Finland, Sweden and the Lure of NATO

6 MINS READMay 4, 2007 | 15:48 GMT
Editor's Note: An error in this analysis as originally published has been corrected. With some of the largest political shifts in decades beginning in Europe, military security is one of the hottest topics on the Continent today. In this atmosphere, two Nordic countries that have long resisted NATO — Finland and Sweden — are eyeing membership in the regional security organization. Joining NATO, however, would raise the ire of Russia, perhaps the only military threat they have to fear.
With some of the largest political shifts in decades beginning in Europe, military security is one of the hottest topics on the Continent today. In this atmosphere, two Nordic countries that have long resisted NATO's pull — Finland and Sweden — are eyeing membership in the regional security organization. However, the missile defense shield proposed by the United States in former Soviet satellite states already has raised Russia's ire, and future NATO expansion — right up to the Russian border — would further rankle Moscow. NATO was founded with the sole intention of defending Western Europe against a military invasion by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a legacy that creates complex political and security ramifications for the two potential new members, both of which are traditionally neutral. With its capital, Helsinki, only a stone's throw from St. Petersburg, Finland has only ever had one security concern: Russia. In fact, Finland fought the Soviet Union twice during World War II (1939-1940 and again in 1941-1944). Since declaring independence from the Russian empire in 1917, Finland has attempted to remain neutral, fearing any hint of Western leanings would bring the wrath of the Soviets down upon it. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, a good deal of political discourse in Finland has addressed the issue of closer ties with Western Europe. For the Finns, NATO membership is a means to this end. Sweden has always been the superpower of the Nordic region (particularly during the Cold War, when Germany was a military pigmy) since it boasts the largest population and economy, as well as a stellar defense program. As a result, Sweden historically has been indifferent to NATO's military umbrella. Of course, with nearly all of Sweden's neighbors — and soon perhaps Finland, too — in NATO, the best way for Sweden to influence its own regional defense policies would be to join the alliance as well, since NATO dictates the policies of member countries. For Sweden, keeping Russia content is now less important than finding a way to remain the regional power. The Nordic states' regional and geopolitical space was altered drastically after the demise of the Soviet Union, and has slowly led to the current shift in the security landscape. On May 9, 1994, Finland and Sweden joined the NATO project Partnership for Peace, which was intended to create trust between NATO, European states and the former Warsaw Pact members. Russia joined the program June 22, 1994. Partnership for Peace, however, is a confidence-building program, not a strategic defense arrangement. Russia remains on the dark side of NATO, highlighted in February when Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned the very "value of NATO membership." Further expansion into the Nordic states would take NATO's geographic border uncomfortably close to Moscow and St. Petersburg, exposing the heart of Russia to the NATO alliance. Finland and Sweden announced April 15 their intention to join the NATO Response Force (NRF) within the year. The role of the NRF is to provide collective defense to all NATO states. Though this does not equate to actual NATO membership, it is a move away from neutrality toward military alignment. Both states already have troops under NATO command in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and have undertaken military developments over the last decade with NATO compatibility in mind. From the Western European standpoint, NATO membership for Finland and Sweden is not a controversial issue, since both already are politically integrated as members of the European Union. The other Nordic states — Norway, Denmark and Iceland — joined NATO at its foundation in 1949. Finland and Sweden simply need to demonstrate that they can meet the obligations and commitments of membership (criteria that should pose no problem for the politically stable, militarily competent and economically sound states) and then formally start the application process. Finland's new administration has revived the debate over NATO, and will consider arguments for and against membership as soon as it becomes apparent that any new version of the European constitution will not contain a meaningful defense identity. Finland, however, has a gentleman's agreement with Sweden that Helsinki will make no new security arrangements without consulting Stockholm — raising the possibility that Finland would not join NATO unless Sweden does as well. The defense ministers of the two states met in January, when NRF participation was discussed. Sweden's strict military nonalignment presents an obstacle to NATO membership, though in 2006 the state recognized that future security is based on "community and cooperation" with other countries — a stance that would lead to consideration of NATO membership at the very least. Contemplating NATO membership means the Finns and Swedes must seriously consider the pros and cons of abandoning the policy of military nonalignment — a huge foreign policy shift. The Nordic states are eyeing NATO now, however, for two reasons: First, the heyday of Soviet power is long past, and Finland and Sweden are aware that any pressure on European states regarding their NATO membership would have huge negative political consequences for Russia. Second, former Soviet Union states have lately been testing their mettle against Russia without catastrophic consequences. If states within Russia's traditional sphere of influence can show their independence, so can the Nordic states. For Finland and Sweden, the question of membership ultimately depends on geopolitical security. As matters stand, such security will come via integration with NATO — the regional collective defense pact that also boasts global reach. Member states will be protected from any military threat by NATO's collective security agreement, but one major and rather obvious fact remains. The only potential military threat that either Finland or Sweden is likely to face is Russia, and joining NATO is certain to take the threat to new heights.

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