Stronger sanctions are needed to reign in the growing Russian threat in the Baltics, Baltic Sea states’ foreign ministers said on Friday (14 June), voicing concern about Russian hybrid threats and the unmarked oil tankers deployed to circumvent sanctions. 

The Baltic Sea region has become a focal point for Russian hybrid warfare and its deployment of a ‘shadow fleet’ of unmarked tankers, suspected of being used to avoid the G7’s price cap on Russian oil.  

The Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) foreign ministers – including the Nordics, Baltics, Germany, and Poland – vowed to support efforts to tackle this through NATO and the EU.

Foreign ministers called for “decisive joint actions, including the strengthening of sanctions” to tackle the matter and Russia’s attack on Ukraine in general, according to their joint statement.

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“We have to address Russia’s ‘shadow fleet’, which is unfortunately very effective,” Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen told reporters, adding that it was “clearly a threat (…) to the overall security of Europe”.

“A situation where Russian tankers that are visible from the coast of Estonia and Finland are evading sanctions and processing oil products with disregard for rules, demands quick action from us,” Estonia’s Foreign Minister Margus Tsakhna commented, in reference to the EU’s upcoming 14th sanctions package.

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Ministers also voiced concern about the growing threat from Russian hybrid attacks in the region.

Tsakhna stressed that “Russia is not only acting on the surface of the Baltic Sea, but also underwater.”

“Defending and monitoring submarine infrastructure has become increasingly relevant in light of Russia’s hybrid activities – we have found innovative solutions for contributing to this field,” Tsahkna said. 

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Moscow is suspected of being behind a spike in migration that has destabilised the joint border, and GPS failures in the region, while there were also question marks over a likely sabotaged gas pipeline in Finland.

Last month, Russia removed the border markings with Estonia from the Narva River, while the Russian defence ministry previously suggested revising its maritime borders.

“These are very concrete, real threats,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters.

“Given this complex security situation, we have to do everything we can in order to ensure that our societies are better protected, in particular, in the Baltic Sea area,” she added.

CBSS’s new purpose

The Finnish presidency of the CBSS marked a step in the direction of developing the Council into a forum to coordinate such security efforts more closely.

Last year’s meeting in Finland was the first CBSS summit, and after Sweden’s accession to NATO, all its members are part of the Western security alliance. 

The CBSS, which until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 had included Moscow, had previously been used to foster closer economic regional cooperation after the Cold War.

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While moving the CBSS in the direction of a political forum, last year’s German presidency mainly confined itself to tackling wider resilience issues in prioritising the removal of WWII ammunition from the Baltic Sea.

As for the forum’s evolving role in regional security, “this is only the beginning,” a senior regional official with knowledge of the preparations of the summit told Euractiv.

While all partners are careful to avoid doubling NATO structures, the official added that the CBSS provides a rare opportunity to coordinate on region-specific topics among NATO partners.

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