Baltic Sea

[Gabby Ongies]

The Baltic Sea is located in Northern Europe and is bordered by Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden. Once past the Aland Islands, the Baltic Sea is referred to as the Gulf of Bothnia, and the Gulf of Finland
connects the sea to St. Petersburg. There are two other small gulfs in the south and southeast – the Gulfs of Gdansk and Riga. It is difficult to determine exactly where the Baltic Sea ends because the waters flow through the Kattegat Bay and Skagerrak Strait before merging with the North Sea. However, the estimated size of the Baltic is between 375,600 and 377,000 square kilometers (World Atlas). On average, around forty-five percent of the Baltic is covered by ice throughout the year, including the Gulfs of Bothnia, Finland, and Riga, as well as other sheltered bays, but on the whole, the majority of the Baltic remains ice-free. However, since 1720, the entire Baltic has frozen over 20 times (Baltic Sea). Freezing of ports and of major shipping routes makes travel without icebreakers difficult, and still leads to difficulties today.

The Vikings were perhaps the most prominent peoples in the Baltic Sea region, using the Baltic to navigate around Scandinavia, conduct trade, as well as warring campaigns (Baltic Sea).  The Viking dominance lasted from the late 8th century into the 11th. During this time, different Viking tribes spread throughout Europe for both trade and conquest purposes, interacting with many peoples in both the Baltic States as well as the Western Borderlands, especially Slavic tribes (Viking Age). In the founding story of Rus’, the three founding brothers, Rurik, Sineus and Truvor, were Varangians, then a common Slavic term for Viking (Parmele) In addition to Viking dominance and heritage, the shores of the Baltic were among the last to convert to Christianity following the Northern Crusades, starting with Finland in the twelfth century, Estonia and Latvia in the thirteenth, and Lithuania in the fourteenth. After this conversion, however, the stronghold that the Vikings had over the Baltic region waned, and many different groups arose to fill the void, including Germans, Danes, and Swedes (Baltic Sea).

The weakening of the Vikings enabled other peoples in the area to benefit from the trade routes that crossed the Baltic, and led to the creation of the Hanseatic League, a trading alliance between cities and guilds along the coast. The league established even more trade routes, and control of these waters was highly prized, and was a frequent cause of war. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Sweden, Denmark, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth wanted control of the trade routes, and Sweden eventually won. Sweden maintained power in the Baltic until the Great Northern War with the Russian Empire, in which Russia won and became a dominating power in the Baltic. The importance of the Baltic to the Russian Empire was so great that Peter the Great built St. Petersburg, his new capital on the shores of the Baltic. This choice in location showed his power to his subjects and Western Europe, but also made controlling trade on the Baltic, as well as setting up a proper navy easier (Baltic Sea). The Baltic continued to be an attractive asset to many different world powers, and throughout wars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, campaigns were launched to claim the Baltic Sea and control the waterways.

The Russian victory in the Great Northern War did not end other empires’ ambitions for control over the Baltic. During the Crimean War, access to the Baltic was essential to keeping the Russian Empire functioning both economically and militarily. The British and French navies attacked the Russian fleet multiple times in an attempt to prevent Russia from trading and resupplying its troops; however, the fighting in the Baltic theatre was essentially a stalemate (Crimean War). After the Crimean War, the area was fairly peaceful until World War I broke out. During World War I, the fighting in the Baltic was mainly between Germany and Russia, the two powers on the coastline. Russia was on the defensive, and the supplies that Russia attempted to send to Sweden and other Allied countries were constantly attacked (Naval Warfare WWI). Such warfare progressed even farther during World War II, when Nazi Germany specifically targeted merchant ships to disrupt the flow of supplies between the Allied nations. German U-boats effectively kept the Soviet navy at bay (Washington.edu). After the end of the war, the Soviet Union gained coastline on the Baltic with the absorption of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; however, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia could not maintain its power hold on the Baltic (Baltic Sea). Since the fall of communism, Russian naval presence has been greatly reduced, especially with the development of navies in all three Baltic States. These three countries use their naval power in the Baltic to illustrate their independence and legitimacy, and is a direct show of force to Russia, whose own naval fleets are having difficulty modernizing (Washington.edu).

Presently, the Baltic has major international shipping routes, with the Baltic States controlling a major share of the trade since Russia lost over 50% of their harbors on the sea. The Baltic Sea provides a bargaining chip for the Baltic States, who need a source of power to combat post-Soviet Russia. The fact that the Baltic States are now members of the European Union also gives them more power, mainly because they have many more allies than Russia, allies that do not want to see another Russian giant anytime soon (Washington.edu). The Baltic Sea is still very much a political area, important for both naval strength as well as economic gain. It has helped the Baltic States become independent of Russia and integrate into the rest of Europe very well – perhaps the best out of the former Soviet Republics. This is in part because Russia does not want to take on the EU, as well as the fact that Russia wants to maintain favorable relations with the Baltic States; it is through the Baltic States that Russia has the majority of its access to the sea. As with many seas, the Baltic has been, and will continue to be, important to the countries that it borders.

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Works Cited:

  • Mary Platt Parmele, A Short History of Russia (Middlesex, UK: The Echo Library, 2008).
  • Brian Schnase, University of Washington, “The Baltic Sea: The Link of Northern Europe.” Last modified 2001. Accessed April 23, 2012. http://depts.washington.edu/baltic/papers/balticsea.htm.
  • Wikipedia, “Baltic Sea.” Last modified April 20, 2012. Accessed April 23, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Sea
  • Wikipedia, “Naval Warfare of World War I.” Last modified April 10, 2012. Accessed April 23, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_warfare_of_World_War_I
  • World Atlas, “Baltic Sea .” Last modified 2012. Accessed April 23, 2012. http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/balticsea.htm. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_War

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