Finland and Sweden in NATO: the potential of new security providers

By Hanna Ojanen (Research Director, Tempere University)

Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO is occurring at an accelerated pace. In January 2022, neither government was considering NATO membership; in May 2022, they moved decisively into the application process. In response, NATO member states have rush processed their membership, with most NATO countries ratifying Accession Protocols. In November 2022, they are a mere two ratifications short of membership. Both Finland and Sweden are sending a strong message to Allies and Russia by joining NATO without preconditions as already active contributors and security providers within the Alliance. For its part, NATO would not only gain two new member states but also a new regional subgroup of Nordic countries that have their own perspectives and strategic cultures. Moreover, Finland and Sweden will bring a model for bilateral defence cooperation.

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Quick changes, long-term consequences

The speed of Finland and Sweden’s accession process is due to several factors. First, despite their previously non-aligned position, the two countries were already close to NATO. Mutual knowledge between Finland, Sweden and NATO has accumulated steadily over decades. The two countries joined the Partnership for Peace programme (PfP) in 1994 and the NATO Planning and Review Process (PARP) in 1995. They also became Enhanced Opportunities Partners in 2014, deepening their involvement in NATO military exercises, information exchange and high-level meetings.

On 25 February 2022 (the day after Russia invaded Ukraine), they were asked to take part in even deeper information exchange through NATO’s Modalities for Strengthened Interaction (MSI). Lastly, Finnish and Swedish officials for the first time took part in a NATO defence ministers’ meeting as observers on 13 October 2022.

Second, the fast pace of the accession process is explained by Finland and Sweden’s desire to show unity against Russia. Russian aggression against Ukraine in late February pushed Finnish public opinion in favour of joining NATO, which then led not only Finland but also eventually Sweden to quickly apply for membership. Finland and Sweden’s cohesion with the Alliance signalled to Russia that it had no say in these countries’ security and defence choices nor in NATO’s enlargement policy, contrary to what Moscow had claimed in December 2021. It was also a firm answer to Russia’s flagrant breach of the international rules-based order, opting for the defence alliance while abandoning their erstwhile policy of non-alignment. In response, several NATO members quickly demonstrated their political support for these two countries before membership through new bilateral agreements and visible demonstrations of military support – for example, the American warship USS Kearsarge paying visits to Stockholm and Helsinki.1 The intensity of Finland and Sweden’s international military exercises also grew, which no doubt helped calm domestic concerns about a potential Russian reaction to their membership application.

Third, to dispel any doubts about their willingness or ability to contribute to Alliance security, officials in Finland and Sweden also formulated arguments outlining the added value that their respective countries would bring to NATO. Just as much as Finland and Sweden would benefit from security guarantees provided by the Alliance, NATO membership, they argued, would strengthen NATO itself and, in turn, be a major contribution to the security of the Baltic and Nordic region. All parties would thus come out clearly strengthened.

As this understanding spread and consolidated, the process of accession further gained speed. Above all, what Finland and Sweden bring to NATO is their deployed military capabilities in the Baltic Sea region, which already boasts strong interoperability with NATO Allies. They operate modern vessels suited for shallow archipelago missions and have strong coastal anti-ship missile batteries. Sweden also has a capable shallow-water submarine fleet, and the two states can close the Gulf of Finland to hostile ships, including movement between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia. Likewise, they contribute to situational awareness with valuable intelligence, while their air force capability is significant, particularly following the Finnish purchase of 64 F-35A multi-role fighters.2 Furthermore, Finland and Estonia have agreed to integrate their coastal defence systems as NATO members. Lastly, Finland (in contrast to Sweden) brings to the table a sizeable field army based on a very large reserve force, including one of Europe’s strongest artillery corps.3

Their NATO membership tips the regional balance of power clearly in NATO’s favour, turning the Baltic Sea into a so-called “NATO lake” and limiting space for Russian operations.

With respect to longer-term consequences, Finnish and Swedish membership will likely be most consequential in the following three areas: Nordic cooperation inside NATO, bilateral cooperation between Fin land and Sweden, and regional territorial defence.

Nordic cooperation inside NATO

The potential for Nordic cooperation within NATO raises multiple questions. First, how will cooperation between the highly integrated Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland) affect the overall dynamics of the Alliance? Second, to what extent will Nordic countries push a common agenda within NATO? Finally, what specific issues might they want to address collectively within the Alliance?

The first question is a matter of degree: a capable group of countries working closely together makes NATO stronger. NORDEFCO, the Nordic Defense Cooperation, has steadily developed since 2009. Some have asked whether this enlargement could be a source of internal friction, adding too much of a Northern emphasis to the Alliance.4 Were the Nordics to coordinate their positions in advance, they might gain a stronger voice together within the Alliance’s decision making bodies. It is unlikely that the Nordic Five would become a bloc within NATO, as the Nordic Prime Ministers confirmed in August 2022.5 Instead, what NATO membership adds to Nordic cooperation is joint command structures that could then be expanded to include other countries, notably the United Kingdom and the United States. Each contributes with intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) assets as well as large expeditionary units.6

The second issue consists of finding a common voice as well as the resources and political will needed to work within NATO’s agenda. Whether small countries can influence NATO decision making is a question that emerged as an area of interest in Finland 20 years ago. The precedent of Denmark and Norway succeeding in defending national interests, including ruling out the stationing of permanent troops and nuclear weapons, offered a reassuring template for Helsinki and Stockholm.7 The ability to influence an organization like NATO requires in-depth knowledge of the Alliance’s functions, which Finland and Sweden now lack. Eventually however, changes in the NATO command structure could reflect the increasing strategic importance of the Northern areas. In this case, the Nordics may want to find a solution that is satisfying to NATO members. Nevertheless, it is not self-evident that the Nordics would not compete with one another over, for example, a new NATO facility or similar presence in the area. In time, it is also conceivable that a rivalry may develop over who is perceived as the most valuable ally by the United States. Among specific areas of cooperation, Nordic countries may wish to commonly address Arctic security. Even if they do not enjoy the same position or interests in the Arctic, they may find it useful to develop common positions on the region within NATO.

Another potential Nordic contribution to NATO is resilience, a field that the Nordic states have successfully developed for some time both individually and in cooperation with one another. Well known for their total defence and whole-of-society approach to defence, they can provide substantial experience with security of supply, hybrid warfare, and civil preparedness capacity. They already have experience in cooperating with NATO on crisis preparedness and resilience.8 This could be further elevated, perhaps with the Nordic countries taking a lead in developing NATO thinking on these questions.

Impact on bilateral relations Defence cooperation between Finland and Sweden has expanded in recent years, resulting in a 2019 military strategic concept that ensured military cooperation beyond peace time. The two now organize brigade-size common training exercises, deploy a joint Amphibious Task Unit, and plan to fully operationalize a joint Naval Task Group by 2023. They also use each other’s naval and air bases, organize joint anti-submarine exercises, and develop concepts for brigade-size joint deployments. In all, their cooperation approaches that of a defence alliance.9 The importance of this cooperation is demonstrated in the emphasis placed on the two countries joining NATO together. If one were to remain out, these achievements and future development of bilateral cooperation could be jeopardised.

Whether Finland and Sweden wish to define similar policy lines or influence NATO policies together remains to be seen. A comparison with their early behaviour as European Union (EU) members could be illustrative. Given they had just recently shifted their policies of neutrality to military non-alignment, there was some doubt about both countries’ willingness to take part in the EU’s common foreign and security pol-
icy. Yet, the two quickly emerged with similar positions, becoming proponents of crisis management activities as a new field for the EU.10

In the case of NATO, the policies of the two countries appear to mirror one another. One example is the question of preconditions for NATO membership. Sweden first expressed the intention not to host permanent bases, troops or nuclear weapons, similarly to Denmark and Norway. Finland did not take this position. As a result, Sweden then reconsidered and now neither country attaches preconditions to their membership bids. Yet, current domestic political party positions may differ. For example, representatives of the National Coalition Party in Finland are in favour of some type of visible and permanent NATO presence in the country,11 while the Swedish minister for foreign affairs has again stated that Sweden will make that reservation. 12 Still, the two countries are not identical twins. Their strategic cultures differ, as do their geostrategic locations.13 They possess different operational priorities.

For instance, interdicting amphibious assault is a priority for Sweden. For Finland the eastern land border with Russia is the priority. While both countries enjoy a high degree of mutual trust, it is unclear what impact NATO membership will have on their bilateral relations in the long term.

Territorial defence

As far as territorial defence is concerned, Finland and Sweden differ in their approaches. While Finland never gave up priority on national territorial defence, Sweden has changed course twice. In the early 2000s, Sweden reoriented its security policy to emphasize crisis management. This meant a reduction in the number of conscript soldiers and the eventual abolition of peace- time conscript service in 2010, transitioning to a small professional military. The next turning point was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. This led Sweden to increase military spending and partially reactivate mandatory military service. The so-called “Hultqvist doctrine” also included deeper defence cooperation with Finland and other states such as Norway and the United States.

In Finland, crisis management became increasingly important too, but it was used as an alibi to strengthen Finnish capabilities for national defence. This was by far the most important task for the Finnish armed forces. In 2022, both the looming threat of war and fears that existing defence cooperation was insufficient prompted a strategic cultural change, one that emphasizes defence cooperation. Still, there are strong elements of continuity with past policies. 14 For example, Finland is keen to maintain conscription, a very large trained reserve, and nurturing a particularly high defence willingness as the basis of its national defence capability.15

For Sweden, a broader perspective that goes beyond defence of the region around Northern Finland is needed. This would require addressing the security of the Baltic states, the Baltic Sea and Norway. Additionally, it could include direct military support from central and southern Sweden, the strategic Gotland Island, and protecting maritime transport in the Baltic Sea. Finally, Sweden might also adapt some of its air bases infrastructure to accommodate F-35 systems.16

 

Contribution to deterrence and defence posture

There are several immediate ways that Finnish and Swedish membership would contribute to the overall strengthening of the Alliance, particularly with regard to NATO’s deterrence and defence posture on the eastern and northern flanks. These include support of Baltic Air Policing and the enhanced Forward Pres-ence, the defence of Norway, and air policing around Iceland. Trilateral cooperation between Sweden, Finland, and Norway already exists in operative defence planning but this could be expanded.

What NATO membership brings to this picture is joint defence planning and a greater role for the two countries in Allied defence. Politico-strategic interoperability will eventually include nuclear policy issues that are new to both Finland and Sweden.17 While several NATO countries have pledged not to accept nuclear weapons on their territory (including the three Nordics and Lithuania), these states can nonetheless offer political support for nuclear deterrence. For instance, Finland and Sweden might be expected to defend NATO positions in international fora like the UN, and considering their current and planned aircraft fleets that include F-35s, this could include operational support for the nuclear deterrent.

The long view of Finnish and Swedish membership

The potential accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is a landmark historical moment, both for the Alliance and for the two Nordic countries. It is a moment, however, that carries with it as many challenges as opportunities. As we have seen, Finland and Sweden bring to the Alliance military capabilities, their geostrategic location, and their unique viewpoints on the threats facing NATO. Moreover, their shared experience in defence cooperation could act as a model of bilateral and multilateral cooperation within the Alliance for many Allied members.

However, important questions remain. Full integration into the NATO command structure will take time for the two countries that have operated independent of large (non-Nordic) military structures. Learning to navigate tough political questions related to nuclear weapons and the forward deployment of Allied military assets on their territory is another long-term challenge. Eventually, Finland and Sweden are likely to gain a voice of their own, beginning perhaps with a Nordic Five perspective on issues about resilience.

 

1 A. Kauranen, “UK strikes new security agreements with Sweden and
Finland”, Reuters, 11 May 2022.

2 R. Forsberg, A. Kähkönen and J. Öberg, “Implications of a Finnish and Swedish NATO membership for security in the Baltic Sea Region”, Wilson Center, 29 June 2022.

3 H. Ossa and T. Koivula, “What would Finland bring to the table for NATO?”, Commentary, War on the Rocks, 9 May 2020.

4 W. Alberque and B. Schreer, “Finland, Sweden and NATO membership”, Survival, Vol.64, Iss.3, 2022, pp.67-72.

5 “Nordic Prime Ministers will deepen cooperation defence”, Norden, 15 August 2022.

6 M. Jonsson and R. Häggblom, “Cooperation can make the NATO lake a reality”, War on the Rocks, 29 August 2022.

7 K. Honkanen and J. Kuusela, “Mikä se NATO oikein on?”, EVA raportti, 2003.

8 G. Kronman and F. Bynander, “Finland and Sweden able to contribute to the civil preparedness capabilities of NATO and the EU”, Encompass, August 2022; M. Wigell et al., “Nordic resilience: strengthening cooperation on security of supply and crisis preparedness”, FIIA Report 70, 12 September 2022.

9 D. Brommesson, A.-M. Ekengren and A. Michalski, “Sweden’s foreign and security policy in a time of flux”, UI Brief No.7, May 2022.

10 H. Ojanen, “Participation and influence: Finland, Sweden and the post-Amsterdam development of the CFSP”, Institute for Security Studies, WEU, Occasional Paper No.11, 1 January 2000.

11 “BNCP wants permanent NATO base, female conscription”, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, 23 August 2022.

12 “Billström: Linjen ligger fast – inga kärnvapen”, Expressen, 11 November 2022.

13 M. Pesu and S. Paukkunen, “Finland will bolster NATO’s northeastern flank”, The National Interest, 4 October 2022.

14 A. Seppo, “Suomi hakee uutta ankkuripistettä turvallisuus- ja puolustuspolitiikkaansa keskellä geopolitiikan mullistusta. Puhutaan strategisen kulttuurin muutoksesta. Mitä se tarkoittaa?”, Ulkopolitiikka, March 2022.

15 T. Ries, “Naton uusi voimavara”, in Uusi länsi, EVA-raportti, January
2022.

16 K. Neretnieks, “Nato – nordiska försvarsperspektiv”, Maanpuolustus, 22 September 2022.

17 K. Honkanen, “Suomi Nato-kuntoon”, Maanpuolustus, 22 September
2022.

 

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This article was originally published on NATO Defense College website in “NDC Policy Brief” series (No.18 – November 2022).

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