A Strategic Win-Win
Finland and Sweden joining NATO will strengthen the position of the countries, as well as the transatlantic alliance and European security.
On May 18, 2022, Finland and Sweden submitted their official letters of application to join NATO to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This event marked a complete failure of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy vis-à-vis the transatlantic alliance. Putin’s aim has been to weaken NATO; instead, it will be significantly strengthened. His objective has been to make NATO militarily withdraw from Central and Eastern Europe; now, it is even extending to the whole of Northern Europe. His intention has been constantly to destabilize NATO; now, it is consolidating further.
For many years, both Finland and Sweden were pursuing a policy of military non-alignment in the belief that this would serve their security best. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, a sovereign, democratic, and peaceful neighbor, has now caused both countries to seek security inside NATO rather than outside, where NATO’s Article 5 collective defense guarantee does not apply.
This historic move is another proof of the validity of NATO’s Open Door policy: It is these two sovereign countries that have decided to join the alliance on their own accord and are making use of their right enshrined in the 1990 Charta of Paris for a New Europe to choose their own security arrangements. They once more put the lie to Putin’s and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s false assertions by showing that NATO membership is not imposed on any nation. And that NATO does not enlarge in order to threaten Russia. Rather, Finland and Sweden are seeking shelter from a potential Russian aggression that can no longer be discounted in light of Putin’s assault on Ukraine and his strategic goals.
Putin has torn apart the Euro-Atlantic security order that had emerged since 1990. As a consequence, NATO is further substantially strengthening its deterrence and defense posture. Finland and Sweden’s membership will add a qualitatively new element to that—by furthering the political and military coherence of the Nordic-Baltic region and contributing a broad spectrum of advanced, multi-domain military capabilities.
Both countries are longstanding NATO partners that have exercised and cooperated with NATO forces and applied NATO standards. Since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and supported the separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s Donbass region, they have become NATO’s closest partners. There was hardly a meeting of NATO’s foreign and defense ministers without a session in the so-called NATO-plus-two format, where the allies and their Nordic partners consulted on Russia’s strategy and coordinated their responses. In sum, there has already been a high level of common understanding on the security challenges posed to NATO in the Nordic-Baltic region, which will now be fully brought to bear.
Once Finland and Sweden join NATO, the whole Nordic-Baltic region, seen from a geostrategic angle, will become a coherent operational theater that will to a large extent be under NATO’s control. With the exception of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the Saint Petersburg area, all Baltic Sea littoral states will be NATO allies. The Baltic Sea will effectively become a NATO mare nostrum. This will lead to increased mutual information and intelligence sharing, joint planning, effective coordination of military activities, and preparation of collective defense. All of this should result in a joint strategic vision of security for the whole Nordic-Baltic region, with Finland and Sweden becoming key security providers.
Both Sweden and Finland bring more financial and military assets to the table than many of the allies that acceded NATO in previous rounds of enlargement. Both have modern ground, air, and naval forces and capabilities, and vibrant defense industrial bases. While participating in quite a number of NATO and EU crisis response missions, both countries have, contrary to most other European states, continued to focus on territorial defense even after the end of the Cold War.
Both countries have modern ground, maritime, and air forces and air defense systems. Sweden’s navy comprises, inter alia, a large number of stealth corvettes for coastal defense, sub-marines, and logistic support ships. Some capabilities could supplement NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 1 that patrols in the North Atlantic, North Sea, and Baltic Sea, thus ensuring continuous maritime awareness in that large area. Finland, for its part, shares a 1,340-kilometer-long border with Russia and has always focused on preparing defense against Russia. It is based on mechanized ground forces and one of the largest artilleries in Europe.
Finland also excels in comprehensive intelligence and analysis of Russia, advanced cyber-defense capabilities, as well as procuring the most modern F-35 combat aircraft. While Sweden relaunched conscription in 2017, Finland has maintained it all the time. As a consequence, Finland is able to mobilize reserves of up to 280,000 troops, and in the case of an emergency up to some 900,000. Finland also hosts the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which offers special expertise to NATO allies and EU member states on how to improve resilience against Russia’s hybrid warfare.
As a result, NATO’s conventional defense and deterrence by denial capabilities in the Nordic-Baltic region will considerably increase, which in turn will also greatly benefit Finland and Sweden’s security. Finland could become the stronghold of conventional defense of the northeastern part of NATO’s territory, while Sweden will play a key role in attaining sea control by NATO in crisis and conflict, with Gotland as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Together with the Finnish and German navy, it is able to confront Russia’s Baltic fleet and its Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capability in Kaliningrad with a significant risk.
Hence, both new members will contribute to facilitating the reinforcement of, and bringing in supplies for, the Baltic states by sea and air. The defense of the Baltic region, which otherwise is only connected to NATO territory by land through the narrow Suwałki corridor, will thus get the necessary strategic depth. Hence, Finland and Sweden’s accession will lead to greater NATO air and maritime presence in the Baltic, and Finland will be able to effectively contribute to air defense of the Baltic region.
NATO’s Center of Gravity Shifting?
Sweden and Finland’s accession will likely have implications that go beyond the Nordic-Baltic region proper. It will also connect NATO with the High North. The effect of global warming will likely open up access to natural resources believed to lie below the seabed, as well as an all-year northern sea passage between East Asia and Europe. As a consequence, there is a growing risk that the High North will soon become a contested region between Russia, China (as a self-declared “Near-Arctic State”), and the West.
Russia has been increasing its military presence in the region and expanding its “bastion defense” away down to the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic. This has significant implications for NATO’s security, including for the defense of (northern) Norway that is dependent on reinforcement by sea, especially from America, but will in future also be connected to reinforcement by land and air via Sweden and Finland.
Against this background, Sweden and Finland will join Norway in seeking to draw NATO’s strategic attention to the High North and use their political and military leverage to ensure that the Arctic will become a subject of regular consultation and operational planning leading to enhanced maritime and aerial presence. As this could imply that NATO’s focus shifts further to the north, care must be taken to ensure that NATO maintains its so-called 360-degree approach to security that is vital for the cohesion and solidarity of the alliance in its entirety. Collective defense applies to all allies and is directed against all threats from all directions. Sweden and Finland would be well-advised to actively contribute to the relevant planning, exercises, and missions, if needed.
Germany, in turn, as a key European ally located at the center of Europe is nowadays focusing on defense and the reinforcement of its Eastern allies with ground forces. As a Baltic Sea littoral state, however, it will also have to fully engage in joint planning and exercises for, and preparation of, collective defense of the entire Nordic-Baltic region on the ground, at sea, and in the air. It might even be asked to assume the function of, and provide for, a Maritime Component Command in charge of the Baltic Sea, contingent on future NATO planning.
Enhancing European Strategic Responsibility
In light of Russia’s aggression, the United States has significantly enhanced its military presence in Europe. It still provides the majority of the strategic enabling capabilities NATO needs. But for the US, it is China that is the most challenging opponent, a full-spectrum strategic rival. The US is thus shifting its strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific and will designate military forces accordingly.
The Europeans must therefore take on their full share when it comes to ensuring Europe’s security. They must afford a much larger portion of full-spectrum, interoperable high-end forces and capabilities, including major multinational units, for deterrence and defense against Russia, military crisis management in the south, and assisting the US in protecting freedom of navigation. It is against this background that Germany took the decision to launch a fund of €100 billion for the German Armed Forces to attain full combat readiness as well as to ensure the continuous fulfilment of its NATO Capability Targets, which is vital for NATO’s effectiveness. Equally, Finland and Sweden’s militaries will contribute greatly to strengthening the European pillar of NATO.
European allies’ forces and capabilities also essentially generate the EU’s military ability to act on its own. With Finland and Sweden’s accession, the number of nations that are members of both organizations is increasing to 23. They all have only one set of forces and capabilities to be used for the whole mission spectrum, i.e., low-end peacekeeping and high-end defense alike. Relevant NATO and EU staffs should therefore systematically work together to ensure that capability development in both organizations is complementary, resulting in coherent force requirements. And the EU should also use its means such as the European Defense Fund to contribute to developing the technologically-advanced capabilities required to protect Europe, such as air and missile defense and long-range precision strike weapons. Finland and Sweden should actively advocate such an approach.
NATO’s new Strategic Concept, to be approved by the Heads of State and Government at their meeting in Madrid at the end of June, leads the way for NATO’s adaptation to a fundamentally changed security environment on a regional and global scale up to 2030 and beyond. The alliance is now working to implement its comprehensive strategic plan for deterrence and defense across NATO’s whole area of responsibility. Finland and Sweden will now be incorporated into that planning. It remains to be seen what exactly that entails in terms of potentially establishing NATO forces and military infrastructure on the territory of these allies-to-be. As things stand, the credibility of NATO’s strategy does not require the deployment of nuclear weapons there.
Moscow’s response to Sweden’s and Finland’s decision to join NATO has been mixed—ranging from announcing “retaliatory steps” to be taken, e.g., by stationing additional forces or (dual-capable) Iskander missiles in the Baltic region, to Putin’s comments that have so far been relatively muted (“no threat”). It is doubtful, in view of the high costs involved in the war against Ukraine, whether Russia can afford any additional deployments in the Baltic region, especially since they would not have any bearing on the effectiveness of NATO’s strategy.
The biggest challenge posed to NATO currently is convincing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to agree to Finland’s and Sweden’s accession. He has contended that they harbor members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that the EU, the US and others consider a terrorist organization. Both Sweden and Finland have rejected this claim. The majority of the Turkish populations supports Erdogan’s policy of weakening and fighting the PKK, wherever possible. But by upholding his veto, Erdogan himself would do great harm to Turkey, as it is increasingly exposed to pressure from Russia in the Black Sea region and beyond and needs NATO’s and the United States’ support.
Heinrich Brauss is a retired lieutenant general in the German Armed Forces. He was NATO Assistant Secretary General for Defense Policy and Planning from October 2013 to July 2018.