[Student Post] Professor Adrian Hyde-Price: “Reshaping security and geopolitics in the Baltic Sea Region”
By Rachel Littlewood
In May, we were joined by Adrian Hyde-Price, Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Professor Hyde-Price is an expert on European security, particularly in terms of the Baltic Sea region. During his talk, he argued that Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine has illuminated important weaknesses across the European security system. He addressed three key issues: (1) the clash that has occurred between those that advocate a rules-based system rooted in the dynamics of globalisation, and those that believe in great power realpolitik, (2) the significance of the Baltic Sea region to European security, and (3) the implications of Sweden and Finland’s applications for NATO membership. He pointed out that throughout the 1990s, some scholars argued that the end of the Cold War signified globalisation was eradicating traditional geopolitical dynamics and dissolving state borders. Yet, past, and current events demonstrate otherwise. As Professor Hyde-Price observed, the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 illustrated that geopolitics had not disappeared but had and was, in fact, “returning with a vengeance”.
Europe: still whole and free?
Professor Hyde-Price began by arguing that “we are witnessing a clash between two conceptions of European security”. On the one hand, liberal democracies believe in a Europe ‘whole and free’, with ever-increasing co-operation and economic interdependence. This, he explained, is rooted in a belief that globalisation is reshaping the international system, requiring states to contemplate new strategies of defence to combat transnational and emerging threats, such as terrorism and cyber-attacks.
The Putin regime, however, believes in a very different vision of Europe based on spheres of interest, in which Russia, fuelled by nostalgia for the Soviet Union, is once again treated as a great power. However, this is not to say that that a new Cold War has begun. Rather, it is the dynamics of the 1930s that offer the closest parallel. Therefore, the task for European democracies is to reconstitute credible deterrence based on intensified security and defence co-operation. Drawing on the metaphor of Chiron the Centaur, famous for his wisdom and teachings in Greek mythology, Professor Hyde-Price argued that Europe needs to draw on both soft and hard power in the face of Russian aggression and its attempt to create a new world order. This is an interesting perspective, providing an alternative understanding of how to synthesise a complex and diverse system of conflicting beliefs and construct a response that includes both means of power, and how to use human qualities as well as utilise military and economic strength.
Security in the Baltic
The talk argued that the Baltic Sea region offers an ideal case study for examining the recent shift from globalisation to geopolitics as the main determinant of East-West relations in Europe. According to this interpretation, in the early 1990s, many scholars believed the Baltic was a region where “a divided Europe could be stitched back together” through institutional and personalised co-operation with Russia. The Council of Baltic Sea States, for example, was established in 1992 to stabilise the region and foster international co-operation. This cooperative vision has now clearly ended. Rising tensions due to increased Russian assertiveness abroad has changed the atmosphere in the Baltic Sea. The annexation of Crimea, in 2014, established the region as NATO’s new frontline with Russia. In June 2015, for instance, seventeen member states of the Alliance participated in Baltic Sea naval drills to demonstrate their resolve to defend the region.
Neutral no more?
Given the growing tensions in the Baltic, Professor Hyde-Price argued that Sweden and Finland’s decisions to apply for NATO membership will prove to be momentous. His analysis is that the decision was ultimately driven by Finland, where there was a greater shift in public opinion and a greater desire by the Finnish political and security elite to join the alliance in order to ensure military support. At the start of the Ukraine crisis, Sweden has repeatedly stated that it would not change its security policy, arguing that military non-alignment had always served it well. Yet, within a few weeks Stockholm had decided to follow Finland.
However, Professor Hyde-Price also argued that although neutrality appears to be deeply embedded in Swedish national identity, the decision to apply for NATO membership was the logical next-step for a country that has been undergoing a quiet revolution in security thinking since the early 1990s. Already in 1992, Sweden had formally dropped its ‘neutrality’ policy in favour of military non-alignment in preparation for joining the European Union. Most significantly, in 2014, Stockholm signed a far-reaching defence co-operation agreement with Helsinki, effectively rendering both countries officially ‘un-neutral’ and no longer militarily non-aligned. In Professor Hyde-Price’s view the decision to apply for NATO membership resolves the many ambiguities and contradictions surrounding security and defence thinking in Sweden. Notably, a Nordic enlargement of NATO would also strengthen the protection of key strategic islands in the Baltic Sea. Finland, meanwhile, adds impressive defence capabilities, which would significantly strengthen NATO’s defences on Russia’s borders.
Following the presentation, many questions were raised. The most pertinent concerned the contemporary significance of state neutrality. One key question is, with Europe once again divided, can anyone still afford to remain neutral? Perhaps Austria and the Republic of Ireland can, given that they are surrounded by EU and NATO countries or sufficiently distant geographically from the threat of Russian aggression. Sweden and Finland, however, do not enjoy either of these luxuries and have had had to acknowledge that neutrality – or even ‘military non-alignment’ – is no longer their best guarantee of security.
So, what have I learnt from the latest webinar? Crucially, it is evident that the war in Ukraine has caused a fundamental shift in the world order. Not only can we see this in the changing security structures, but also in economic networks worldwide. Secondly, it is necessary to consider the role of geopolitics in foreign policy decision making. Lastly, Russian aggression against Ukraine is driving important changes in European security networks, especially in the Baltic. But I wonder if Putin feels threatened by the efforts that have been made to enhance security in Europe since 24 February, or whether it has simply further strengthened his position at home?
Rachel Littlewood will soon be entering into her third year as a Politics and International Relations student at Loughborough University, after which she plans to apply to study for a Master’s degree in International Security, also at Loughborough University. She is mainly interested in climate change, contemporary security threats and Middle East foreign policy.
Geopolitics & International Affairs
Geopolitics & international affairs webinar series