Finland and Sweden Inch Closer to NATO
It's because of growing — and mutual — distrust of Russia
For months, Scandinavian countries have accused Russian military planes and ships of slipping into their waters without permission. It’s made many Nordic governments wary of the Kremlin’s intentions in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean.
Russia’s assertive behavior is driving Sweden and Finland — two countries that have never been part of NATO — closer to the alliance. At present, Norway, Denmark and Iceland make up NATO’s Nordic members.
According to Anna Wieslander at the Atlantic Council:
Denmark has played a key role, with some support from the United Kingdom, putting Baltic Sea security and the perspective of relevant partners on NATO’s agenda. This may seem surprising given the fact that Denmark has traditionally not been among the prime movers in Nordic military cooperation. However the situation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has caused Denmark to feel the need to connect Sweden and Finland more closely with NATO so as to reinforce security in the region, according to Danish foreign minister Martin Lidegaard.
Denmark has risen to particular prominence. Danish troops fought alongside British troops against the Taliban in Helmand province during some of Afghanistan war’s fiercest battles.
Danish troops patrolled towns in southern Iraq under British command for several years, and Denmark was among the first countries to join the anti-Islamic State coalition in August 2014.
During the Cold War, Sweden and Finland were both ostensibly neutral countries. Sweden built up its own domestic weapons industry with a particular emphasis on warplanes — culminating in the advanced, multi-role JAS 39 Gripen fighter.
While not a NATO member, Swedish weapons firms did business with NATO countries.
Finland, though not a member of the Warsaw Pact, was nonetheless subject to Soviet influence. The Soviet military occupied the strategic Porkkala peninsula until 1956, and Finland became economically dependent on its large and powerful neighbor. The Finnish military received tanks, artillery and small arms from Moscow, much of which is still in service.
Since the end of the Cold War, Sweden and Finland have sought closer ties with western European countries and both have joined the European Union. In the early 1990s, Sweden participated with Denmark and Norway in Balkans peacekeeping missions. All Scandinavian countries have contributed troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Recently, a hunt for an alleged Russian submarine in October 2014 off the coast of Sweden raised tensions — in no small part due to Russia’s aggressive stance in Ukraine. The Swedes did eventually find a Russian sub in July 2015, but that one turned out to be a century-old Tsarist vessel.
Nevertheless, tensions have hardly cooled, and some NATO members are frustrated with Sweden and Finland. Should the alliance come to the defense of non-NATO states? How far should NATO members should go to accommodate countries that aren’t even part of the alliance?
There were doubts, for instance among the Baltic states, to whether this would actually strengthen NATO. Was there not rather a risk that it would blur the distinction between members and non-members, thus undermining the collective defense commitment? Would it not simply be better for Baltic Sea security if Sweden and Finland joined the alliance?
So NATO had to settle for closer cooperation with Sweden and Finland within the partnership framework, while giving it a new – closer to home – content. Not to deepen collaboration at all appeared as a worse option, given the new normal.
Now with Russia actively involved in the Syrian civil war and beefing up its Arctic military presence, Finland and Sweden are likely to become closer with NATO with each passing day, even if they’re not willing to join.