Jul 06, 2023

No More Gray Areas

Like Germany, Finland and Sweden are going through security policy “turning points.” Like Berlin, Stockholm is playing catch-up on defense, whereas Helsinki has long been regarded as a model for an integrated security approach.

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine prompted a swift and determined response in Northern Europe. Less than three months after the Russian invasion, Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership. The two Nordic countries have been close partners of the Atlantic alliance for decades already, and their militarily capability makes them welcome new members. Nonetheless, the moment marks the end of Sweden’s 200-year history of military non-alignment. Finland had also long stayed outside of NATO, although it did so more for the practical purpose of maintaining good relations with its Russian neighbor than for ideological reasons.

At first glance, the entry of Finland and Sweden—once the hurdle of Turkey’s approval of its membership is overcome—into NATO appears to be one of the biggest unintended consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine. But Russian President Vladimir Putin should have been quite aware that an unprovoked attack against another neighbor would at least prompt Finland to go for the “NATO option.” This had long been an important part of Finnish security policy, meaning that Helsinki reserved the right to reconsider its non-alignment if its overall security situation changed. This is precisely what happened with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Reaction inside the country was unequivocal. Finnish public opinion shifted almost overnight, with support for NATO membership leaping from around 25 percent to 53 percent. By May 2022, when Finland submitted its membership application, it had climbed further to 76 percent in favor of membership.

Finland’s political leadership had to move fast to keep up with the determined public opinion. Before Moscow’s war of aggression, only two political parties in Finland were in favor of joining NATO. No fewer than four of the five governing parties had to quickly adapt their positions to the new situation.

Sweden, for its part, was surprised by the speed of Finland’s transformation. It was not easy for the Social Democratic government in Stockholm to break with the country’s long-standing doctrine of non-alignment. But ultimately, Sweden concluded that there was no other way than to join with Finland in the bid for NATO membership. The decision was made after a thorough consideration of all the options, including an even-closer Finnish-Swedish defense union, which was initially seriously considered as an alternative.

New Momentum

Finland and Sweden are each other’s most important partners, and the joint NATO process has brought them even closer together. Although the two Nordic neighbors sought to become NATO members “hand in hand,” the wish did not materialize. Turkey has persistently blocked Sweden’s bid, with accusations that Stockholm supports Kurdish terrorists.

Although Finland ended up finalizing its accession process without Sweden, and became the 31st member of the alliance on April 4, 2023, this has not caused a break in Finnish-Swedish relations. The respective NATO processes have been very tightly coordinated on a daily basis, and at all political levels. Finland’s entry into the alliance is seen as a positive development for regional security in Sweden. Conversely, Finland’s top priority is now for Sweden to join as soon as possible: Helsinki’s first official act as a NATO member, some 15 seconds after completing its own accession, was to ratify Sweden’s membership.

Beyond the Finnish-Swedish bilateral relationship, the Nordic countries —Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—have further consolidated as a group. This momentum has been spurred by the Finnish-Swedish NATO accession process, and by the strong support for Ukraine from all Nordic countries. On defense, the five countries had already been working together since 2009 within the NORDEFCO (Nordic Defense Cooperation) framework, but the prospect of NATO membership for Finland and Sweden has opened up new opportunities. The recent declaration of intent by the four Nordic air forces (Iceland has no armed forces) to operationally integrate their fleets created a total force of around 250 fighter aircraft. In the far north, Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian air forces have already been conducting joint training exercises on an almost weekly basis for some 15 years.

Nordic cooperation also plays an important role in providing support for Ukraine. Finland and Sweden, for example, have used their close bilateral defense cooperation for the purpose of supporting Ukraine militarily. In January 2023, the countries signed a declaration of intent enabling Finland to be rapidly resupplied by Sweden, allowing Helsinki to continue to support Ukraine without endangering its own defense capacity. In May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began an extended trip to Europe in the Finnish capital, where his visit coincided with a Nordic summit. His visit underlined the fact that the Nordic countries are increasingly perceived as a coherent, closely coordinated group.

High-Level Interoperability

Finland’s accession process took less than a year, the fastest in NATO’s history. Had it not been for Turkish opposition, both Finland and Sweden could have been full NATO members as early as October 2022. Other NATO members ratified the accession at record speed: By the end of September, only Turkey and Hungary had failed to do so. The speed of the process was helped along by Finland and Sweden’s high level of compatibility with NATO’s political norms and military standards. In the usual procedure, a “Membership Action Plan” (MAP) is drawn up for candidate countries, allowing them to gradually adopt NATO standards. But Finland and Sweden had in effect already gone through a very similar process, thanks to decades of close cooperation with NATO, including the strong prioritization of interoperability in defense procurement. Prior to their membership bids, both countries were already closely cooperating with the United States on a bilateral and trilateral basis: This was another factor making integration easier and faster.

In military terms, accession will change little for Finland and Sweden. Even during the ratification process, the Finnish and Swedish armed forces have continued to exercise with NATO countries, with a view to boosting interoperability. After submitting its application on May 18, Finland added a total of 27 new or modified military exercises for the remainder of 2023. In April 2023, Sweden held its largest international exercise in 30 years. The purpose of this exercise was for Sweden to practice hosting forces from its prospective allies, who in turn practiced defending Sweden.

For both Finland and Sweden, however, the change from national to collective defense demands a major change in mindset. Thinking national defense within the framework of NATO’s collective defense is a standard procedure for Germany’s armed forces, but for Finland it marks a real revolution in defense thinking. The Finns were prepared for a potential attack by Russia even after the end of the Cold War, and maintained a strong defensive capacity. Even in the optimistic early 2000s, Finnish government reports on foreign, security, and defense policy never entirely ruled out the possibility of a Russian attack.

After 80 years of focusing on one’s own national defense, it is a significant change to start thinking of national security in terms of an entire alliance. As for Sweden, it greatly reduced its defense forces after the Cold War, and increasing the number of troops is now a medium-term challenge.

The Return of History

Finland’s defense expenditure is already in line with NATO’s 2-percent spending target. Sweden has some catching up to do: It aims to reach the 2-percent mark by 2026. In many respects, Sweden and Germany went through a comparable development on defense policy. Both interpreted the end of the Cold War to mean the “end of history,” reducing their defense capabilities accordingly.

For Sweden, the wake-up call came in 2013, when Russian fighter jets rehearsed an attack on Swedish territory. The Russian aircraft had to be intercepted by the Danish air force, which was on NATO’s Baltic Air Policing duty at the time, as all Swedish pilots were on Easter vacation. NATO’s investigation into the incident later determined that it had been a simulated nuclear attack. The following year, Russia’s annexation of Crimea added to the Swedish realization that military capabilities had not become obsolete after all. In response, Sweden re-deployed its Gotland Regiment to the Baltic island of the same name, which had been demilitarized in the wake of the Cold War.

Stockholm also reintroduced partial conscription, which had been abolished in 2010. Finland still maintains full military conscription for male citizens, giving it a wartime troop strength of 280,000, with a total reserve force of 870,000.

Sweden faces similar challenges as Germany, but has a head-start of almost 10 years in terms of its own “historical turning point.” Swedish political parties agree that they all got security policy wrong, which reduces mutual recrimination and solidifies the consensus around the need for rebuilding the armed forces. Like Germany, Sweden’s foreign policy has traditionally emphasized peacebuilding as a normative goal. Nevertheless, the need for a greater military capability is well understood. In many respects, Sweden is an ideal partner for Germany, now that Germany is navigating similar issues. Finland’s whole-of-society approach to national security (“comprehensive security”) could serve Germany as a model for the implementation of its own integrated security approach as introduced in the new National Security Strategy.

Learning from Mistakes

Russia's brutal war of aggression represents a clear rejection of the post-Cold War European security order. Finland and Sweden’s NATO applications—as a response to Moscow’s aggression—underline that the era of gray areas is over. Russia is forcing its neighbors to choose a side, and if it doesn’t like the decision, it will try to force another.

At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Ukraine—along with Georgia—was offered the prospect of joining NATO in principle, but no concrete “Membership Action Plan.” The reason was that some Western European member states, led by Germany and France, did not regard the two countries as ready for membership and did not want to upset relations with Moscow. Russia’s invasion of Georgia less than six months later, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022 demonstrate that such concessions were in vain.

Ukraine’s NATO membership will be back on the agenda at the alliance’s annual summit, this year to be held in Vilnius. There are two reasons why Ukraine should receive a concrete path to membership this time. First, because of Russia’s nuclear threats, Ukraine will need nuclear-backed security guarantees. It seems unlikely that the United States or the European nuclear powers would want to offer that kind of guarantees on a bilateral basis. Second, NATO membership is the standard security guarantee in Europe. As long as Ukraine is not part of that framework, it sends a political signal to the Kremlin that Ukraine is a special case, with different rules.

By now, it is very clear that Russia will interpret this as a green light to assert its self-proclaimed sphere of interest.   

Minna Ålander is a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki.

The German version of this article appeared in INTERNATIONALE POLITIK SPECIAL “Reden mit der Republik.”