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The resurgence of an old dilemma: Should Sweden and Finland join NATO?

Russian officials have recently invited North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) representatives for discussions in order to lessen the current underlying tensions between them. Delegates from Sweden and Finland have also been invited, despite the non-membership of the two Scandinavian countries. In the past years, with the growing Russian threat to European countries, they have both increased their cooperation with the alliance regardless of their long kept traditions of non-alignment. However, seeing the recent changes of events and the new threats emanating from Russia, notably its growing presence in the Nordic and Baltic regions, both Sweden and Finland are once again faced with an old dilemma: should they preserve traditional foreign policy, or should they draw closer to and maybe join NATO?

Neutrality and Security in the Nordic Region

Whereas Denmark, Iceland and Norway joined NATO during the 20th century, the foreign policies of Sweden and Finland followed at that time a principle of strict neutrality. Finnish neutrality was implemented in 1948 after the signature of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (TFCMA) with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Swedish neutrality was proclaimed in 1815 and this tradition lasted through time because of political and domestic support. Both countries declared to be militarily non-aligned in the years following the end of the Cold War, and now cooperate with NATO on their Partnership for Peace (PfP) project and on various military exercises.

Presently, the Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark) are all part of various organisations related to foreign policy and security. Norway, Denmark and Iceland are part of NATO while Sweden and Finland are part of the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). At the same time, all countries cooperate through the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) framework, which warrants cooperation in terms of defense, security expertise, human resources as well as military training and exercises. However, the NORDEFCO is not a military command structure and it is consequently doubtful whether its members can rely upon it to face today’s changing regional dynamics and potential dangers.

Shifting dynamics of the Nordic-Baltic region

Although the populations and political elites of Finland and Sweden have often expressed reticence towards joining NATO, recent events are slowly altering these popular opinions. With the ongoing Ukrainian conflict, the invasion of Crimea in 2014, the increasing militarisation of Kaliningrad and its augmented military presence in the Artic, Russia is asserting its power in the Nordic region, implicitly threatening the Scandinavian-Nordic region. In addition, Russian forces are being deployed next to the Baltic States, which are geographically cut off from other NATO members. Due to their proximity and their strong ties with the two non-aligned Nordics, the Baltic States may turn to them for immediate support in the case of an aggression, potentially drawing them into a conflict they are unprepared for. At last, the Gotland and Åland islands, which respectively belong to Sweden and Finland, are under threat from Russian presence in the Baltic Sea and could easily be captured by the latter if a conflict erupts.

Three directions for Swedish and Finnish foreign policy

The two non-aligned countries are thus facing three foreign policy options. They can ignore the present dangers posed by Russia and maintain their policies of militarily non-alignment, while limiting their cooperation with NATO to the PfP project and to a certain degree of military cooperation. This solution, as it has done in the past, may spare Sweden and Finland in the game of great power politics. Nevertheless, remaining militarily non-aligned may be disadvantageous in the case of Russian aggression in the region, as Sweden and Finland may receive late support from NATO and surrounding countries. Due to its lack of organisation, the CSDP would be unable to provide the military and economic tools necessary to face an external threat aimed at a European country’s security. Only bilateral ties with others countries may ensure protection against hostilities but it is questionable whether this would be sufficient to deter any aggression.

The Nordic countries could agree on the creation of a formal military alliance, hypothetically using the already existing NORDEFCO framework, while keeping their respective positions in regards to NATO and the CSDP. This cooperation would ensure the direct protection of the Nordic region, but the alliance’s forces would probably have difficulty countering any major Russian aggression, while struggling to project power in the Baltic region, hence leaving a great liberty of movement to Russia in the Baltic Sea.

At last, both countries could end their long traditions of non-alignment by joining NATO. Currently, this could lead to a drastic deterioration of the relationships between the Nordic countries and Russia, and would certainly have economic repercussions on Finland and other European countries, who rely on Russia for resources such as gas and oil. In addition, it may lead to an increased militarisation of Kaliningrad, directly threatening the Nordic states and their Baltic neighbors. However, joining the alliance would re-inforce NATO’s presence in the area, hence strengthening the security of the Scandinavian and Baltic regions, while deterring Russia from any aggression. Strategic emplacements such as the Gotland Island and the Gulf of Finland could station NATO troops and even military facilities, thus limiting Russia’s freedom of movement in the Baltic Sea.

A balanced relationship

The Nordic countries will soon have to cooperate and come up with a solution in order to ensure their protection from their Russian neighbour, which is slowly increasing its presence in the region. In order to do so they will have to establish a balanced relationship between each other, NATO and Russia. If Finland and Sweden are to end their tradition of military non-alignment and to join NATO, it must occur when Russia is least likely to apply any measure of retaliation, since they will be most vulnerable in the time between their application and their admittance in the Alliance. Seeing that Russia is slowly weakening due to an economic crisis, a low economic growth, an over-expensive remilitarization and because of the departure of foreign investment, the right time may come quicker than expected.

About Leo-Paul Jacob

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