Is the Soviet Threat Moving North?

IN Central Europe it is generally accepted that the cold war is over and that it is only a matter of dotting the i's and crossing the t's on a few arms treaties. But the brutal crackdown in Lithuania underscores the supreme strategic interest that the Baltic Sea still holds for the Soviets. Therefore is the cold war simply shifting to colder climes?

The Nordic/Baltic region has not yet benefited directly from the dramatic political and military developments of the past year. If anything, Soviet strategic attentions paid to this area should increase rather then diminish:

With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the loss of its buffer zone in Eastern Europe, the Baltic - once far behind Soviet defensive frontiers - is quickly shaping up to be part of the Soviet Union's front line of defense.

Although rapidly receding as a superpower, the Soviet Union still has the ability to project power westward in a few regions. One of the most important of those is the Baltic. Any future conflict in Europe, however remote, would see the Baltic serving as a major Soviet staging area.

There is also the possibility of a renewed German-Soviet competition in the Baltic. Germany has historically seen the Baltic as a ``German lake,'' and, in the wake of German reunification, this region could find itself caught between competing German and Soviet interests.

For all these reasons, therefore, the Baltic could become the next flashpoint for Soviet-Western confrontations - especially if there is a conservative backlash in the Soviet Union. It is also easy to see why the idea of Baltic independence is unacceptable to the Soviet military and communist hardliners.

As a result of the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, the Soviet presence in the Baltic and Nordic region has grown, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The Soviets are in the process of removing half a million men from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary; many of these troops are being restationed around the Baltic and in the Kola Peninsula adjacent to Scandinavia. Modern T-72 and T-80 tanks are replacing vintage T-55s.

Several squadrons of combat aircraft have also been redeployed to the Baltic or the Kola, including Su-24s from East Germany and MiG-27 fighter-bombers from Hungary. Su-25 ground attack planes have also been moved to the area; these aircraft are designed to support advancing ground forces, and, as was demonstrated in Afghanistan, they are highly effective in mountainous areas such as Scandinavia. Notably, many of these aircraft have been transferred from the Soviet air force to Soviet naval aviation, in an attempt to exempt them from the recently signed conventional arms-control treaty.

This is all in addition to the sophisticated weaponry already in place. MiG-29s and Backfire bombers have been permanently stationed in the area since the late 1980s. Soviet amphibious assault and mining capabilities in the Baltic are already considerable.

IRONICALLY, because of recent successes in arms control, the nuclear threat to this region has also increased. According to Tomas Ries of the Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo, the Soviets have replaced tactical nuclear forces in the region with more modern weapons removed from Eastern Europe, including new short-range surface-to-surface missiles.

Although the Soviets tried to make much of their 1989 announcement that they would unilaterally remove their remaining ballistic missile submarines from the Baltic (six obsolete Golf-class subs), the number of nuclear weapons in the region is only likely to grow.

Then there is Kaliningrad: a small sliver of land on the Baltic coast, ostensibly part of the Russian Republic but separated from it by the Baltic states. It is also a key military outpost for the Soviets, with a major naval base, shipyards, and several airbases. With the loss of East Germany, Poland, and perhaps even the Baltic republics, Kaliningrad would become even more critical as a center for Soviet operations in the Baltic.

For the past 20 years, it has been a recurrent theme that the Baltic/Nordic region was growing in ``strategic significance,'' but in comparison to the rest of Europe this often seemed to be an overblown statement. It may finally be coming true in fact, and, as such, the region deserves much greater attention.

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