokesman was later quick to emphasize that the depth charges were "not intended to damage the target," but to "let the target know that it has been noticed."
Depth charges will do that. This drama has coincided with an effort on the part of the Finnish military—apparently unprecedented in recent history—to improve the readiness of its reserve force, the main element for which will be letters sent to 900,000 reservists this month "informing them which post they would be given in a crisis situation," and asking them for "up-to-date details of their whereabouts." As with the submarine incident, spokespersons for the Finnish government are working hard to stress that there is no link, none at all, to any concerns about Russia.
Here's what the Finns tell Newsweek:
The director of communications of the Finnish Defence Forces, Mika Kalliomaa, denied any link to a threat from Russia, with whom Finland shares a 1,300km (800 mile) border. "The sending out of these letters to our reservists has no connection to the security situation around Finland," he said. "We are simply keeping ties with our reservists and asking them what their role would be in an instance of war, and asking them if there is new knowledge we should know about. There is no link to any threat from Russia."
The submarine incident took place in the Gulf of Finland, a narrow body of water with St. Petersburg at its eastern extremity, with Finland along its northern bank, and Estonia on its southern shore. Last year, an Estonian security official, Eston Kohver, was kidnapped by Russian agents along that country's border with Russia (on the Estonian side of the border) a few days after President Obama paid a visit. Kohver is still being held in Russia, where he has been charged with espionage. A Russian information war relentlessly targets Russian-speaking citizens of the Baltic States, and provides the ideological justification for military action against those countries. Russian bombers rehearse nuclear strikes off the coasts of NATO members. To utter the old cliché that "tensions are high in the region" is to make a comical understatement. Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist, puts the matter this way in an article for Standpoint:
The looming target for Russia now is the Baltic states. Unlike Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are core members of the Western alliance. If one or more of these frontline states can be humiliated with impunity, it will be the end of Nato. That could happen with startling speed: imagine that one morning Russia stages a provocation—say involving a train in transit across Lithuania to Kaliningrad. In the afternoon it declares a no-fly zone to stop Nato bringing in reinforcements, and in the evening announces that it has loaded its battlefield nuclear warheads onto their delivery systems and will use them if provoked. Would President Obama respond in kind? If he doesn’t, Nato is over by breakfast.
That dismal prospect is still ahead. But Russia is already systematically testing our willpower and finding it wanting.
This prognosis may be grim, but Lucas is not alone in his predictions. That Putin wants to be remembered as the man who re-established Russian hegemony in the "near abroad" is clear. That he also wants to be remembered as the man who broke the NATO alliance is no less likely. It is thus disconcerting to read the news today that the assets of the U.S. Army's aviation brigade in Europe—the only such brigade—are being cut back as a "cost-saving measure."
Despite Putin's generally gradualist approach to territorial expansion, the policies of the current U.S. administration perversely make the situation in Europe even more dangerous in the short term, as Putin and his inner circle surely have concluded that a President Rubio or a President Clinton would provide more resistance than President Obama. It beggars belief that the Kremlin isn't planning accordingly.