Finland and Sweden Debate NATO Membership

6 MINS READApr 17, 2014 | 09:35 GMT
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Swedish soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force outside Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

The West's standoff with Russia over Ukraine is triggering debate over the adequacy of defense spending and cooperation to confront a more assertive Russia across Europe. In Finland and Sweden, an important element in this debate is whether the two countries should join NATO.

While the events in Ukraine strengthen the argument for NATO membership, general support for the idea is still lacking in both countries — such a step would represent a big shift from Finland's and Sweden's strategy of avoiding too strong a military alignment with the West in order to prevent any conflict with Russia.

Only if the crisis in Ukraine persists, and if Russia grows more assertive in the Baltics, might public opinion in Sweden and Finland shift strongly enough to make NATO membership likely. Before joining NATO, the two countries would try to strengthen regional collaboration and bolster their own national defenses.

The standoff between the West and Russia is increasingly affecting Nordic Europe. On April 15, the Barents Observer reported that politicians in Norway are debating whether plans to cooperate with Russia on hydrocarbons exploration along the countries' shared border should be put on hold in light of the events in Ukraine. In Finland and Sweden, the crisis is fueling the debate over eventual NATO membership. Finland and Sweden are both members of the European Union, and thus have tight economic and institutional bonds with the West, but both have stayed out of NATO.

Sweden, after suffering great territorial losses to Russia in the early 19th century, has abided by a neutrality policy since the end of the Napoleonic wars. It maintained that policy at least nominally throughout the two world wars, though it did provide economic and logistical assistance to the Germans, the Allies and the Finns in World War II. Neutrality was meant as a way to minimize the risk of further defeats comparable to the ones Sweden was dealt in the early 1800s.

The Nordic Countries and Russia

The Nordic Countries and Russia

Finland, the only Nordic eurozone member and a country that shares a long border with Russia, was once absorbed by the Russian Empire, remaining Russian territory for more than a century before declaring independence in 1917. Finland aligned with Germany during World War II to fight the Soviets but ultimately could not recover the territory it lost during the Winter War in 1939 and 1940.

These experiences strongly influenced the Finns' strategy in dealing with their eastern neighbor. During the Cold War, Finland and the Soviet Union had an understanding that Moscow would accept Finland's independence as long as Helsinki abstained from stronger military integration with the West. Finland, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, has integrated institutionally with Western Europe and has procured a growing proportion of its weapons from the West. Much like Stockholm, Helsinki has established strong ties with NATO through joint missions and training. Still, unwilling to sour its relationship with Russia, Finland has abstained from formally joining the military alliance.

As a result of the past decades of European integration and collaboration with NATO — for example in Afghanistan — the nonalignment policy in both countries has been a constant issue of debate and is drawing renewed attention as a consequence of the tensions with Russia.

Lacking Support

The Finnish and Swedish political elite has been split over the question of NATO membership for a long time. Governments, including those run by parties that advocate NATO membership, have refrained from holding a referendum on the question due to general public opposition in both countries to joining the military alliance.

In a poll carried out in late 2013, about one-third of Swedes supported NATO membership. In Finland, a poll carried out online of members of the Finnish Reservists' Association (conscripts who have finished their military service) in early April indicated that more than 40 percent would like Finland to join NATO within a few years. According to Finnish media, this is a 10 percentage point jump from a similar poll conducted a year ago. The increase was probably strongly influenced by the events in Ukraine. Polls from the general public give far lower numbers. A February poll, commissioned before Russia annexed Crimea, showed that less than 20 percent of Finns favored NATO membership, a percentage comparable to the levels in 2002, Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported.

A number of factors explain the middling support for NATO membership in Finland and Sweden. Russia is Finland's greatest security concern, but it is also an important economic partner — one with which Helsinki hopes to maintain a stable relationship. According to Trade Map, Russia was Finland's second-largest import and export market in 2013, behind Sweden. Russia would not likely use its military to keep Finland from joining NATO, but Moscow would probably implement policies that would hurt Finland economically. With Europe going through a structural economic crisis and Finland itself caught in the midst of an economic crisis, keeping good economic ties with Russia is of particular importance. Sweden would face fewer repercussions than Finland, because it does not share a border with Russia. Sweden and Finland would likely coordinate efforts to join NATO, but membership remains unlikely until other revisions in defense policy have been made.

Debates over Swedish and Finnish defense policy are gaining more attention because of the crisis in Ukraine, but NATO membership is just one element. The core question under debate is whether the Swedish and Finnish governments should focus more on protecting their own borders after years of defense spending cuts and foreign engagement. While there is growing support for higher defense spending, this does not necessarily translate into greater enthusiasm to join NATO because it is debatable whether formal accession would add much in terms of national security.

The current status of Finland's and Sweden's relationships with NATO allows both to show their commitment to certain Western allies without having obligations toward all NATO members. Sweden and Finland, despite their nonalignment, could also likely count on material assistance from NATO and European partner countries in case of a military conflict because of their geographic position. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Sweden or Finland were attacked and the NATO members surrounding it simply stood by. Seeing security in the Baltic Sea region threatened, NATO member states would probably be drawn into any such conflict.

Before formally considering NATO membership, Sweden and Finland will seek stronger regional defense collaboration. The five Nordic countries — Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland — have a relatively long history of collaboration since they share similar geopolitical concerns. In the late 1940s, the Nordic countries considered forming a defense union, but differences among the countries, the presence of NATO and the strengthening of the European institutions weakened Nordic collaboration. However, in recent years, the will for stronger regional defense collaboration has seen somewhat of a revival through the establishment of the Nordic Defense Cooperation.

This collaboration could strengthen, but its growth will depend on how NATO evolves as a consequence of the current crisis in Ukraine. The difficulty for Sweden and Finland will be to get the other Nordic countries to commit to further regional collaboration. Norway, Iceland and Denmark already are NATO members and hence see less urgency to build an additional alliance. Such an alliance would be particularly de-emphasized if the United States made moves to strengthen NATO. Other regional defense cooperation initiatives, such as the cooperation among the Visegrad states, are dealing with similar issues — countries see that NATO's weaknesses could be corrected through regional cooperation platforms, but the countries have different national security concerns, slowing efforts to build alliance mechanisms. Stalling collaboration among the Nordic countries would perhaps increase the support for NATO membership in Sweden and Finland.

Moscow is watching events in Nordic Europe with worry, although the debate over Finnish and Swedish NATO membership could quickly die down if the crisis in Ukraine does not escalate further. Russia knows there is a great risk that the more aggressive it is in its periphery, the more a rationale will exist for stronger U.S. military involvement in Eastern Europe, or for a strengthening of military alliances among European countries.

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