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Russia Is Driving Sweden and Finland Closer to NATO

Moscow’s aggression may have permanently changed Nordic security debates.

By , a Finnish career diplomat and visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on as Finland Ministers for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto (L) and Sweden Foreign minister Ann Linde (R) bump fists after holding a joint press conference after their meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 24, 2022.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on as Finland Ministers for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto (L) and Sweden Foreign minister Ann Linde (R) bump fists after holding a joint press conference after their meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 24, 2022.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg looks on as Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde (right) bump fists following a joint press conference after their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 24. JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images

In December, Russia published two draft agreements that seek security guarantees from the United States and NATO and aim to change the European security order. Their general thrust—opposition to NATO enlargement (both past and future) and establishment of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe—is not new. The brazenness of the proposals has intensified foreign and security policy debate in Finland and Sweden, Russia’s non-NATO neighbors and, in Finland’s case, a country that fought two wars with the Soviet Union during World War II and stayed independent.

The amassing of Russian forces near the borders of Ukraine had already raised the temperature. Russia’s December demands, especially the one seeking to stop NATO enlargement, launched a new round of debate on NATO membership—one that may have permanently shifted the conversation.

Sweden and Finland are unlikely to apply to join NATO anytime soon. However, it is essential for both that NATO keeps its doors open to new members and that it maintains close cooperation with its partner countries while it focuses on guaranteeing the security of its members in the face of Russian aggression. Similarly, Finland and Sweden value their defense cooperation with the United States and are ready to deepen it further.

In December, Russia published two draft agreements that seek security guarantees from the United States and NATO and aim to change the European security order. Their general thrust—opposition to NATO enlargement (both past and future) and establishment of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe—is not new. The brazenness of the proposals has intensified foreign and security policy debate in Finland and Sweden, Russia’s non-NATO neighbors and, in Finland’s case, a country that fought two wars with the Soviet Union during World War II and stayed independent.

The amassing of Russian forces near the borders of Ukraine had already raised the temperature. Russia’s December demands, especially the one seeking to stop NATO enlargement, launched a new round of debate on NATO membership—one that may have permanently shifted the conversation.

Sweden and Finland are unlikely to apply to join NATO anytime soon. However, it is essential for both that NATO keeps its doors open to new members and that it maintains close cooperation with its partner countries while it focuses on guaranteeing the security of its members in the face of Russian aggression. Similarly, Finland and Sweden value their defense cooperation with the United States and are ready to deepen it further.

Sweden and Finland have stayed outside NATO partly due to their traditional policy of not belonging to any military alliance. This policy has enjoyed continuous support of the majority of both Finns and Swedes. At the same time, both countries have aimed at close cooperation and interoperability with NATO. Finland has also maintained strong national defense throughout the post-Cold War years.

Separately, the United States is an important and close partner of Finland and Sweden. The three signed a Trilateral Statement of Intent in 2018 on their defense relationship. Sweden is the first non-NATO member to acquire the Patriot missile defense system. Late last year, Finland announced its decision to buy 64 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters to replace its aging F/A-18 fleet.

Russia is opposed to any further NATO enlargement and appears to be ready to prevent Ukrainian (and Georgian) NATO membership by force. What about European Union countries Sweden and Finland? Based on recent comments from Russian officials, Russia’s position remains as it was: You are free to join, but we’ll make you pay for it.

On Dec. 24, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a press briefing that “every country has its own sovereign right to choose its national defense and security strategy.” However, Finland and Sweden joining NATO “would have serious military and political consequences which would require an adequate response on Russia’s part.”

In mid-January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov answered to a question posed by a Finnish journalist that “Russia fully respects the sovereignty of both Finland and Sweden. We believe that the policy of neutrality pursued by these countries is one of the most important contributions to the common European architecture and to ensuring stability on the European continent. … Of course, it is up to the people of Finland and Sweden to decide.”

Finland and Sweden are members of the EU and do not consider themselves as neutral. The correct term would be “militarily nonaligned.”

Interestingly, Lavrov omitted any reference to “an adequate response on Russia’s part,” perhaps wanting to avoid fanning the flames of the ongoing NATO debate in both countries.

There is a clear consensus in both Finland and Sweden over the current crisis: Russia’s attempts to question the sovereign security policy choices of European states and to create spheres of influence or buffer zones in Europe are unacceptable. The territorial integrity of states must be respected, the European security order must be upheld, and all concerned countries should be included in discussions about it.

However, there has been a difference in the timing and tone of high-level statements: Finland made its views known quicker and more forcefully.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto reacted promptly when Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 1 demanded legal security guarantees from the West. Niinisto reaffirmed the next day that “maintaining a national room to maneuver and freedom of choice is the foundation of Finland’s foreign, security, and defense policy.” He laid out his views in more detail in a New Year’s speech on Jan. 1. Niinisto characterized Russia’s demands as “ultimatums” and stressed that “Finland’s foreign and security policy line remains stable. … Finland’s room to maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide. NATO’s business is the so-called open-door policy, the continuance of which has been repeatedly confirmed to Finland, also publicly.”

In Sweden, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was criticized by opposition politicians and many newspapers for passivity in the first weeks after Russia published its proposals. In their view, the government was also not as clear as Finland about the freedom of choice. Andersson published a short statement on Jan. 6 (and an English version the next day) saying that the European security order is not negotiable and that Sweden makes its own decisions about its foreign and security policy and the partners it cooperates with. International law must be respected, including every state’s right to independently make its own security policy choices.

Swedish Armed Forces Supreme Commander Micael Byden has since December stressed in several interviews that the Russian proposals, if accepted, would demolish the foundation of Swedish security policy. Sweden builds security together with others and thus relies on advanced international cooperation, whereas Russian demands would prevent joint military exercises and international cooperation, leaving Finland as Sweden’s only partner.

NATO, in turn, has reacted to Russia’s demands by repeatedly affirming that it continues to pursue its open-door policy. In parallel, the United States has confirmed its readiness to talk with Finland and Sweden about membership, should they so wish.

In practice, Finnish and Swedish positions on NATO membership are the same. Both state that they do not belong to any military alliance, but Finland expressly reserves the right to apply for NATO membership. Both have deepened their cooperation with NATO and have the status “enhanced opportunities partner.” (There are currently six partner countries that have tailor-made relationships with NATO.) There are no technical obstacles to membership. Both the Finnish and Swedish armed forces have now a high degree of interoperability with NATO. Finland and Sweden have also expressed interest in further developing the cooperation.

Despite their technical readiness, Finland and Sweden have stayed outside NATO. They have preferred to maintain their national room to maneuver while building security in Northern Europe by investing in their own defense and cooperating with others. There is a political consensus in both countries that if they apply for membership, they ideally should do so together, as membership of only one would undermine the security of the other. For both, NATO’s open-door policy is an essential component of their security: Moscow needs to take into account that they could seek to join NATO if they see Russia as a growing military threat.

Right now, there is no consensus on actually pulling the trigger on NATO membership in neither Finland nor Sweden.

In Sweden, the Social Democratic government’s position is a long-standing one and reflects the country’s long tradition of neutrality (or since its EU membership, status outside any formal military alliance). For example, Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist stressed in a December interview with the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter that Sweden will not join NATO, “not now or later.”

Opposition parties would like to see the government adopt a Finnish-style NATO option. In fact, the parliament voted in December 2020 for a proposal that Sweden, like Finland, should state a clear NATO option in its security policy. There is a parliamentary majority for a NATO option but not for NATO membership. Foreign Minister Ann Linde has emphasized that adding a Finnish-style NATO option to the Swedish security policy formula might be understood as a change in Swedish policy, but nothing has changed; Sweden has had and will have the possibility to apply for membership, but staying outside military alliances is best for the security of the country.

In Finland, politicians from several parties have come out in support of NATO membership or indicated that their previously negative attitude is softening. Prime Minister Sanna Marin has clearly stated that Finland retains the option of applying for NATO membership, but she does not expect Finland to join NATO while her government remains in office. (The next parliamentary elections will be held in April 2023.)

The public mood is somewhat shifting in both countries. Recent opinion surveys show that support for NATO membership has increased, as has the share of those who are unsure. Opposition has softened.

Russia’s actions have largely backfired. Finland and Sweden feel that their foreign and security policy choices are under pressure because of Russian actions and demands. In neither country does the political leadership support a change of policy regarding NATO membership, but there is now more demand for discussion. The situation is more dynamic, in the sense that future developments will likely have an impact.

Sweden and Finland see cooperation with NATO as strengthening the regional stability in Northern Europe. Both countries are ready to deepen their political and defense cooperation with the organization. It is likely, however, that in the face of Russian aggression NATO will focus on guaranteeing the security of its members, which means that even its closest partners, such as Finland and Sweden, may play a smaller role than during the past few years.

At the same time, bilateral Finnish-Swedish defense cooperation will probably increase. It has been deepening since a few years back and already covers all situations, and no restrictions are set in advance. Finland and Sweden are each other’s No. 1 defense partner.

Heli Hautala is a Finnish career diplomat and visiting fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She specializes in Northern European security and Russia. Hautala joined the Finnish foreign service in 2004 and has served several times at the Finnish Embassy in Moscow, as well as at the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs as NATO team leader. Twitter: @heli_hautala

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