Capstones: Finland and Sweden Shifting out of Neutral
Long-time neutrals Sweden and Finland have applied for NATO membership. This dramatic change in the European security landscape will be good for them—and for NATO.
Considered by many a de facto member of NATO, Sweden was viewed as the more likely of the tandem to join the Atlantic alliance. After all, with its advanced military capabilities, Sweden has been a key contributor to post-Cold War NATO missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as NATO’s training mission in Iraq. Even before the cataclysm Vladimir Putin unleashed February 24, a sizable majority in the Swedish parliament expressed support for the so-called “NATO option.” By late 2020, national polls revealed a shift in Swedish public opinion in favor of NATO membership.
Finland, on the other hand, agreed to neutrality in 1948, which kept the Red Army at bay and kept Finland nominally independent throughout the Cold War. That agreement was replaced in 1992 by a treaty that’s silent on the issue of neutrality but instead declares that Russia and Finland “shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of the other party” and “shall not use or allow the use of their territory for armed aggression against the other party.” This history helps explain Finnish reticence about NATO. Even after Putin’s string of aggression the past decade, support for NATO membership remained below 30 percent in Finland. However, Putin’s beastly assault on Ukraine altered the political calculus in Helsinki, increased public support for NATO membership to 68 percent and accelerated the country’s transformation from neutral to NATO aspirant. Death and destruction on the doorstep have a way of focusing the mind.
Indeed, the Finns know well that just after Russia signed that 1992 treaty with Finland, it promised to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine and respect Ukraine’s “independence… sovereignty and the existing borders.” The lesson for Finland, which, like Ukraine, shares a long border with Russia, is that treaties don’t matter to Putin. And so, Finland is galloping toward NATO membership—a stunning reversal from its position as recently as January.
The fact that Finland is abandoning Finlandization and racing toward NATO speaks volumes—about NATO and Moscow.
After bombs started falling on Kiev, there were initial plans for the two neighbors to “jump together,” but then Sweden seemed to hedge and Finland hit the accelerator. But by early May, the two Nordic neighbors were again working on the same timeline—and on May 18 jointly presented their applications to NATO.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says Finland and Sweden will be “very much welcomed” in the alliance and will be accepted “in a relative quick way.”
In response to reports that Sweden and Finland were seriously considering NATO membership, Putin’s regime unloaded a fusillade of rhetorical and literal military threats against the two Nordic nations, openly warning them not to join NATO. One could almost hear the Finns and Swedes respond, “Or else, what? You’ll invade?” Spurred by Putin’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine, the Finns and Swedes have concluded not just that they would be better off defending their territory, sovereignty and freedom as members rather than mere neighbors of NATO—but that they will be safer from attack behind NATO’s shield than they will beyond it.
By joining the alliance, Sweden and Finland will help themselves—and help NATO. Unlike some of the more recent additions to the alliance, Sweden and Finland will be net exporters of, and contributors to, security. Indeed, they check all the political, economic, military and geographic boxes for NATO membership. As Adm. James Stavridis, former commander of NATO, puts it, “I always say to people in Sweden and Finland: If you want to join NATO, tell us on Wednesday and we’ll have you in by Friday. They’re that good.”
As noted, Sweden has contributed to NATO missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. Plus, Sweden ranks in the top 25 on a global index of military capabilities. Swedish firms design and field some of the best weapons systems in the world, including many of the antitank weapons that are defending Ukraine from Putin’s army of looters and rapists. In addition, Sweden participated in NATO’s high-intensity, large-scale Cold Response exercise this year. In 2021, Sweden hosted the Arctic Challenge exercise, which brought together warplanes from Sweden and Finland, along with NATO members America, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. In early 2020, U.S. B-1B bombers joined Swedish fighters in maneuvers over Sweden. In late 2020, Swedish and U.S. warships, Swedish fighter-bombers, and U.S. fighter-bombers carried out combat maneuvers in and above the Baltic Sea. In 2018, U.S. Marines deployed to Sweden for joint amphibious exercises. In 2017, more than 20,000 Swedish and American troops participated in the largest military exercise in Sweden in decades. The U.S. Navy has tested itself against Sweden’s world-class submarines for years. Plus, the Swedish government has approved a 40-percent increase in defense spending and deployed troops to Gotland (a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea that would be key to any NATO effort aimed at reinforcing or retaking Estonia, Latvia and/or Lithuania).
Finland fields a stout military of 280,000 personnel and 900,000 reservists. Like Sweden, Finland participated in Cold Response and other allied exercises promoting interoperability. And as NATO documents detail, Finland has contributed to NATO-led operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Finland also is a part of NATO’s strategic airlift initiatives; participates in NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence; and provides logistical support to NATO forces based in or transiting through Finnish territory. Unlike Sweden, Finland invests 2 percent of GDP on defense—a standard NATO expects of all members. (Sweden has announced plans to hit the 2-percent-of-GDP target.)
The security contributions of Sweden and Finland will be especially evident in the Baltic and Arctic regions. In the former, Finland and Sweden will significantly improve NATO’s strategic depth and deployment capabilities vis-à-vis Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And with Sweden and Finland, the Baltic Sea—surrounded by seven NATO members—becomes a NATO lake. In the latter, the alliance will benefit from enhanced awareness of, capabilities along and deterrence in what defense experts call the “High North.” Recall that Putin has been militarizing the Russian Artic—and making outlandish claims in other parts of the Arctic—for more than a decade.
In short, NATO membership will provide Sweden and Finland with an insurance policy against Russian invasion. And their accession into NATO will represent a significant military and geographic benefit for the alliance—something NATO has needed since the Baltic states joined in 2004.
The fact that NATO has deferred for decades to these two neighbors puts the lie to Putin’s—and his apologists’—fantasy version of history that claims NATO imposes its will on Eastern Europe. NATO’s growth spurts have never been about NATO “expanding” by pushing its way into Eastern Europe; rather, NATO’s growth has always been a function of sovereign nations seeking shelter by pushing their way into NATO. In other words, NATO grows not by conquest but by consent, not by the force of arms of its members but by the desire for security of its aspirants.
NATO was created in 1949 not to wage war but to deter it. As NATO’s first secretary-general explained, “The paramount, the permanent, the all-absorbing business of NATO is to avoid war.”
Finland and Sweden will enhance NATO’s ability to do exactly that. With Sweden and Finland in the fold, the alliance gains two members ready on Day One to contribute to the common defense. America gains new allies equipped to export security throughout Europe and beyond. And Putin gains a lot more worries.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Providence.