The Baltic Sea is of increasing importance for Russia

Posted on October 25, 2014


My article on the strategically important of the Baltic Sea for the Russian oil exports, is now published in Aftonbladet, a Swedish tabloid and one of the larger daily newspapers in the Nordic countries. Read the article in Swedish on, ”Östersjön får allt större betydelse för Ryssland”.

The Baltic Sea is of increasing importance for Russia

The submarine hunt in Stockholm’s archipelago is over and yet again we can state that there were only indications of underwater activity. At the same time we have heard from, among others, Finland that Russia has recently increased its military activities. Analysts tell us that the Cold War has returned and comparisons are made with the Soviet era. Many people in various branches of the media will now analyze the increasing tensions between Sweden and Russia. In this analysis I want to focus on an important issue that even well-known researchers in conflict analysis do not appreciate regarding Russian oil exports.

In August 2012 the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) released a report with the title, “World Oil Transit Chokepoints”. The first time that the world experienced how important such chokepoints can be was during the Suez Crises in 1956 and 1967. A large proportion of the exports of oil to Europe went through the Suez Canal. Today there are several more chokepoints for oil and the fact that half of the oil produced in the world is subsequently transported by ship means that these chokepoints are becoming all the more important.

The most important chokepoint is the Strait of Hormuz, the exit from the Persian Gulf through which nearly all oil exported from the Middle East passes. The Strait is guarded by the US navy that has a base in Bahrain. Almost as important is the Strait of Malacca though which passes nearly all the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) transported to China, Japan and other nations in Asia. The USA keeps an aircraft carrier on constant watch in this Strait. The aircraft carrier that China has renovated will, most likely, also visit the Strait of Malacca for extended periods. The fact that China plans to build a pipeline from Burma to China so that its oil imports will not have to pass through this Strait shows yet again that oil’s transport chokepoints are important strategically.

In terms of volumes of oil transported through these chokepoints, those that pass through the Suez Canal and Russian oil exports via the Black Sea and past Istanbul shared equal third place. For Russia there is an alternative port for oil exports and that is Saint Petersburg. The Russians have built a new, modern export harbor in Primorsk and that means that oil exports through the Baltic Sea are increasing. The chokepoint between Sweden and Denmark, the Danish Straits, has now become the world’s third most important chockpoint for global oil exports and these exports have increased in recent years. If one also takes into account the new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and the planed imports of LNG into the Baltic States then one can certainly understand that the Baltic Sea that was once dominated by Sweden has become one of the world’s most strategic locations.

If one knows this then it comes as no surprise that Russia conducts military exercises in the Baltic Sea and that their military fighter jets continuously monitor oil exports. We can only study how important it is for the USA to monitor other chokepoints for global oil exports.

Regarding chokepoints, the USA’s EIA has written, “They are a critical part of global energy security due to the high volume of oil traded through their narrow straits.” Regarding the Danish Straits they write, “The Danish Straits are becoming an increasingly important route for Russian oil exports to Europe.”

We can expect that NATO’s activities in the area will increase and that the Russian base in Kaliningrad will be upgraded. Those politicians who expected that Sweden would be able to reduce its military expenditure since we lived in a calm corner of the world must reconsider. There is a new reason for the government to establish an inquiry into Swedish membership of NATO or, alternatively, to make large increases in expenditure on the Swedish defense forces.

Kjell Aleklett, seniorprofessor i globala energisystem,
Uppsala University

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