Finland and Sweden move closer to NATO membership: good or bad for security in Europe?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

During the Cold War, aficionados of European security debates always used to bandy about two terms: ‘Nordic balance’ and ‘Finlandisation’. These terms encapsulated the sense that things were different in northern Europe – less tense, less militarised and thus less prone to crises – than on the central front where the Berlin Wall divided Germany, and NATO and the Warsaw Pact confronted each other directly across watch towers, barbed wire and minefields in no-man’s-land. The Nordic countries, by contrast, seemed to be able to keep the peace just as much by reassuring the Soviet Union as by deterring it.

Iceland was an early member of NATO when it was formed in 1949, but it had no military forces of its own. Norway abandoned its traditional policy of neutrality when it decided to join NATO, but did not allow nuclear weapons or foreign forces or bases to be permanently located on its territory in peacetime. This obliged the alliance to engage in the practice of sending reinforcement forces trained for winter warfare to Norway and to pre-position stocks of equipment there. Denmark also joined NATO, but Sweden and Finland opted for a policy of neutrality.

In the case of Sweden, this continued a course that Stockholm had followed since the 18th century when it gave up its ambitions to be an expansionary power in Germany, the Baltic states and Poland and withdrew from European wars. During the Second World War, neutrality served the country well. It sold Germany considerable amounts of iron ore, raw materials and food and was one of the few European countries to escape occupation and exploitation by the Wehrmacht.

In the case of Finland, which gained its independence from the Tsarist empire following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, neutrality came more recently with the Finno-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in 1948, an agreement that managed to keep its powerful eastern neighbour at bay.

From an institutional viewpoint, this mixture of Nordic countries might have looked untidy, with some in NATO or the EU and some in neither at that time, but with few US or other foreign troops in the region; but it meant that NATO only shared a common border with the Soviet Union in the High North along a small strip of territory just outside Kirkenes, Norway.

The low-key posture of Nordic security meant that military deterrence could be maintained without over-shadowing possibilities for cooperation elsewhere

The Nordic balance did not mean that the High North was demilitarised. The Soviet Union used the Kola Peninsula and ports, such as Murmansk and Archangel, to house its Northern Fleet, nuclear weapons-armed submarines and reactors. Sweden and Finland both adopted a policy of armed neutrality and territorial defence based on conscription and levels of defence spending, which, in terms of GDP and investments per capita, were higher than for many European NATO members, happy to rely on the United States.

Certainly, Sweden and Finland did not equate neutrality with vulnerability. Finland fought two wars against the Soviet Union during the 1940-45 period. Although Finland ended up on the losing side of the Second World War as Germany’s ally and its resistance started to collapse in the closing stages of the war, its resourceful army, operating on skis and camouflaged in white against the snow, inflicted such losses on the Red Army that Stalin decided against the permanent occupation of the country; something that he imposed on so many other territories in eastern Europe after the war. In the end, however, Finland was forced to cede 10% of its territory to Moscow, essentially the Karelia Isthmus and some islands in the Gulf of Finland. The nation also had to renounce a distinct foreign policy that might undercut or threaten Soviet interests. Still, Finland remained an independent and democratic country. This balance became known as Finlandisation, a term somewhat unfair to the Finns, as it implied a forced subordination to Moscow, whereas in reality, Finland remained always ready to defend its 1,300km long border with the Soviet Union. Yet the balance reflected also a strong economic interdependency as Finland imported nearly all its oil and gas from the Soviet Union while selling much of its timber, agriculture and consumer products back to them.

In sum, the low-key posture of Nordic security meant that military deterrence could be maintained without over-shadowing possibilities for cooperation elsewhere: transparency measures, governing military exercises and deployments, as well as in mining and fisheries, forestry, transport routes, the rights and wellbeing of local communities, and the protection of the environment. In this way, strong patterns of regional cooperation emerged in the Nordic Council and the Arctic Council. The Nordic balance reflected a high acceptance of compartmentalisation whereby tensions in the military sphere would not undermine developing cooperation in economic or social areas. Unsurprisingly, the success and longevity of this Nordic balance in keeping things quiet and peaceful built up over time a high degree of public consensus to preserve it and minimise outside interference.

Even if both countries ruled out membership of the alliance, […] this has not prevented them from becoming NATO’s closest partners

When the Cold War came to an end in 1990, change was inevitable. With the disappearing Soviet threat, Norway saw its reinforcing forces from NATO, such as the Canadian Air Sea Transportable Brigade, come to an end. The NATO headquarters (AFNORTH) in Kolsås in southern Norway was closed, and the US withdrew its F15s from the Keflavik air base in Iceland. When they joined the EU together in 1995, Sweden and Finland abandoned formal neutrality in favour of non-alignment. This was not just a shift in semantics, but a recognition of the need to contribute to the nascent EU foreign policy, security and defence cooperation and to demonstrate solidarity with fellow EU member states in responding together to non-military threats such as natural disasters, pandemics and terrorist or cyberattacks. Non-alignment also signified a rejection of NATO membership as a bridge too far, particularly as it garnered little to no public support and was opposed by most of the parties in parliament – first and foremost of the Social Democrats who have dominated politics in both Sweden and Finland during the post-war period.

Yet the greater flexibility afforded by non-alignment over neutrality enabled Finland and Sweden to innovate their security policy. They formed Nordic defence cooperation with their neighbours in air defence and maritime operations, training and procurement. They also participated in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, refusing to go for the opt-out that Denmark insisted on; although in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Copenhagen will hold a referendum in June to terminate this opt-out. Subsequently, Stockholm and Helsinki have participated in EU Battlegroups and EU training missions (EUTMs) in the Sahel. Sweden, given its strong tradition of participation in UN peacekeeping, established a peacekeeping training centre, while Finland, more concerned with cyber-attacks, GPS jamming and Russian political interference, established in Helsinki an EU-NATO Centre of Excellence to study and respond to hybrid warfare.

Yet undoubtedly, the most significant change in the traditional Nordic balance has been Sweden and Finland’s engagement with NATO. Even if both countries ruled out membership of the alliance, despite the enthusiasm of former prime ministers of the centre right such as Carl Bildt in Sweden and Alexander Stubb in Finland, this has not prevented them from becoming NATO’s closest partners.

By the time I left NATO in October 2018, Sweden and Finland were increasingly acting and sounding like allies. They were participating fully in virtually every dimension of the organisation: crisis management exercises, including those covering Article 5 collective defence scenarios, as well as operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya. They also cooperate with the alliance’s Rapid Reaction Force and have common approaches in dealing with emerging security challenges such as cyber-defence, resilience to hybrid attacks and civil emergency planning, where both countries have well-honed whole-of-society approaches. Many allies, such as the US, signed agreements with Sweden and Finland for host nation support and territorial access in wartime. These two partner countries also sent large contingents to participate in the reinforcement and collective defence exercises that NATO reinitiated after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Cold Response in central Norway is the most recent in this series. We used to say that Finland and Sweden were NATO allies in all but name and that they had managed to achieve nearly all the benefits of NATO membership, from political consultations to exercising and military interoperability, without the key element of NATO, namely the Article 5 treaty security guarantee.

Sweden and Finland went from seeking their security in neutrality and standing aside from crises and commitments to a much more active and complex set of relationships

As the years went by, this arrangement became convenient for both sides. NATO had the benefits of substantial troop contributions from Sweden and Finland to its operations, as well as the extra legitimacy that two strong UN supporters gave to its activities. Sweden and Finland gained a seat at the NATO top table and could use the NATO structures both to acquire military expertise and to increase their voice and influence in transatlantic security debates. NATO knew that it would be counter-productive to push Sweden and Finland to apply for formal membership, given the sensitivity of political and public opinion in both countries. That would be a decision that only they could take.

For their part, Stockholm and Helsinki could hide behind NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme to become more implicated in NATO activities than parliaments and public opinion were aware of or ready to condone, given the traditional stance on non-alignment. This said, NATO’s post-Cold War transformation from an anti-Soviet alliance to a more broad-based security organisation involved in crisis management, peacekeeping, partnerships and non-conventional threats, such as cyber, climate change and even the COVID-19 pandemic, made it politically easier for the political left in both Sweden and Finland to engage with it.

As a result, Sweden and Finland went from seeking their security in neutrality and standing aside from crises and commitments to a much more active and complex set of relationships. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fitting together, Stockholm and Helsinki hoped to gain some of their security from the EU, some from the partnership with NATO, some from Nordic frameworks and their own bilateral cooperation, and finally some from their self-proclaimed non-alignment. None of these pieces individually would provide a real security guarantee, but the assumption in both Sweden and Finland was that added all together they would provide enough to deter Russia and enough assistance from neighbours in dealing with lesser threats if either of the two countries were ever to be in serious trouble. It was a comfortable situation that allowed Sweden and Finland to have the best of all worlds: maximising their protection while minimising their exposure and obligations.

Moscow clearly perceives Stockholm and Helsinki as in the NATO camp and as unfriendly, if not hostile powers

Yet wars have a habit of destroying illusions and exposing ambiguities. NATO allies individually have come to the assistance of Ukraine by supplying a range of weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces to keep them in the fight. NATO has stayed out of the conflict for fear of provoking an escalation with Russia and even a Russian attack against NATO itself. The alliance’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has stressed repeatedly that NATO’s priority is to defend its own member states and to increase its forces along its own borders. Like Sweden and Finland, Ukraine has also been a close partner of the alliance and has made similar force contributions to the NATO operations, namely the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Resolute Support, in Afghanistan. NATO has created a special consultation mechanism with Ukraine – the NATO-Ukraine Commission – and, unlike Sweden and Finland, made a promise to Ukraine at the alliance’s summit in Bucharest in 2008 that it would be a NATO member one day.

However, all these ties and promises of future integration have not delivered NATO’s direct involvement in Ukraine’s defence against Russia. Only present and not future or potential members can count on NATO’s collective defence clause and real military planning and contributions, as opposed to diplomatic support. So as the prospect of war increases in northern Europe, Sweden and Finland have understood that all their efforts to draw closer to the alliance, and all the many contributions they have made to its non-Article 5 operations, may count for nothing if their own territories are at stake and they haven’t signed up to the Washington Treaty. NATO doesn’t do associate or half memberships.

Moreover, the Swedes and the Finns have begun to sense that they may now be getting the risks without the benefits: the precise opposite of what their partnerships with NATO in more normal times were designed to achieve. Moscow clearly perceives Stockholm and Helsinki as in the NATO camp and as unfriendly, if not hostile powers. So Russia has begun to act more aggressively towards them. Over the past three years, Russian aircraft have violated Swedish and Finnish airspace, posed a risk to civilian flights by flying without their transponders switched on, and flown over the Swedish island of Gotland to test air defences and practise bombing runs. Russian submarines have probed the Swedish coastline and Russia has jammed communications, disrupted GPS signals and carried out cyber-attacks against government departments and private companies. Russia has also pushed illegal migrants over its long border with Finland.

Overnight, public support in Sweden and Finland for joining NATO, which had never gone higher than the mid to upper twenties in either country, has climbed spectacularly

These activities do not amount to an imminent Russian invasion threat, but they have hardened public opinion against Russia and strengthened the feeling among Swedish and Finnish publics that if war between Russia and NATO did break out, they would have a harder time staying out of it than during the Cold War years. So, all things considered, it’s better to be in NATO. Thus, in my final years at NATO, I welcomed numerous Swedish and Finnish diplomats to my office, all informing me that they had been sent to Brussels to gather information on what NATO membership would mean in practice in terms of obligations, financial costs, and military and civilian personnel commitments. Clearly back home in Stockholm and Helsinki governments had decided to quietly prepare the ground.

Yet it takes a shock to turn a growing sentiment of unease into a decision to actually do something and change a long-established foreign policy course. This is what Putin has done by invading Ukraine. Overnight, public support in Sweden and Finland for joining NATO, which had never gone higher than the mid to upper twenties in either country, has climbed spectacularly. Last week, it reached 57% in Sweden, and it has been in the 70% range in Finland, where support was slightly higher in recent years. Parties across the political spectrum now advocate NATO membership, including even the far-right Swedish Democrats. Where opposition still exists, it is on the far-left, especially in Sweden. The mainstream media is coming around too. Last week the leading Swedish daily, Aftonbladet, ran an editorial in favour of NATO membership. The Finnish government has presented a report to parliament on the country’s defence options and the pros and cons of joining NATO. It does not make any recommendations as that is for MPs to decide. Reading between the lines, it is clear that only NATO membership can give Finland reliable security. All other options carry higher risks. Articles 42.7 and 222 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty certainly provide for EU solidarity in responding to crises but these are less binding than NATO’s Article 5 collective defence clause and the EU lacks the military command structures, integrated forces and military contingency plans to back them up. That remains the preserve of NATO.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has said that Helsinki will make its decision on NATO in weeks rather than months. Sweden may take more time, not being in such a geographically exposed position, but the political assumption in Stockholm has long been that it will follow Helsinki even if not at the same moment. Yet the Swedish press is now reporting that the government in Stockholm has accelerated its deliberations to be more in sync with Helsinki. The government had also commissioned a report on NATO membership and the Social Democrat Party has begun a consultation among its MPs to see if a consensus can be established. So Sweden and Finland will probably act in lockstep. The armed forces of the two countries are too intertwined to allow a separate course. As mentioned, Swedish public support is softer than that in Finland but anything consistently above 50% will probably be seen by the government of Magdalena Andersson as good enough.

Stoltenberg has made no secret of the fact that both Sweden and Finland will be welcomed with open arms

So if we can anticipate that both Sweden and Finland are finally ready to cross the Rubicon and send their letters of application to NATO Headquarters, which questions and challenges will the NATO allies need to face?

The first is whether to give a positive answer. NATO does not automatically admit every aspirant country as the examples of Ukraine, Georgia or Kosovo demonstrate. Yet no candidate has suffered a formal rejection either. The process either moves forward or remains in a prolonged limbo, depending on the consensus among allies and the calculus of the risks and benefits associated with further enlargements. Yet Stoltenberg has made no secret of the fact that both Sweden and Finland will be welcomed with open arms. Unlike the alliance’s most recent admissions of Montenegro or North Macedonia, they are advanced Western democracies, prosperous economies and EU members.

Again, in contrast to most of the 14 European countries that have joined NATO since the first round of enlargement in 1999, they bring real military capabilities into the alliance and cutting edge defence and technology companies too, such as Saab, Bofors, Ericsson and Nokia. Although, like nearly all the allies, they reduced their defence spending at the end of the Cold War and Sweden in particular allowed its armed forces to deteriorate, they have followed NATO in reversing the trend since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Meeting the NATO target of 2% of GDP for defence spending is today more easily in reach. A few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland concluded a deal with Lockheed Martin to buy 50 F35 Joint Strike Fighters in preference to the Swedish Gripen. Military interoperability with NATO has largely been achieved. Indeed, of all the alliance’s new member states, none have been as well prepared and as instantly compatible with NATO both politically and militarily as Sweden and Finland.

NATO needs to find at least a stopgap solution

So the three more tricky questions are: will Sweden and Finland obtain security guarantees from NATO the moment they apply to join? Can NATO effectively defend these two very large northern European states? And if two more EU members join NATO and reinforce this transatlantic security organisation, what will be the consequences for the EU’s project to form a Defence Union and develop its strategic autonomy?

On the first point of security guarantees, the NATO Secretary General has speculated that Sweden and Finland could receive some form of NATO guarantee the moment they are accepted as future members. This is unorthodox because formal membership can take place only when all the 30 NATO countries have ratified the extension to the Washington Treaty. This process normally takes at least a year as many member states require debates and votes in parliament, but we are not living in normal times. Last week, The Wall Street Journal raised the possibility that Putin might launch a pre-emptive strike and seize a chunk of territory in either one or both Nordic countries to force them to renounce NATO membership or to undermine NATO by demonstrating that it is not yet ready or able to defend them. This is similar to the approach that Putin took in Georgia in 2008 or in Crimea and the Donbass in 2014.

The Ukraine conflict has underscored the perils that a country faces when it is moving toward NATO and incurs the Kremlin’s ire, but does not yet have the NATO troops or infrastructure on its territory to deter an attack. So NATO needs to find at least a stopgap solution; for instance, a resolution of the US Congress calling on the Biden administration to make immediate plans to defend Sweden and Finland or other NATO countries by sending small units of troops, ships and aircraft to train in both countries on a rotational basis, or a NATO air policing arrangement perhaps linked to the one that has been operating in the nearby Baltic states since 2004. NATO can also increase its standing maritime presence in the Baltic Sea and its reconnaissance and intelligence gathering flights over Sweden and Finland.

The third question is linked to the second: how can the alliance defend Sweden and Finland at a time when it is already under pressure to increase its troop presence elsewhere along its borders, notably in the Baltic states and Poland and in the Black Sea region too, where NATO has already taken the decision to establish four new multinational battalions? The US has expressed its preference to rotate its forces in and out of Europe rather than deploy them on a permanent basis. Those US forces will probably go to the European countries that are prepared to fund the bases and infrastructure to receive them. Already 40,000 NATO troops in the alliance’s Rapid Reaction Force are under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR). So will there be enough forces in reserve to cover Sweden and Finland? What type of augmentation will the national forces of these two countries require to defend their territories in a more tense environment, and especially if Russia makes good on the threat uttered by the Deputy Head of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, to target more Russian missiles against them?

NATO will need a well-honed reinforcement strategy and will need to decide whether to defend on the border or concentrate in Sweden and then counter-attack to regain lost territory

This problem is compounded by the fact that Finland has the longest border with Russia than any NATO country – 1,300km. In the 1990s, NATO had only a 195km border with Russia in northern Norway. When Poland joined NATO in 1999 that increased to 428km thanks to its border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. After the accession of the three Baltic states in 2004, the common border jumped to 1,233km. If Finland decides to join, the border will more than double at a stroke. As previously said, Montenegro and North Macedonia did not bring many capabilities into NATO when they joined recently, but they are at least in the Balkans where Moscow has no military forces, and the major threat is from Russian hybrid activities and disinformation and influence campaigns. Thus, defending Sweden and Finland will be a challenge for NATO planners, particularly if these two countries follow the Norwegian model and do not allow the alliance to build bases or station forces on their territories in peacetime. NATO will need a well-honed reinforcement strategy and will need to decide whether to defend on the border or concentrate in Sweden and then counter-attack to regain lost territory. Yet at least Sweden and Finland in NATO will oblige Russia to divert some of its forces away from its western military district and Belarus where they currently threaten Poland and the Baltic states.

Finally, there is the EU dimension. In joining NATO, Sweden and Finland will increase the overlap between NATO and the EU. This will compensate at least in part for the United Kingdom’s Brexit. The impact of the war in Ukraine will be to increasingly focus the EU’s defence policies and capabilities programmes, such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund, on NATO requirements and collective defence. The EU could take the lead here by offering to set up a Nordic defence union with Iceland and Norway and associating the UK too. If Denmark votes in June as expected to end its opt-out from EU defence activities, a further political obstacle will be lifted. Individual Nordic countries could act as framework nations to integrate air and missile defence, maritime forces, land formations and special operations forces. A joint training and exercise programme to enhance rapid mobilisation, availability of reserves and winter war fighting skills could be considered too. The expertise of the Nordics in civil defence and societal resilience could be integrated into a single operational space to handle refugees, environmental hazards and damage to critical physical and digital infrastructure in conflict situations. At a time when the US and NATO are overstretched, the ability of the Nordics working together to handle their own defence, supported by amphibious units from the UK, Canada and Germany in crises, would be a useful contribution to transatlantic burden-sharing. Now that the EU has adopted its Strategic Compass and Versailles Roadmap in security and defence, organising a Nordic defence framework would be an early sign of the EU’s willingness to turn fine words and lofty ambitions into action.

Vladimir Putin began the Ukraine conflict by announcing that Russia wanted to stop further NATO enlargement and push NATO forces back to where they were in central Europe in 1997. He has achieved precisely the opposite, bringing NATO closer to Russia and giving the alliance a golden opportunity to show that it will not be intimidated by Putin’s threats and bluster. Given the new geopolitical configuration in Europe and Russia’s bellicose stance towards its western neighbours, the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland is good news for Europe’s security. It will oblige Europeans to start taking their defence seriously, and to think longer and harder about how they can develop the capabilities and common sense of purpose and resilience to ensure that what happened to the brave Ukrainians doesn’t happen to them next.

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