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.

The dream of the Scandinavian Defence Union

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On 9 April 2022, Finland’s former Social Democratic Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja went on record with a proposal for a Swedish-Finnish defence union. He presented this idea as a possible alternative to joining NATO, the prospect of which had become exceedingly likely for Finland, and to a lesser degree also for Sweden. Thanks to the changed security situation that had been created by Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February, Finnish public opinion behind NATO membership was solidifying, and the idea had already garnered a very comfortable majority in the Finnish parliament. Tuomioja’s intervention was widely dismissed as a desperate attempt to derail this conversation. The following day, the incumbent foreign ministers of both Finland and Sweden refused to recognise the substantive contents of his proposal. Nevertheless, doubts remain whether Tuomioja was acting entirely on his own initiative.

In the meantime, it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not the first time that a Nordic defence union has been proposed, and neither is it the first time this idea has failed. Below is a short reflection on the topic.

After the end of World War II, the mainland Nordic states, which were all culturally western and ideologically democratic found themselves in the strategic and ideological frontier between the superpowers and their respective blocs of allies. Norway and especially Finland were also frontier states in the physical sense, sharing a border with the USSR. All of them saw the USSR as that their primary security threat.

In this situation, the Nordics had essentially three security options available: firstly, to continue with their isolationist neutrality policy of the interwar period; secondly, to try to create a Nordic defence union amongst themselves; or thirdly, to conclude alliance with one of the superpowers – meaning, realistically, the US and its allies.

A return to the neutrality of the interwar period was not very likely, or at least not for all of them. Already in the 1930s, it had become obvious that neutrality and ‘non-provocation’ in the framework of the League of Nations were not tenable policies since the organisation itself failed to fulfil its purpose as a provider of collective security. In 1940, both Denmark and Norway fell under Nazi German occupation, which lasted for the duration of the war. By the end of it, their experiences had firmly driven home the need for credible security guarantees to ensure that nothing similar would ever happen again.

Finland, which had fought against the Soviet Union, entered after the war its period of so-called Finlandisation: one-sided dependence on Soviet foreign policy. This meant that Finland was unable to participate in further security discussions and had to adopt ‘neutrality’ as its official security policy stance.

In the couple of years immediately after the Second World War, when the bipolar world of the Cold War had not yet fully hardened, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden also continued to follow a policy of what has sometimes been called ‘neutralism within the United Nations.’ This was essentially a continuation of their 1930s neutrality policy in the successor organisation of the League of Nations. Soon enough, however, the second option, a Scandinavian Defence Union, also made its appearance.

In the immediate background of the rise of this idea were the heightened East-West tensions over the Berlin blockade of June 1948 to May 1949. In this tense situation, the Swedish Social Democratic Foreign Minister Östen Undén was tipped by his Norwegian counterpart that Norway would soon revise its previous foreign policy and ‘open up to the West’. As a response, Sweden scrambled to preserve Nordic security policy unity by trying to offer an alternative and initiated talks with Denmark and Norway over the establishment of a Scandinavian Defence Union with the explicit aim of protecting ‘Nordic neutrality’.

Essentially, the Swedes believed it would be possible for the Scandinavian states to isolate themselves from superpower competition by issuing a common declaration of neutrality and non-involvement in the Cold War, which would also be reinforced with military resources to make any possible military intrusion in the area too costly to carry out (armed neutrality). In this way, the Scandinavian Defence Union project was intended as a Nordic extension of the Swedish traditional neutrality policy. It had the support of the Swedish prime minister and all Swedish political parties on condition that the proposed alliance would remain independent of either of the two superpower blocs.

However, the main opposition to the idea came from Norway. Norway, unlike Sweden had experienced German occupation first-hand and was well-aware of the dangers of isolation. Norway had also received substantial help from the Allies during the war, especially Britain, and was happy to continue this cooperation with Britain and the US. There were also fears in Norway that if the American response to the Scandinavian Defence Alliance would be unfavourable, leading to alienation between Norway and the Western allies, which would have been very dangerous in case there was a war against the USSR. Finally, there were signs of increasing Soviet aggression, which included the communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the Finno-Soviet Friendship and Mutual Assistance Treaty, which had been forced on Finland and concluded two months later, and the start of the Berlin blockade in June 1948.

For all those reasons, the Norwegians demanded that the proposed alliance establish official military collaboration with the Western powers. But this was, of course, unacceptable for Sweden, since official military cooperation with Western powers was exactly what the idea of the Scandinavian Defence Union had been meant to prevent.

Denmark had experienced a much milder form of German occupation than Norway, and Danish opinion was more open to the Defence Union proposal. When Norway rejected it, the Danish Social Democratic Prime Minister proposed a joint Swedish-Danish alliance instead. Now, however, Sweden became concerned that this reduced alliance would be too weak and would still come under the influence of NATO. So, in the end, even the Swedish-Danish defence union failed to happen.

The third option available for the Scandinavian states in the initial stages of the Cold War was to conclude an alliance with one of the superpowers. This is what Denmark, Norway and Iceland effectively did by subsequently becoming founding members of NATO. The collapse of the Scandinavian Defence Union initiative left Sweden alone in the region to pursue a traditional neutrality course as it had done already from the 19th century onwards.

While Swedish and Finnish neutrality were officially abandoned in the 1990s, as they joined the European Union, they have retained their policy of non-alignment, i.e., non-membership in NATO. Now, however, Russia’s criminal escalation its war against Ukraine has fundamentally changed the regional security environment, and the fundamental questions of Nordic security policy are once again on the table. It is fair to say that compared to the winter of 1948-1949, the idea of the Scandinavian Defence Union – by necessity excluding those Nordic countries that are already in NATO – presents an even less credible alternative in 2022. We are therefore more likely than not to see two more Nordic NATO accessions very soon, and an end to the security fragmentation that has characterised the Nordic region ever since the early years of the Cold War.

Finnish security policy traditions and the question of NATO membership

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For a long time, Finland has adhered to a territorial defence strategy as its primary security policy. For just as long, it has regarded Russia as its main security threat. Today, when Russia is waging an unprovoked criminal war against Ukraine – in close geographical proximity to Finland – this fact of life remains entirely unchanged. But another question has acquired a new urgency: wouldn’t it be in Finland’s security interests to submit a NATO membership application?

Finland’s awareness of the possible Russian threat to the Finnish territory has informed its security policy as long as the Finnish state has existed. In fact, it is a key factor that explains why Finland maintained its traditional defence posture following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Sweden, Norway, and Denmark shifted their focus from territorial defence to crisis management and expeditionary operations – what has sometimes been called ‘troubleshoot security’ – Finland did participate and even took initiative, but it also preserved substantive conventional capabilities.

The post-Cold War relationship with NATO that Finland has developed also reflects these pragmatic territorial considerations. Although otherwise an active and committed EU member, Finland has not been pushing for improved CSDP or some other form of European ‘strategic autonomy’. Instead, it has preferred to work closely with NATO in defence matters. Already in 1994, Finland, alongside with Sweden, joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme (PfP). Finland also contributed to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996 and participated in the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo in 1999. Since 2014, Sweden and Finland belong to NATOs five ‘Enhanced Opportunities Partners’ alongside with Australia, Georgia, and Jordan: an insider group of countries that stand very close to NATO membership in practical terms.

But if Finland is keen to work with NATO, why hasn’t it before sought full NATO membership? To many observers and international partners, the Finnish ambivalence has been a source of perplexity and frustration.

The matter, of course, has been considered before. Finnish political attitudes over the issue of NATO membership have changed repeatedly in recent decades; usually in line with the general standing of the alliance, and the position of the United States in it. In the 1990s, when NATO had turned from a partisan Western alliance into a broad forum on security issues, the possibility of Finnish NATO membership was discussed fairly openly. However, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing US call to invoke Article 5 caused Finland to turn much more cautious. Since then, the various attempts that have been made to rekindle the NATO-debate have received mixed reactions. The voters have grown increasingly concerned that a decision to seek accession would provoke some type of a Russian counter-reaction. The opinions of political elites have been mixed, with e.g., the Conservative Party largely in favour of the idea, and the Social Democrats and the Centre Party against.

The Russian threat to the region acquired a new degree of seriousness in 2014 with Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea and invasion of the rest of Ukraine. Defence of national autonomy and territorial integrity became even more central to Finnish security policy. Over the following years, Finland significantly strengthened its defence capabilities and passed new laws allowing for more flexible use of its human and material resources. In 2014, together with Sweden, it signed a Host Nation agreement, granting NATO a discretionary permission to make use of Finnish territorial resources as needed. Interoperability of the Finnish defence forces with NATO had already been ensured through its participation in PfP.

Nevertheless, even while recognising the need to improve the credibility of territorial defence, both Finland and Sweden still retained their commitment to nonalignment, i.e., non-membership in NATO.

The problem was not that NATO would not have been welcoming. In fact, Finnish and Swedish membership has long been recognised as extremely helpful for NATO’s defence of the Baltic states, given the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy that Russia would likely employ in order to prevent reinforcements from reaching the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Defensive operations involving Finnish and Swedish military forces, territory, and territorial waters would enable NATO to defend the Baltic states therefore much more effectively. Finnish membership in NATO would also facilitate improved intelligence gathering given Finland’s extremely long land border with Russia.

In Finland, the main debate has been over timing. Political forces have been split between those wanting to apply for membership immediately (the Conservatives) and those who want to keep this option open for the future (most of the others). In late 2016, 64% of Finns agreed that there should be a referendum on NATO membership, 59% viewed cooperation with NATO as positive; but only 25% were in favour of seeking immediate membership. The previous coalition of centre, liberal and right-wing populist parties therefore kept the option of accession open but did not move further. Until February 2022, the same policy essentially continued under the current government.

Behind this Finnish ambivalence have stood two basic beliefs. The first is that Finland’s relationship with Russia it is somehow better managed in a less securitised environment, i.e., outside of NATO. This is a legacy of decades of Finlandisation, which meant near-constant Soviet interference in Finnish foreign policy. Even though Finland gave up its neutral status after the fall of the Soviet Union, its Cold War-era experience left Finland with a type of post-Soviet identity that can be usefully compared to that of the Baltic states. During the Cold War, Finnish foreign and defence policy elites had come to believe that they know Russia well and are to some extent able to contain it; a belief that continued even after 1991. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania similarly believe they know Russia, but their containment strategy has been radically different: informed not by Cold War neutrality, but by the realities of the Soviet occupation. For them, NATO membership was the only possible way forward.

The second characteristic Finnish belief is that Finland would be able to join NATO very quickly in case this proved to be absolutely necessary. Some commentators have been doubtful, but NATO’s responses to the recent feelers that Finland has put out do indicate that this view is most likely correct.

In this connection, it is worth briefly pointing out that in Sweden, there is a rather different dynamic at play. Swedish parties are split on the issue of NATO membership as such – not whether it is currently expedient to seek it – with the right-wing parties traditionally in favour of the idea and left-wing parties firmly against joining NATO on ideological grounds. This reflects historical differences in Swedish and Finnish foreign policy development: whereas Finns tend to think more geostrategically, Swedes are still predominantly ‘value’-based non-aligners. Out of the two Nordic neutrals, Finland is therefore likely to be the prime mover, because it has a more transactional view of membership.

By now, Finland’s NATO membership application before the summer seems almost a done deal. The Finnish public opinion has responded to the further escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine with a marked pro-NATO shift According to the latest polls, 62% of Finns are now in favour of joining the alliance and only 20% are against. At the time of writing, the Finnish government is preparing a white paper on security, which will be submitted for parliamentary debate later this month.

Some debate is still certainly needed on the question of what Finland would gain, and what it would risk. The prospect that it may need to defend the Baltic states against a possible Russian invasion remains a controversial one for many Finnish voters. At the same time, it is doubtful that the Nordic neutrals would be able to remain outside of a military conflict in the Baltic Sea region, NATO members or not. If Russia launched a large-scale operation in the Baltic theatre, it would probably attempt to take control of the Swedish island of Gotland, and possibly also the Finnish Åland Islands. Furthermore, Russia is perfectly aware of how closely aligned with NATO Finland and Sweden already are. Their non-membership would not necessarily entail any significant benefits in terms of being able to stay aloof from the war. And even if such an option was available, it would come with significant moral and security costs.

In the event of a broader war in the region, Finnish and Swedish non-membership in NATO would more likely than not to turn out to be a liability, because it has left these two states without explicit security guarantees. The increasingly loud Russian threats that the two Nordics would face ‘consequences’ if they decided to seek accession only prove that Russia sees the status quo as being in its security interests. But these Russian threats are not necessarily credible: its army is currently bogged down in Ukraine, and it has few other instruments that would enable it to force the hand of sovereign states seeking to defend their legitimate security interests. And many Finns are now saying to themselves: if we were going to join when it is absolutely necessary, then the time of absolute necessity has now arrived.