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Baltic Sea countries rally against Russia

Richard Walker Kristiansand
May 25, 2022

The Council of the Baltic Sea States, a regional grouping on Russia's doorstep, has come together to condemn the invasion of Ukraine — and present Germany with a new test of leadership.

Annalena Baerbock wearing a face mask
Annalena Baerbock's delegation was the only one arriving with masksImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

There were some amused comments as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her entourage swept in at the Council of the Baltic Sea States in Kristiansand in Norway. 

"It's the German delegation” people chuckled. The masks were the giveaway. 

Masking is no longer a thing in Norway — everyone else gathering for the Council of the Baltic Sea States was mask-free, making the Germans look a little angsty.  

But angst is not the new German foreign minister's style, and the masks were soon discarded as the meetings began. All eyes were on Baerbock as she made her debut in this setting.

The turning point

"I want to thank Annalena personally and Germany for taking leadership in Europe, and especially northern Europe, after this war," Baerbock's Norwegian counterpart, Anniken Huitfeldt, said at the closing press conference. "In Norway we see that there has been a turning point in Germany's position ... and we fully appreciate that," she said, referring to the massive investment in the military that Berlin has announced in response to Russia's war on Ukraine. 

Annalena Baerbock
'The region's perspective on security has changed now profoundly,' Baerbock saidImage: Thomas Trutschel/photothek/picture alliance

The war is a turning point for the Baltic Sea region too. The Council of Baltic Sea States had not met on this level since 2014, when Russia made its first attack on Ukraine and annexed Crimea. 

Russia had been a member of the CBSS, which was formed in 1992 in the aftermath of the Cold War. Its purpose: promoting regional cooperation among countries of Baltic Sea region. 

Over the years the CBSS advanced many low-key programs, in areas as varied as student exchange and fighting human trafficking.

'Profound' change of perspective

The war has now served as a dramatic wake-up call. The CBSS had reduced cooperation with Moscow after 2014. This March, after the invasion began, it suspended Russian membership. In May, Russia pulled out altogether.

‘Good riddance' seems to be the message from the CBSS. 

"By attacking Ukraine, Russia has removed itself not just from the current format we have here, but also from the civilized world as we know it,” said Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis. "Our community is more like-minded than it ever was. But the world around our countries is unfortunately less safe.

Annalena Baerbock echoed that message. "The region's perspective on security has changed now profoundly,” she said, hailing Finland and Sweden's decision to join the NATO alliance

Sweden ends decades of nonalignment

Pressure on Germany

But it's not all harmony. Despite Norway's praise for its leadership, Germany has faced criticism from Baltic states for being hesitant in its support for Ukraine – particularly when it comes to supplying weapons.

"We all had to show a little bit of patience for Germany to choose a position and start walking the path,” Gabrielius Landsbergis said. 

"We will be remembered by the deeds and acts that we have done during these months, and not just next year but for decades to come,” he added. "Whether we made Europe stronger, and whether we helped Ukraine win.”

Reviving the Baltic

With the CBSS given a new sense of purpose, now the question is what it will do. Germany takes on the presidency for a year from July. 

Baerbock said clean energy will be the centerpiece of its agenda – with a plan to invest in joint offshore wind power projects.

Offshore wind turbines
Offshore wind power projects are part of the CMSS' cooperationImage: Tristan Stedman/MHI Vestas

It's a characteristically green-tinged proposal for Baerbock, a member of Germany's Green Party, and has obvious potential in this windy part of the world. But she insists it tackles a crucial security challenge of the moment: dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

"It's not only a question about climate neutrality, but also now a question of energy security,” she said. "Phasing out Russian fossil fuels is also the chance to phase in renewable and clean and secure energy.”

The message: amidst the earthquake shaking Europe, everything is connected. Something felt more keenly in the Baltic region, on Russia's doorstep, than anywhere else in the world.

As the German delegation took off home, the masks were back on. But Baerbock will be hoping that she dispelled any sense of German angst in showing leadership on the crisis – and rallying its neighbors together.

"We are economy-wise the biggest country in the European Union, therefore we have a special responsibility, also with regard to leadership” she said. "I really believe that our strongest weapon is our unity.” 

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

Richard Walker | News and Current Affairs
Richard Walker Chief International Editor@rbsw