Swedish security policy traditions and the question of NATO membership

Written by me

Sweden holds the distinction of being the country that has longer than any other – ever since the Napoleonic wars, in fact – stood outside of international military conflicts. This experience of two centuries of peacefulness has conditioned Sweden’s foreign and defence policy in important ways that merit closer attention. This is true not least today when Russia is fighting its criminal war against Ukraine.

As one consequence of this war, Swedish foreign and defence policy has come under new scrutiny both in Sweden and elsewhere. Since late February, it has become an increasingly contested whether peacetime non-alignment (alliansfrihet) would indeed guarantee Sweden a freedom of choice between neutrality and belligerency (handlingsfrihet) in times of war. Rather, recent opinion polls tell us that the majority of Swedish voters already believe the country’s security would in fact be better served by outright membership in NATO. Furthermore, Sweden is not alone. Neighbouring Finland has moved very close to submitting its own membership application, and Sweden is likely to follow.

To understand Sweden’s approach to its security, it would be helpful to delve deep into its history going as far back as the 17th century. But if we don’t have the patience for that, it is helpful to revisit at least the Cold War period.

The collapse of its Scandinavian Defence Union initiative in 1949 left Sweden alone in the region to pursue a traditional neutrality course, just as it had done already since the 19th century. This policy meant military nonalignment in peacetime, with a view to remaining neutral in the event of war. It was furthermore supported by a relatively strong army for ‘neutrality defence’ and a domestic armaments industry. Sweden even had a nuclear weapons programme. However, in the mid-1970s, as the growth of Swedish economy was slowing down, its defence expenditure began to decline.

The USSR took note of this, and a series of Soviet submarine incidents followed in the Swedish territorial waters in the early to mid-1980s. The most dramatic of these occurred when a Soviet submarine ran aground near the Karlskrona naval base in south-east Sweden. Since the type of submarine was called ‘Whiskey’ in NATO parlance, the incident became known as ‘Whiskey on the Rocks.’ However, although the USSR showed clearly that Sweden was quite exposed and vulnerable to Soviet aggression, there was no fundamental revision of Sweden’s neutrality policy.

At the same time, although Sweden officially pursued a policy of unswerving nonalignment, it also undertook covert preparations for military cooperation with NATO in the event of an attack from the Soviet Union. Although not all the details are known, this secret cooperation was ongoing already in the early 1950s. Indeed, it seems that NATO was willing to defend Sweden even with nuclear weapons, if necessary, since Sweden was strategically important for the defence of Norway and the northern Atlantic.

Sweden’s two-faced attitude to its security in the Cold War era has sometimes been associated with the theory of ‘small-state realism’: the idea that deep down, small states cannot really afford to be idealistic about their security policy, because, in the end, they rely on stronger powers to protect them.

However, this does not mean that it was conscious policy choice officially adopted by the Swedish leadership. Instead, it has recently been suggested by Matti Roitto and Antero Holmila that Swedish security policy in this period could be described as ‘liquid neutrality’: a flexible and pragmatic set of policies that were adopted or changed to meet the obstacles that happened to arise, and to exploit the ‘cracks along the fault lines of superpower competition.’ This opportunistic stance was facilitated by the fact that the Swedish public – as most voters – neither understood well nor was particularly interested in foreign policy, so important changes could happen unnoticed.

The first significant turning point in Swedish security policy after 1949 occurred at the end of the Cold War. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the bipolar world system more generally meant significant changes in the security landscape for all the states in the region, and Sweden was no exception. The decline of traditional security concerns about the USSR seemed to open new and exciting perspectives to rethink Sweden’s approach to its foreign and defence policy.

Both Finland and Sweden continued to define their security position in the early 1990s as one of ‘military nonalignment and a credible national defence’, but they also sought a relationship with NATO through membership in the Partnership for Peace programme. This was possible because the end of Cold War-era bipolarity also led to a change in the role of NATO and the EU as ‘security providers.’ Especially NATO acquired a new function in the Nordic security landscape. Now, rather than purely an article 5-based collective defence organisation, it turned into something more like a cross-national forum for dialogue on security matters. In the post-Cold War world, the ability to access such networks was an important asset that Sweden could not afford to forgo, even if its closeness to NATO undermined its rhetoric of non-alignment.

To compensate for their decision to still not seek membership in NATO, both Sweden and Finland turned into semi-independent security innovators in the 1990s. As new EU members, the two made an innovative joint proposal in 1996 for strengthening the Union’s crisis management capability and subsequently participated extensively in crisis management initiatives under both EU and NATO flags, using both military and non-military instruments. In 2008, a Nordic battle group was launched with Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Estonian, and Irish troops. The tasks of this and similar units was to provide humanitarian support, search, rescue, and evacuation duties.

The question of joining NATO outright did come up in Sweden. In 2003, the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and the former Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Elleman-Jensen issued a joint statement arguing that Finland and Sweden should join NATO or risk losing their influence in the discussion of European security. Nevertheless, the idea remained an anathema for the Swedish Social Democrats, the party that over the course of the Cold War had become heavily invested in the non-alignment policy. Rather than a form of calculated security policy, the Swedish left’s attachment to non-alignment can be best described as a form of identity politics, with NATO widely seen as incompatible with Swedish foreign policy traditions and ‘third way’ ethos.

In 2004, a new defence bill by the Swedish Social Democratic minority government stated that Sweden no longer perceived any serious threats to its national territory. Consequently, one third of Swedish military forces were disbanded, the size of defence staff reduced by one quarter and the number of submarines and fighter aircraft substantially cut. This effectively marked the end of the Cold War policy of armed neutrality. Instead, Sweden profiled itself by developing a small, highly trained rapid reaction force for crisis management purposes.

But even so, Swedish non-alignment came to be increasingly watered down over the years. As for other non- NATO member states like Finland (but also Austria and Ireland), the EU ‘solidarity clause’, as introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, raised questions about whether the security policies of these member states could be perceived as non-aligned anymore. Moreover, despite its continued official status as non-aligned, Sweden continued to take part in NATO exercises and operations and used NATO standards in its force transformation and capability development programmes, resulting in a high level of interoperability.

In October 2013 (five years after Finland), Sweden joined the NATO Rapid Response Force, contributing a ‘fighter unit’ deployable under NATO command within 90 days, mainly providing Swedish Air Force fighter aircraft for NATO operations. From 2016, Sweden (and Finland) also provide Host Nation Support to NATO forces through the provision of logistical and operational support sites, essentially allowing allied forces to be stationed on their territory, including in times of peace.

The question of NATO membership also became increasingly debated in the mid-2010s, as Russia’s aggressive behaviour increasingly highlighted Sweden’s limited territorial defence capability. Embarrassingly, in 2013, the Russian air force undertook an attack exercise in international airspace near the island of Gotland and the Swedish air force was not able to respond.

More decisively, public opinion on the matter shifted under the impression of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, showing a somewhat stronger degree of support for Swedish membership in NATO: 48 per cent in favour, compared to an average of 35 per cent in comparable surveys between 2007 and 2013.

After the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and repeated Russian threat, as well as violations of Swedish airspace by Russian planes, the support for joining NATO had risen to 60% by early April. At present, the incumbent Social Democratic government is undertaking consultations to reconsider its stance on the issue, but with the Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson having signalled her support for membership, the outcome of these consultations is not in doubt.

To summarise, it is fair to say that even before February 2022, Sweden had moved rather close to embracing the idea of NATO membership. Nevertheless, it was held back primarily by domestic left-wing opinion and the Social Democratic party, large sections of which have by now rethought their position. After decades of cuts to defence spending, there have already been many examples of Sweden’s renewed commitment to territorial security and military deterrence. Now, when Finnish and Swedish NATO membership applications are all but certain, the two Nordics are about to deal a significant symbolic and strategic blow to Russia and become full participants in regional and European security.

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.

Finnish security policy traditions and the question of NATO membership

Written by me

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.