Sweden and Finland Apply for NATO: A Turning Point for North European Defense?
(Source: special to Defense News; posted June 28, 2022)

By Tim Maxwell
The recent and swift application of Sweden and Finland to NATO has caused rivers of ink to flow. In mid-May, the successive approval of the proposition by the Finnish and Swedish Parliaments marked the end of long-standing periods of neutrality for the Nordic countries.

Both nations had adopted this principle of neutrality for different reasons, however. Sweden chose to do so in the early 19th century in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, while Finland was constrained to become neutral after World War II to ensure peace with the USSR. While Sweden cherished its neutrality until recently, the Finnish population rather saw it as the remnant of an old humiliation.

Finland’s temptation to join NATO was already strong, whereas the debate was more contrasted in Sweden. But opposition from the ruling Social-Democrat party and the populist Sweden Democrats ultimately turned into clear support over the last few weeks. The potential result for Europe is a radical change in its security landscape, and an unprecedented strengthening of NATO on its Northern front.

Operational benefits for NATO.

The inclusion of Finland and Sweden into the Alliance would not come out of nowhere, as numerous defense links already exist with the organization. Both countries have been important partners of the alliance in the recent past, being part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace since 1994, and having partaken in a variety of military exercises with its members since then. In 2017, for instance, an exercise simulating an attack in the Baltic Sea was held between NATO and Finland. More recently, in April the Ramstein Alloy joint exercise focused on air policing in the Baltic region, with an emphasis on air-to-air refueling and interception of non-cooperative aircraft.

Beyond NATO, Finland and Sweden have consistently acted jointly to increase their military readiness through various collaborations. In 2018, Helsinki and Stockholm signed a Memorandum of Understanding for military cooperation and the organization of combined operations. Last March, a bilateral exercise was organized at the West of Gotland, Sweden’s strategic island in the Baltic Sea.

Besides, as members of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, both nations take part in annual exercises, with Exercise Joint Protector having even taken place in Sweden in 2021. On top of this, both countries are part of the NORDEFCO Forum since 2009, alongside Iceland, Denmark, and Norway, all three being full NATO members.

In addition to these preexisting ties, a key benefit from Sweden and Finland’s integration lies in their intrinsic geographical characteristics. With them, NATO would be able to build what some have called a “Nordic fortress”. Finland’s 1,340km-long border with Russia would double the size of NATO’s line of contact with its main rival, stretching Russian forces more thinly. It gives NATO some strategic depth and the Swedish island of Gotland could provide the allies a solid base for an A2/AD strategy deterring Russia from trespassing in, or attacking through the Baltic Sea, the only direct sea line to access Northern Europe from its territory.

NATO’s intelligence gathering in the Baltic region would be yet another significant gain for the alliance. Recently, the Estonian ambassador to Finland Sven Sakkov emphasized that these adhesions would change the equation around the Kaliningrad enclave, which would become more difficult to fortify for Russia.

Finnish and Swedish capabilities.

Far from being negligible add-ons to the alliance, both Nordic countries benefit from strong, well-equipped armed forces. Finland, in particular, has consistently spent around 2% of its GDP in defense, while having one of Europe’s largest militaries per capita, with 280,000 soldiers quickly available, and 900,000 overall including reservists. Finland also counts amongst Europe’s largest artillery forces, with about 1,500 cannons.

Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a research fellow from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, recently stressed that contrary to other European forces, the Finnish military has been specifically tailored for a potential confrontation against Russia.

Sweden, spent 1.26% of its GDP in defense in 2021, but has been planning a gradual increase to reach 2% by 2028. The size of its military is however much smaller.

Getting into more detail, Finland and Sweden have both engaged in important acquisition programs, highly complementary to NATO’s current capabilities —and shortfalls. Missile and air defense systems, in particular, constitute one of the main focus of the Nordic states’ procurement policies, while also being NATO’s main capability gap in the Baltic region.

Notably, Finland sourced several M270D1 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems from the Netherlands, while Sweden purchased MBDA’s Meteor air-to-air missiles, in addition to planning for the acquisition of the Patriot air defense system. Finland’s recent $9.4bn purchase of 64 F-35 fighter jets – preferred to the Swedish Griepn E - is yet another valuable addition to the control of the air domain in Northern Europe.

Stockholm has also launched a tender for the development of a high-altitude air-defense system, for which two Israeli companies are still competing (Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced systems).

Finally, beyond air defenses, it is worth noting that Finland has invested to renew its ground forces, with Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks purchased from the Netherlands, and K9 armored howitzers from South Korea. Sweden, for its part, has heavily invested to recover its domestic submarine-building capability…

In addition to their respective capabilities, Sweden and Finland benefit from a rather strong defense industry, with Sweden’s Saab to the forefront. The CEO of the company Micael Johansson stated that though integrating NATO would bring more competition at home, it would also open up new avenues for markets reserved to NATO suppliers, such as in advanced missile systems, sensitive sensors and C2 solutions.

While Finland does not produce its own fighter jet nor takes part in a new-generation program as Saab does with the Tempest, its main defense supplier Patria could benefit from the same trend, after supplying its 6x6 armored vehicles to Lithuania in 2021.

Besides pure defense players, other firms could take on a strategic role within NATO, as emphasized by the Finnish ambassador to the US, Mikko Hautala, at a recent Brookings event: “Both our countries bring additional technological capabilities, with Ericsson in the Swedish case and Nokia in ours. If you want to have a totally safe network solution, come to us: we have AI, quantum, and a lot of things that are quite rare.”

The need for consensus.

In order for Stockholm and Helsinki to become parties to the North-Atlantic treaty, NATO members will first need to reach consensus on the matter, which will be high on the agenda of the Madrid Summit. All thirty members of the organization must ratify their integration. Most NATO countries’ governments have rapidly endorsed this demand, with France and the UK even pledging to defend Sweden and Finland against any invasion during the transition period —the actual adhesion being unlikely to take place before months, if not a year at least, although NATO will probably try to fast-track the procedure.

Internal political quarrels made it more difficult for some countries than others to support this new enlargement of the alliance. Countries governed by relatively fragile coalitions, such as Italy, managed to back the proposal in spite of discrepancies coming from the coalition’s populist parties.

Two countries voiced opposition, trying to leverage the Nordic countries’ application in order to obtain concessions from partners on other issues. In Croatia, a domestic argument has started between President Zoran Milanović and Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, the former wanting to condition Zagreb’s support to changes in Bosnian electoral law in favor of the country’s Croat minority. This could be an obstacle in the way of a potential enlargement, although Croatia should not stand against such a historical development for the alliance.

Meanwhile, Turkey has threatened to veto the adhesion of Sweden on grounds of Stockholm’s supposed laxity towards the Kurdish PKK, considered as a terrorist organization by Ankara and the European Union. Turkey also wants the countries to get rid of a related embargo on arms sales put into place after its military incursion in northern Syria in 2019.

Beyond this and the question of the fight against PKK, however, Recep Tayyip Erdogan probably expects to take advantage of the situation in order to secure the upgrade of the country’s F-16C/D jets. Even more optimistically – but less realistically - the Turkish leader could be eyeing a reintegration of Ankara into the F-35 program, from which it was kicked out after acquiring Russian S-400 air defense systems.

Some informed diplomatic sources say the Turkish position on the PKK issue is so serious that it might indefinitely bar both countries from formally joining the alliance.

Sweden slowing down on disarmament efforts?

Another difficulty, specific to Sweden, comes from the country’s long-standing anti-nuclear stance, and high proactivity in disarmament activities. The ruling Social-Democrat party has already made it clear that Sweden would not accept permanent NATO bases on its territory. Even more importantly, Sweden will have to water down its position on nuclear weapons. Stockholm has the right to oppose the stationing of nuclear weapons on its territory, but full NATO membership will certainly hamper its role as a leader in non-proliferation efforts on the international stage…

The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently stated in a security policy document that it should be able to uphold this position even as a member of NATO, arguing that “Germany is one of Sweden’s closest partners in the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament”.

Still, Berlin is a part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement. It will not be simple for Sweden to seek the benefits of the US nuclear umbrella while still actively calling out these weapons in international organizations.

As underlined by Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter, “Swedish security is very much tied to Finnish security. Finland joining without Sweden joining would make us completely alone, surrounded by NATO countries. We would probably have to increase our defense spending even more, to maybe 3 or 4%. If Finland joins, we have to do it as well.”

Surely, Sweden will therefore have to reassess its priorities in light of NATO’s strategic posture.

Regardless of whether Sweden and Finland finally join the club, the Alliance’s new strategic concept has been profoundly modified by the invasion of Ukraine. In Madrid, the decision will be taken to grow the alliance’s response force is from 40,000 to 300,000 troops, to establish new permanent brigades in Eastern countries as well as to discuss an increase in contributions higher than the GNP 2% threshold, Stoltenberg announced.

NATO, which one European leader famously described as “brain dead,” is now very much alive and kicking, thanks to… Vladimir Putin!

Ironically, this is an unintended but not insignificant achievement by the Russian president.

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