Ship coming in: Russian trade flows over the Baltic Sea in a twenty-year perspective


  • Tomas Malmlöf
  • Johan Tejpar

Publish date: 2013-03-26

Report number: FOI-R--3586--SE

Pages: 83

Written in: Swedish


  • Russia
  • Baltic Sea
  • security policy
  • international trade
  • sea freight
  • transport geography
  • ports


The aim of this report is to describe the patterns of Russian trade flows via the Baltic Sea and to discuss the significance of these flows from a security policy perspective. The way in which Russia values the importance of its trade through the Baltic Sea, and the implications of the policies in this area together constitute the core issues to be studied in this report. Russia considers international trade at large to be a zero sum game, based on asymmetric relations between sellers and buyers, with one party usually more dependent on a particular transaction taking place. The other party is thus in a much better negotiating position, which might be exploited for political and eco-nomic purposes in other policy areas. To end up in the stronger position, Russia has pursued a policy of nationalization of its maritime trade including port opera-tions, with a clearly expressed goal to diminish transit traffic through ports in neighbouring states. Through this policy, Russia has relatively successfully ex-panded existing sea ports and also built new ones in connection to the Baltic Sea. In so doing, Russia has decreased its reliance on ports in neighbouring countries. In this report, the importance of the Baltic Sea basin for Russia's international trade is assessed, and its potential future development is discussed. In general, Russia has relatively poor access to suitable ports within its own territory, and trade flows through domestic ports are relatively small in a global context. As a consequence of geospatial conditions such as shallow water depth, ice conditions and land infrastructure, a number of restrictions limit the development potential of Russian ports. However, the trade flows passing through Russian ports in the Baltic Sea still constitute a major part of Russian exports and are therefore cru-cial to Russian income from export. Measured in quantity, 65 per cent of Russian exports to the EU, Russia's foremost trading partner, passed a Russian port in the Baltic Sea. The significance of the Baltic Sea for Russian trade is therefore un-questioned, and its relative leadership position is not expected to change to any significant degree for the next twenty years. Besides describing and identifying trade flows, the results from the study con-firms that Russia's political leadership still uphold a system which enables its continuous exploitation of Russian trade relations with the outside world for other purposes. Very important prerequisites for this system are the large element of state-owned enterprises and that the private sector can be squeezed to submit itself to the interests and ambitions of the state. Another indication of the preva-lence of realpolitik in Russian trade relations is Russia's limited interest to coop-erate with its Baltic Sea neighbours in order to get rid of persistent bottlenecks in the interconnected regional transport systems. As an alternative to a retrieval of lost and build-up of new port capacity connected to the Baltic Sea basin, such a strategy had probably been a more cost-effective solution, which might have been of benefit to other manufacturing companies in addition to the big state-controlled companies within the oil and gas sector. The aim and direction of Russian port investments and Russia's manifest behav-iour, indicates that the Baltic Sea will continue to play a crucial role for Russian export of energy carriers. As for Sweden, it is important to follow the develop-ment of both the Russian civilian trade fleet and Russian port infrastructure relat-ed to the Baltic Sea, as it is reasonable to assume that Russian commercial inter-ests in the Baltic Sea will not only prevail but grow. At present, it is not possible to assess if there is a direct military link between the port development and, for instance, the Russian Navy, nor is it possible to reject such a connection. Another important issue to stay focused on is Russian behaviour and relations with for-eign transiting ports and possible efforts to buy up their infra- and superstruc-tures, which might give Russia a greater leverage over these countries.