Stronger Against Russia
Finland and Sweden joining NATO will strengthen the alliance—and give a boost to the inner-NATO partnership of Northern and Eastern European members. Unlike many in Western Europe, the newcomers fully share Poland and the Baltic states’ threat perception of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats against Finland should it join NATO, a Finnish general pointed out, “You are most welcome here to join the 200,000 Russians that are already in Finland buried a few meters in the ground after your last attempt in 1939.”
The Winter War of the late 1930s, although it ended with the detachment of some territory from Finland, humiliated the Stalinist empire. The above reaction, quoted by US Admiral James Stavridis, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, shows that Finland’s attitude toward Russia is backed by military preparedness and combat readiness. Sweden’s experience with Russia is much older, but they are still reminded of it today. The building of the Russian empire really starting with Czar Peter I’s victory over the Swedes at Poltava in 1709. In terms of morale and military ability, the Swedes could provide the Russians with no less difficult conditions than the Finns.
It has been a long time since NATO has undergone such a sweeping transformation as it is currently, thanks to the accession of Sweden and Finland, who will give no less to the alliance than the alliance itself will give to Sweden and Finland. This move is of particular importance for Eastern European NATO members, hitherto mostly alone in their assessment of the Russian threat, as the war in Ukraine has proven. Both the Nordic and Eastern European regions are natural supporters of each other as they are stretched along the border with Russia (and its ally Belarus—a de facto Russian-occupied country whose people oppose the ruling dictator, Alexander Lukashenko).
Types of NATO Membership
Looking into the consequences of Sweden and Finland joining NATO, there are two things to keep in mind. In spite of appearances, membership of NATO is gradual. It’s perfectly possible to be a full member according to Article 5, the collective defense clause, but not have permanent NATO bases on one’s territory. This is the case with Poland and other post-communist countries as a result of the 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia, which made these countries second-class members. Hence the bizarre permanent rotational presence (“enhanced Forward Presence,” or eFP) formula that the alliance introduced after the Russian assault on Ukraine in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. The soldiers rotate every six months. Their equipment is there, but there are no bases, no families, no civilian infrastructure, such as in Ramstein, Germany.
Full membership would mean being able to have permanent NATO bases. Poland and the Baltic states hope to establish them. However, the June NATO summit in Madrid skipped this issue, a fact that was viewed with some disappointment. Another variant of membership can be called the “premium” version, i.e., the possibility of having NATO nuclear weapons on its territory. Poland would certainly consider such an option. In contrast, the Swedes have made it clear that they do not want permanent NATO forces stationed in their country, including the deployment of nuclear weapons. Finland has not formulated any restrictions, but neither of these options has come up in discussions.
The Promises of Article 5
So, if Finland and Sweden are already perfectly armed, very closely linked, and fully compatible with NATO troops, what is this decision really about? The decisive element here is NATO’s Article 5, which, as it happens, reads remarkably vague:
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all of them, and consequently agree that if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, shall assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking promptly, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
This passage became such a long-winded provision in order to make the treaty as precise as possible on this most important issue. But it isn’t, really. Article 5 obliges NATO allies to “assist” Sweden or Finland if either were attacked by Russia, for example. But Article 5 says nothing about declaring war, attacking the aggressor, or sending troops to help the attacked country. It might as well be just sending weapons, or maybe only just a special commission that will spend two weeks studying the situation on the ground to make sure what is really going on. Article 5 has been further diluted by the fact that we live in an age of hybrid wars, of cyber-attacks crippling critical infrastructure, of “green men” (Putin’s original occupation force in Crimea that did not wear military insignia), and various versions of sabotage (and whatever else Russia might come up with in the future). The classic definitions of war or armed attack do not necessarily apply any longer.
Nor does Article 5 say how quickly such a response would take place. In the United States, the most important NATO country, according to Article 1, Section 8 of the American constitution, the decision to declare war is made not by the president, but by Congress, so it must take time. Congress may be controlled by a different party than that of the president. Perhaps that’s why the US rarely declares wars, although it does wage them quite often. It has happened only 12 times in history and the last time it did so was in 1942, when war was declared against Adolf Hitler’s allies Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. Since then, the US has used military force without a declaration of war. In that sense, it is not only Russia that conducts “special military operations” instead of wars.
Under the Nuclear Umbrella
Nevertheless, for Finland and Sweden the symbolic power of Article 5 doesn’t seem to be unclear, but nuclear. When a vote was called in Finland’s parliament, 188 out of 200 MPs supported the country’s accession to NATO, recognizing that only Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty would ensure Finland’s security and territorial integrity. According to polls, almost 80 percent of the Finns today hold this view. Such massive support has had a huge impact on neighboring Sweden. As recently as March of this year, already after the Russian attack on Ukraine, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson ruled out Swedish membership of NATO. Then the breakthrough in Finland raised concerns that Sweden would remain alone as the only non-alliance member in the Baltic region (other than Russia).
Stockholm and Helsinki care primarily about NATO’s security guarantees. Their own armies remain small in number and defensive in nature. There are 24,000 people actively serving in Sweden’s armed forces. Another 11,500 are part-time military (putting on a uniform for military exercises and operations). Sweden also has the Hemvärnet, a 20,000-strong home guard. In 2018, the Swedish government reinstated conscription. Finland’s army numbers 31,500 soldiers, but has impressive reserves. “On short notice” Finland's generals can mobilize 280,000 well-trained reservists. The entire available population of ex-soldiers of mobilization age is now 900,000.
Swedish strong points include the third largest navy in the Baltic Sea (after the German and Russian ones). In addition, the Swedish skies are guarded by nearly 100 excellent Gripen aircraft. Finland has 60 American F/A-18 fighters, which are already scheduled for replacement (in 2025). Helsinki has decided to replace the F-18s with fifth-generation F-35A aircraft. The €8.4 billion order is for the purchase of 64 aircraft. Furthermore, Finland is also to receive JASSM-ER cruise missiles, capable of striking targets at distances of up to 1,000 kilometers. By the way, Helsinki to Moscow in a straight line is about 900 kilometers (all the military data is according to Polish military expert Marcin Ogdowski).
Since the main reason for the fundamental change in the foreign policy undertaken by our northern neighbors is Russia, the Eastern European states are likely to become Stockholm’s and Helsinki’s natural partners in NATO. All three “blocs” (Sweden and Finland; the three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania) are facing multidimensional integration and coordination of defense policies.
Especially Poland, Sweden, and Finland are natural partners for each other—and largely complementary. This has already been reflected in the Eastern Partnership project, jointly initiated within the EU by Poland and Sweden, by the then respective foreign ministers Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski. The project was aimed precisely at countries that today constitute the main field of confrontation with Russia: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, but also other countries, including even Belarus. It was supposed to be a platform for communication, but also a way to mobilize, facilitate, and introduce some rivalry between countries in their fight against corruption on the road to democratization and eventual integration into the European Union.
Finland and Sweden joining NATO represents a fundamental change for the Baltic states and is therefore a serious challenge to Vladimir Putin. The Russian president considers himself the reincarnation of Vladimir the Great and wants to complete his work: to collect the “Rus lands” that do not belong to the West, but are part of Russki mir, “the Russian world.” For Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the main pretext Moscow uses is namely that of “defending the Russian minority.” After Ukraine and Moldova, it is the Baltic states that are threatened the most and at the same time are the most vulnerable.
Sweden and Finland are like-minded countries with no illusions about Russia. No political capital can be gained there by pushing “pro-Russian policies.” Russian disinformation has little scope there. The Finns know as well as the Poles that Russia ends where it is stopped. And a potential land offensive against the Baltic states would first have to be stopped by the northern European partners. This also concerns the so-called “Suwalki gap,” i.e., the northeastern edge of Poland, which serves as a land corridor to Lithuania along the border to Belarus, which is subordinated to Russia, and the Kaliningrad district. The “Suwalki gap” is often mentioned in the Russian media by Russian military experts.
From Polish point of view, making the Baltic Sea a NATO mare nostrum and the “spreading thin” of Russian troops along the borders (many will have to be moved closer to the Arctic) is likely to buy at least several years of peace and time for better preparation. As the head of the intelligence analysis agency of the Finnish Armed Forces, Colonel Esapekka Vehkaoja, stated, “It is difficult to see that Russia will be able to significantly strengthen its troops near the border with Finland in the coming years.” Admittedly, the Kremlin has announced the creation of an additional 10 paramilitary brigades to be sent north. For the time being, however, it is taking troops from across the Finnish border and sending them into battle in Ukraine. Sweden and Finland in NATO will significantly strengthen the joint deterrent force, given that the American nuclear umbrella alone may not be enough. As the war in Ukraine shows, conventional wars are by no means a thing of the past.
Back to NATO’s Roots
Ukraine’s brave defenders have already eliminated about 30 percent of the Russian army from combat utility for years to come or is about to do so. The entry of Sweden and Finland will block another 10 to 20 percent to protect the very long border. This significantly weakens Russia’s offensive capabilities. The accession of Sweden and Finland in NATO itself strengthens the power of countries in favor of increasing pressure on Russia instead of seeking a truce at the expense of Ukraine’s territory. It also increases NATO’s effective defense capability now without waiting for Germany to arm itself, which will take years. High compatibility with NATO standards will allow very rapid operational participation by both Nordic countries, which increases NATO’s deterrence power. Let’s also remember that the future theater of military confrontation could be the Arctic. Here Finland and Sweden greatly strengthen the transatlantic alliance and shrink Russia’s room for maneuver.
The accession of Finland and Sweden also restores NATO’s original mission of containing Russia in Europe, rather than intervening outside of that area, which has proven to be a failure. This ends the dream of NATO as a US special task force. At the same time France’s influence will be reduced to its real size. It would be bad news if Finland and Sweden wanted to bring their neutrality inside the alliance, but their active attitude toward assisting Ukraine shows that there is no such danger.
The NATO summit in Madrid showed that the Americans do not want to increase their military presence in Europe very much. NATO’s eastern flank will not be effectively defended by Germany—it has no such aspirations or capabilities. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s indolence in the matter of supplying heavy arms to Ukraine leaves no illusions about the scale of commitment and sacrifice Germany is prepared to offer not only to Ukraine, but also to Poland and the Baltics in the event of a direct threat. Defense against Russia is a problem and a task for Poles, Balts, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Swedes, and Finns. Nevertheless, stopping Russia’s medieval imperial tendencies, on which security in Europe depends, requires the unity of the entire West, including countries hitherto neutral. Nec Hercules contra plures (“Even Hercules cannot win against the many.”)
Sławomir Sierakowski senior fellow at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). Based in Warsaw, he is the founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), an Eastern European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists, and activists.