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Russia prompts Sweden to revive its defense

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Even as President Trump spent four years disparaging NATO to the point where it seemed he might actually pull out of the alliance, Sweden and Finland have continued to move ever closer to joining it. Throughout the Cold War, Finland walked a fine line between preserving its independence as a democracy with a free enterprise system and avoiding tempting the Soviets to mount another assault on its territory, as happened in 1939 and 1944. For its part, Sweden formally kept its distance from both East and West during the Cold War, though it, too, was a democracy with a healthy mixed economy. For both countries, however, joining NATO was a non-starter, even after the Cold War came to an end.

Beginning with the creation of the Partnership for Peace in 1994, both Sweden and Finland began to shed their non-aligned status. As long as Russia was quiescent, that mattered little, since there seemed to be no threat to either NATO Europe or its Nordic partners. Vladimir Putin has changed all that, especially over the past half-dozen years, beginning with the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s seizure of Crimea. As a result, Sweden and Finland not only have increasingly integrated their own forces but, as members of the European Union, have committed themselves to the defense of their EU partners, which include the three small Baltic states that border Russia.

In addition, in 2014, both countries signed cooperative arrangements with NATO, permitting NATO exercises on their soil. Both participated in NATO’s 2015 Arctic Challenge exercise. Moreover, Finland and Sweden signed new agreements with the U.S. Department of Defense, which call for much closer American cooperation with each country bilaterally and, as of 2018, with both countries in a trilateral arrangement.

By 2014, the progress that both countries had made in strengthening their ties with NATO led to a renewed debate over whether they should join the alliance, singularly or in tandem. It was generally understood that Finland would not join NATO if Sweden refused to do so. Indeed, a joint Finnish-Swedish study that the Finnish foreign ministry released in 2016 asserted that  “Finland joining NATO with Sweden staying out would create a strategically awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial continuity with NATO.” Nevertheless, Finland not only increased its defense spending, but it also adopted what it called a “NATO option,” which meant that it would not rule out NATO membership.

For its part, no Swedish government, including conservative governments, has ever advocated that country’s entry to NATO. On the other hand, faced with what it views as an increasing threat from Russia in the Baltic region, the Swedish parliament voted on Dec. 15 to increase defense spending by 40 percent by 2025. The increase is the largest in 70 years, or, put another way, since the early days of the Cold War. In particular, the new spending plan provides for an increase in the size of the armed forces from 55,000 to 90,000 by 2030, and ramps up its emphasis on Sweden’s already sophisticated technological capabilities.

Of equal importance, the Swedish parliament, including the far-right Swedish Democrats, for the first time voted to adopt Helsinki’s approach to treating NATO membership as a viable “option” so as to align Sweden with its Finnish partner. In contrast, the socialist-led government — despite its ever-increasing readiness to work with NATO generally, and the U.S. in particular — continued to reflect the decades-old position of its socialist predecessors by opposing the effort to formalize the “NATO option.” As a bemused Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, observed on Twitter: “This is a rather unique situation. Parliament wants to align its position with that of Finland, but the government wants to stick with the older and more rejectionist approach.”

Nevertheless the combination of a left-oriented government that has supported a major defense spending increase, together with a right-oriented parliamentary vote to consider joining NATO as a viable option, signals a new degree of determination on the part of all Swedes to work alongside the Finns — and indeed, the U.S. and NATO — to confront any Russian aggression in the Baltic region. 

That surely is good news for the incoming Biden administration that is committed to changing the trajectory of America’s European policy, both by working more closely with allies and partners and, at the same time, refusing to mimic President Trump’s unseemly practice of coddling Putin at every opportunity that presented itself.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Baltic states Donald Trump Finland NATO Russia aggression Sweden Vladimir Putin

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