In early August, Russia publicly invited the Baltic states, Poland, Sweden and Finland to take part in talks concerning the security of the Baltic region in September in Moscow. Officially, the invitation was reportedly sent to the defence ministries of these countries. One of the proposed topics of the meeting is air safety measures in the Baltic region. This topic was also raised by the Russian side at the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on 13 July. While promoting this initiative, Russia is drawing upon the so-called ‘Niinistö Plan’, the Finnish president’s proposal put forward during his bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin on 1 July this year. The proposal was intended at reducing the number of flight incidents by obliging NATO member states, Sweden and Finland, and above all Russia to make sure that transponders which are used to locate aircraft and manage air traffic are switched on during military flights.
The Russian initiative is above all part of a political game offering a broad range of opportunities to be used in disinformation campaigns targeted mainly at the West European NATO members. The proposal which was initially addressed to NATO as a whole and Sweden and Finland is intended to demonstrate that Russia is taking a constructive stance on regional security. Russia wants to place part of the responsibility for the deterioration of air safety in the region on NATO member states (and Sweden and Finland). It is worth mentioning that aviation safety is already being discussed, for example, within the OSCE (the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures). On the other hand, the August invitation of the Baltic states, Poland, Sweden and Finland to Moscow is Russia’s way of showing that the problem concerns only a few countries in the region. Moscow is interested in this kind of security regionalisation since this might allow it to normalise relations with ‘the rest of’ NATO. This, however, adversely affects the unity of NATO as a whole and is detrimental to the countries in the region since they would start to depend on bilateral and multilateral agreements with Moscow as regards security issues. Russia will present their rejection of its offer as an unconstructive and hostile stance. Furthermore, the Russian initiative detracts attention from major security concerns in the region, such as: dangerous manoeuvres performed by Russian aircraft close to Western civil and military planes, Russian military exercises with offensive scenarios and unannounced large-scale drills aimed at verifying the Russian army’s combat readiness. Russia has been unwilling to conduct constructive talks concerning these issues.
The Baltic states, Sweden and Finland responded publicly to the Russian initiative to conduct bilateral and multilateral talks in Moscow. Lithuania and Estonia rejected it, presenting the proposal as being intended at sowing division inside NATO. Sweden and Finland also took a sceptical stance, pointing to other formats of such talks. From Finland’s perspective, President Niinistö’s original proposal has been taken over and is being used by Moscow in order to achieve Russian goals. Sauli Niinistö, by putting forward the initiative to reduce tension between Russia and NATO hoped for success in foreign policy in the context of the presidential election in 2018.