Swedish and Finnish security policies: why NATO now?

Written by me

In this post, I will provide a bit of background – very briefly – about Finnish and Swedish security policies that might be helpful in terms of contextualising their current movement towards NATO membership.

First and foremost, it is important to point out that Finland’s and Sweden’s recent moves towards submitting NATO membership applications are not some knee-jerk response to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022. The ‘return of geopolitics’ to the Baltic Sea Region is a process that has been going on for years, starting with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Over this period, both Finland and Sweden have adopted a stronger focus on territorial defence, moving away from their previously significant emphasis on expeditionary ‘troubleshoot security’.

While Finland has always retained significant territorial defence capabilities, this has been a particularly radical change for Sweden, showcased in highly visible moves, such as the rearmament of the strategically important island of Gotland. Sweden has reintroduced national service, carried out new weapon system procurements, and significantly expanded its defence budget.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has therefore created a dynamic that has undermined the traditional Nordic non-alignment stance, making both Finland and Sweden in near future cross the final red line separating them from full participation in regional and European security: outright NATO membership.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was too big of a threat for the Nordic countries for a similar development to occur. Instead of the whole Baltic Sea Region being unified in NATO – the scenario that we are going to see now – it was very fragmented in security terms. The Iron Curtain went right across the middle of the Baltic Sea, leaving the Baltic states and Poland in the Soviet sphere and obviously excluded from any form of defence cooperation.

And even those countries that ended up on the Western side of it did not constitute a unified frontline against the USSR. Instead, the states in the region adapted a gradation of security policies, known as the Nordic Balance: from Finlandised Finland in the east, over neutral Sweden in the middle, to the not entirely fully committed NATO members Norway and Denmark in the west.

After the demise of the USSR, this Cold War legacy still persisted in some ways. While Finland and Sweden did move very close to NATO through their participation in Partnership for Peace and the Enhanced Opportunities Partnership, they never built the domestic political coalitions that would have presented a convincing case for full membership to the Finnish and Swedish voters.

Just like during the Cold War, the security discourse in the Nordic countries still remained very much infused with the rhetoric of peacefulness and attempts to obfuscate the extent to which even the non-NATO members Sweden and Finland were already thoroughly connected with NATO. The obfuscation reflected the idea that the two countries publicly committing to NATO membership and giving up their formally acknowledged, even if questionable, non-aligned status, could push Russia into some form of action that would require a direct answer or countermove.

The reason why we are seeing it changing now, is because, firstly, Russia has already moved in Ukraine in a way that obviously requires a response. This has led many members of the public in Finland and Sweden to ask the justified question of ‘if not now, then when?’ in relation to NATO membership. The always non-credible idea that Russia does not pose a threat to European security has been thoroughly debunked by Russia’s own actions.

Secondly, the current heightened Russian threat is of the ‘right size’ to strengthen Nordic resolve. It is not an overwhelming threat, like the USSR was during the Cold War, which would instead trigger an appeasement dynamic. But neither is it a threat that is weak enough for the domestic opponents of NATO membership to dismiss it as non-credible. It is a challenge, but a challenge that can be resisted and overcome.

Finally, what has also changed is that foreign and defence policy is not quite as remote from the ordinary voters as it used to be. Now, previously hidden information is transmitted through constant media reporting and security and foreign policy is subject to public lobbying, even if many decisions are still made behind closed doors. The public opinion for NATO membership is already overwhelming in Finland and moving there in Sweden. Even those politicians who otherwise would be dragging their feet, will need to follow the lead of their voters, or ignore it at their peril.