Foreign Policy

Russian threats against Ukraine could push Finland and Sweden toward NATO

Vladimir Putin
Alexei Nikolsky/Pool Sputnik Kremlin via AP

Russian military threats against Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s unpredictability are forcing Sweden and Finland to reconsider their policy of non-alignment toward NATO. If admitted, each would enhance security in NATO’s northeastern flank and put Russia on notice. NATO’s open door policy allows nation-states to initiate membership plans if they meet guidelines delineated in Article X of the North Atlantic Charter. Finland and Sweden are ideal NATO candidates.

Putin’s December 2021 demands that NATO membership revert back to 1997, when there were no new members, is both unrealistic and threatening to European security. Putin is asking NATO to accept Russia’s self-designated spheres of influence, which include former Cold War era Warsaw Pact members and ex-Soviet republics now in NATO. Put simply, Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union.

Finland and Sweden have significant security concerns with their larger and aggressive neighbor to the east. Finland has a complicated history with Russia. It averted Soviet occupation in the Winter War of 1939-1940, but lost a tenth of its territory after it aligned with Nazi Germany during World War II. Finland’s 1948 Friendship Treaty gave rise to “Finlandization,” in which Russia would accept Finnish independence in exchange for Finland abstaining from military integration with the U.S. and its allies.

Unlike Finland, Sweden remained neutral in World War II. The case for Swedish membership in NATO took on new relevance following the accession of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2004. Sweden’s geopolitical worry is that its Gotland island is relatively close to Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast, which has become increasingly militarized and is sandwiched between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Gotland is vital to the Swedish military’s ability to conduct and air defense and naval operations and critical to the defense of Stockholm. If Sweden were to accede to NATO, its security interests could be addressed.

While Finland and Sweden share a strategic interest in not provoking Russia, each already has cooperative relations with NATO. The Finnish and Swedish militaries have conducted military exercises with NATO forces, launched joint projects in the Arctic Ocean, and enjoy friendly bilateral relations with the U.S., U.K., and Norway. While Finland and Sweden have become deeply intertwined with NATO, their nonalignment keeps them far outside NATO’s Article V collective defense guarantee.

NATO command and control would prefer that Finland and Sweden become members as each would bring essential benefits to the alliance. Sweden is set to increase defense spending by 40% by 2025 to roughly 1.5% of GDP, the largest increase in more than 70 years. Finland will soon reach NATO’s 2%-to-GDP defense spending guideline, a rate of military expenditures larger than some current NATO members.

Moreover, each has well-equipped and advanced militaries that would be interoperable with NATO forces and aligned with the collective security doctrine. Also, both are advanced and mature advanced democracies with strong economies and established defense sectors. In addition, NATO could project more influence in the Arctic Ocean and check Russia’s influence through Northern Sea lanes.

Most importantly, with Finland and Sweden in NATO, the Baltic Sea would be transformed into a Euro-Atlantic space and the balance of power would shift toward the transatlantic alliance. Russian economic interests would be exposed since the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines to Germany pass through the Baltic Sea as does Russian commercial shipping. NATO’s naval operations near Poland and the Baltic States would be enhanced and Russian air patrols may be mitigated.

There are some obvious risks to this approach. Russia would ramp up its military spending and boost short-range missile capabilities in its Western regions. Russia’s war with Georgia in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas in 2014, combined with cyberoperations and disinformation, demonstrate the extent to which Vladimir Putin prioritizes impulsive behavior in pushing Russia’s sphere of influence westward. Russia will not just sit by and watch its security deteriorate in the Baltic Sea.

But a Russian military invasion of Ukraine will encourage Finland and Sweden to press for NATO membership on very short notice. Public opinion in both countries has been gradually shifting in favor of NATO membership. Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO may rest on how well pro-NATO political parties perform in upcoming elections. If successful, they could push for national referendums in both countries. If Russia believes it can end NATO expansion with an invasion of Ukraine, it may achieve just the opposite.

Chris J. Dolan is Professor of Political Science and Director of the M.S. Program in Intelligence and Security Studies at Lebanon Valley College.

Tags NATO Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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