Despite Disowning Plan, Moscow Sends Clear Message of Intentions With Baltic Borders

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 80

(Source: The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission)

Executive Summary:

  • The Russian Defense Ministry posted and then took down a plan for Moscow to unilaterally redraw sea borders in the Baltic region, alarming and then reassuring observers inclined to dismiss this as bureaucratic infighting.
  • The document as first posted is consistent with Russian commentary on the Baltic region and with Putin’s broader tactics as its appearance and then removal allow the Kremlin to both send a strong message and weaken Western resolve.
  •  As such, the plan deserves far more attention as evidence of Russian intentions so the West can live up to its NATO commitments and block Russian moves in Ukraine and elsewhere.


On May 21, the Russian Defense Ministry published a plan to unilaterally redraw the sea borders in the Baltic region for discussion (TASS; The Moscow Times, May 21). The document sparked widespread fears that Moscow was about to move on the plan. Then, less than a day later, after criticism from Baltic, Scandinavian, and Ukrainian officials and commentators and after the Kremlin claimed the plan was not government policy, Russian officials removed the document (The Moscow Times; Postimees;, May 22). Even so, it is clear that the Vladimir Putin regime took this step not because of the outrage against the plan but because doing so allows the Kremlin to have it both ways. On the one hand, it sent a clear message about Moscow’s thinking and thus spread fears about what it might do next. On the other hand, it is fully consistent with Putin’s broader policies and tactics—particularly his continuing efforts to portray those warnings against Russian aggression as irresponsible alarmists who can and should be ignored (Novaya Gazeta;, May 22).

The Defense Ministry document was first published on the Russian government’s legal affairs portal (originally found at, May 21). The post has now been taken down but was saved in part here and with a screenshot on X (formerly Twitter) (, May 22). It was also quoted and described in detail by journalists at The Moscow Times (The Moscow Times, May 21). Other media reports, both from the region and in the West, appear to rely exclusively on these reports. (See, for example, Svoboda;; Kyiv Independent, May 22.)

According to the Moscow Times story, the Russian Defense Ministry believes that Moscow must, by January 2025, “declare portions of the waters in the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland as well as near the borders of Kaliningrad its internal waterways.” The current delimitation lines, established by the Soviet government in 1985, no longer correspond to present-day geopolitical realities, according to the document. Therefore, they must be revised. Under the proposed plan, Moscow would unilaterally shift the coordinates of these borders around the five small islands in the Gulf of Finland and around the mouth of the Narva River, as well as areas around the Curonian Spit, Cape Taran, and the Baltic Spit along the border between Lithuania and Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous Russian oblast to the west. Nothing suggests that this proposal has been coordinated with other Russian government agencies or that Moscow has approached the governments of Finland, Estonia, or Lithuania about the idea. Instead of adding language regarding those elements and specifying that the plan would not affect the state borders of these countries, the Russian government portal removed the document altogether—an action that suggests at least some in Moscow viewed it as more than the idea of a single ministry.

Reactions in the countries that would be most immediately affected by this plan were swift and overwhelmingly negative. Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian officials expressed varying levels of concern. Finnish leaders sought more clarification, their Latvian counterparts suggested it was the beginning of a Russian move against the Baltic countries, and Lithuanian officials declared that the plan, by itself, represents a direct threat to international security (Delfi; TASS;, May 22). Commentators and experts in those four countries, Scandinavia, and Ukraine were even more negative, denouncing the plan as a provocation against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the West as a whole (Ukrainska Pravda; Novaya Gazeta, May 22). Reactions likely would have been even more numerous and critical had the plan not been taken down so quickly. One Scandinavian analyst suggested that the move had occurred because Moscow was taken aback by the criticism or because there was no indication that the Russian government would do anything more than change lines on a map (, May 22). Others insisted that taking down the plan from a website does not mean that the plan is no longer on the minds of Putin and his officials (Ukrainska Pravda, May 22).

The overheated environment of Putin’s ongoing war against Ukraine, his staging of nuclear-capable military exercises, Moscow’s increasing criticism of the Baltic states and Finland, and especially the Kremlin’s moves to counter NATO in the Baltic Sea region stoked much of the alarm regarding the plan, which does not look to subside even with the document taken down (see EDM, December 18, 2023, May 15; Window on Eurasia, May 17). Many analysts in the region, not surprisingly, see Moscow’s proposal about a relatively limited portion of water as a harbinger of broader Russian threats to the Baltic region as a whole. This would include not only the Baltic countries and Finland but even Sweden’s control of Gotland, long viewed as an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Less than a day after the Russian Defense Ministry posted its plan to redraw sea borders, Mikhail Byden, commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, said that Putin appears intent on establishing Russian dominance over the entire Baltic Sea and the Swedish island of Gotland in particular (, May 22).

Perhaps the clearest warning about the ultimate meaning of the Russian Defense Ministry plan comes from Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian commentator now living in Israel. He points out that “the experience of recent years has taught Russia’s neighbors” and the West as a whole to pay close attention even to the smallest signs of Putin’s intentions (, May 22). Nevzlin adds, again and again, Putin’s obsession with history and old maps has led him to demand first portions of territory and then all of it—a passion and approach that recall Hitler’s own and that is always “fraught with war.” After the Nazi leader was defeated, both the West and the Soviet Union sought to prevent a new war by declaring all external borders in Europe “inviolable.” The West continues to support that position, while it has “not stopped Russia in any way, either in Abkhazia, or in South Ossetia, or in Crimea, or in the Donbas, or in the current bloody war in Ukraine.” The only limit on the Kremlin’s actions, Nevzlin says, is “the strength of NATO countries.”

That makes the Russian Defense Ministry plan, even if it is no longer on a Russian government website, something that the West cannot afford to ignore lest what some dismiss as a minor matter grows into a broader conflagration.