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5 December 2016

The Scandinavian equilibrium: between Russia and NATO

Finland and Sweden have embarked on a special path towards protection against unpredictable Russian policy. Do these countries intend to maintain their non-aligned status? 

The annexation of Crimea and the military operations taking place in south-eastern Ukraine are perceived as a Europe-wide threat to security. The latest report on Sweden’s security policy states that the conflict between Russia and the West is not limited to Central Europe but has spilled over into the Baltic states. Russian troops conduct ad hoc exercises with increased frequency. Airspace is violated and military aircraft transfer personnel and equipment to Kaliningrad via an air corridor.

Unlike Denmark, Norway and the Baltic States, Finland and Sweden are non-NATO members. Finland’s 1,340-kilometre long border with Russia is the longest of all EU member states. The Finns, however, conduct themselves with Nordic calm. President Sauli Niinisto invites Vladimir Putin to his residence, listens to his threats to move troops closer to the border and even visits the Russian leader in Sochi. This prompts bewilderment among the Swedes. Deputy Chairman of the Swedish Committee on Foreign Affairs Karin Enstrom said that Sweden would not be prepared to host Putin. The Finnish president replied: “The situation might be difficult to explain, nevertheless, I recommend that you imagine that Norway is Russia” – bearing in mind the long, common border.

Prime minister of Finland Juha Sipila explained that dialogue was key to maintaining stability, even if Russia’s actions cause concern. Therefore, Finland is prepared to communicate with Moscow no matter who is in power there. Many believe that the worst case scenario has already occurred: Finland lost the Karelian isthmus and Western Karelia in the aftermath of the Winter War in 1939-1940 which led to the USSR’s expulsion from the League of Nations.

Finns attempted to weigh up the risk that relations with Russia entailed in the early 2000s, even before Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech and the deterioration of relations with the West. Finnish researchers noted in the 2006 collection of articles “The two-level game: Russia's Relations with Great Britain, Finland and the EU” that the perception of Russia as a threat had to do with history and geopolitics rather than its actions or policy analysis. Still, the authors pointed to the violation of Finland’s airspace by Russia’s air force in 2006. Moscow and Helsinki managed to resolve this issue without attracting too much attention. The prospect of an economic recession in Russia apparently posed more of a threat to bilateral relations back then.

The majority of Finns still believe that Russia poses no threat to their country’s security even in light of the Crimean events. More than 60% of survey respondents shared this view last year and only a third said they perceived the eastern neighbor as a threat.

Confidence and pragmatism

“Perhaps some think that we overreacted [to the changing state of security] whereas others believe that we were too slow to react” – these words of President Sauli Niinisto can be disregarded as politically correct nonsense but they do go a long way towards describing the Finnish position.

In Finland, defense policy remains merely an extension of foreign policy. The president, minister of foreign affairs and prime minister call the shots in this regard. They understand that national interests related to Russia do not pertain merely to defense. Hence, Helsinki tends to give short shrift to Moscow’s rhetoric; opting instead to pay heed to actual levels of aggression.

Minister of Defense Jussi Niinisto and former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb openly trade threats in order to attract public attention. The majority of Finnish politicians can be regarded self-confident pragmatists. They agree that Moscow could stir up trouble but refuse to launch attacks. It is noteworthy that no high-ranking Finnish official can be suspected of having ties with the Kremlin. Finland currently has no political party akin to the National Front of Marine Le Pen. The Finns Party (previously known as “the True Finns”), currently drifting from nationalism to populism, can most certainly not be accused of being pro-Kremlin.

The author of the most recent Swedish report on security policy Krister Bringeus sees a Russian attack on Sweden as a worst-case scenario. For example, Russia could deploy missile launchers at Gotland island in order to gain control of access to the Baltic Sea. The Scandinavians can ill afford to discount the third option: that a military threat could come from a Baltic State.

Scandinavian joint efforts

NATO has no obligation to defend Finland or Sweden at the moment, nor are the Scandinavians under any obligation to assist the Alliance. However, these countries have recently been active in joint efforts alongside NATO. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven were invited to a working dinner during the NATO summit in Warsaw for the first time in July 2016. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated at the time that both countries were important partners and that they took part in numerous NATO operations. However, Stoltenberg emphasized that it was up to them to decide whether they wanted to be involved in further rapprochement.

Finland took part in large-scale drills in the Baltic Sea with the military contingent of NATO member states prior to the Warsaw summit in June 2016. It is noteworthy that Russia had participated in one of these exercises only a few years prior. Moreover, Helsinki and Stockholm have carried out an assessment of security in the Baltic Sea region along with NATO and plan to update these data on a regular basis.

These activities are accompanied by bilateral military agreements signed by Finland with NATO member states such as the UK and the US. Helsinki signed an agreement with Washington in Fall 2016. The agreement provides for military training, the exchange of information and research but not for direct military assistance.

Finnish left-wing politicians see the strengthening of cooperation between the Nordic countries in the field of defense as an alternative to NATO membership. However, the parameters of such cooperation are perceived differently by Finland and Sweden. According to the author of Swedish research into security policy, the Finns see it as an opportunity to strengthen its rearguard and its ties with the West whereas the Swedes prefer to regard it as a shift of focus towards the border with Russia.

Head of EU Diplomacy Federica Mogherini has underlined the necessity to create a common EU defense system. Plans are already in place to increase spending on cyber security by virtue of the European Defense Fund and the European Commission intends to standardize purchased weapons. Military spending of EU member states is currently curtailed by the strict EU rule concerning budget deficit which cannot exceed 3%. In 2015, both Finland and Sweden’s defense spending was less than 2% of GDP (recommended expenditure for NATO member states) at 1.3% and 1.1%, respectively while Estonia’s stood at 2% in 2015.

NATO membership: the measure of last resort

Enlargement of the North-Atlantic Alliance is unambiguously defined as the main threat in Russia’s updated National Security Strategy. Stockholm and Helsinki do realize that Moscow would interpret their accession to NATO as an upping of the ante. The parties have repeatedly exchanged strong statements regarding the issue. For instance, Vladimir Putin warned the Finnish President, in the presence of journalists, that accession to the Alliance would inevitably prompt a response from Russia.

President Sauli Niinisto explained that Finland could submit an application to NATO only in the case of a serious threat to security. Taking into account that this decision is to be made during the referendum, the country’s hands will be tied should an emergency situation arise. At the same time, Sweden is considering joining NATO without Finland. The expert community of this country is of the opinion that such a step may exacerbate the overall situation but would help stave off the risk of aggression against Sweden.

Whether NATO members would be willing to welcome new member states into the Alliance is an entirely different question. The North Atlantic Treaties on the Accession of Finland and Sweden have to be approved by parliaments of all NATO member states. Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has explained that they might not be inclined to do so in the face of a military crisis. When the Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, the situation was somewhat different as Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marina Kaljurand informed the author of this article: “We would have never joined the Alliance were it not for the support of the US and other allies. A narrow window of opportunity opened up and we managed to seize our chance”. Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb fears that Putin and new US President Donald Trump will strike a deal which will prevent NATO from accepting new members.

It would be prudent of Finland and Sweden to join NATO prior to a flare up of tensions in the Baltic Sea region. The military admit they are undergoing a resurgence. At the same time, chances of peaceful cooperation between Russia and its northern neighbors have shrunk significantly. Trade and cultural ties remain on the agenda, but major projects cannot be implemented given the air of mistrust. 

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