Sweden and Finland – NATO is no longer a taboo

Around Christmas time, the otherwise hectic media operations also largely come to a standstill. Unpleasant news and news that shouldn’t attract much attention are then gladly deposited. There was hardly any international response to a report that the press department of the Russian Foreign Ministry sent out on December 24th. The government in Moscow announced that President Vladimir Putin’s demands to stop NATO eastward expansion would also affect Sweden and Finland – while the world public looked at the conflict over Ukraine, near which Russia has gathered around 100,000 soldiers. In northern Europe, however, the threat was well received, and Sweden increased its combat readiness the next day.

Politicians continued: “If future NATO expansions are rejected, it will limit the possibilities for independent political decisions,” warned Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde. Sovereignty is a priority; the Scandinavian country has been independent in terms of security policy for more than 200 years. The ruling Social Democrats are currently not pushing for NATO membership, while Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson pleads for stability. The largest conservative opposition party, the Moderates, on the other hand, are in favor of joining the Western military alliance. Andersson does not want to give up this option. Maybe one day it will be needed.

Relations with Russia have cooled down throughout Northern Europe, especially since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow – always officially denied – support for the secessionists in eastern Ukraine. The deterioration in relations affects the Scandinavian countries, Finland and the Baltic countries to different degrees.

As fervently as Sweden defends freedom of association, it has long been cooperating with NATO. In 1994 it was one of the founding nations of the “Partnership for Peace” (PfP) between NATO countries and non-members. Sweden also participates in Alliance operations more often than some NATO countries, for example in Afghanistan and Libya. The last step in the rapprochement has been participation in the so-called host nation support agreement since 2016. At the invitation of Sweden, NATO troops are allowed to operate on the country’s territory, not only for exercises, but also in times of crisis. However, this is not a guarantee of support, which only offers if NATO countries declare an alliance among themselves: An armed attack on a member is considered an attack on all states of the alliance.

Sweden maintains close military cooperation with neighboring Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia – more than any other EU member state. Like Austria, Finland was a democratic outpost of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Finland strictly practiced its foreign policy neutrality vis-à-vis the USA and the USSR, and did not want to anger Moscow. “The rest of the world should be shown that they can live in peace with their neighbors. In truth, Moscow even controlled what was written in Finland in school books about the Soviet Union,” said the Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen a devastating testimony .

Criticism under NATO protection

For decades, Finnish NATO membership was therefore a taboo subject. But here, too, the political leaders are now acting more aggressively. In his New Year’s address, President Sauli Niinistö told Moscow: “We will not allow ourselves to be deprived of the right to decide.” The head of state is attested to having good relations with his counterpart Vladimir Putin. Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin did the same to Niinistö.

Meanwhile, the modernization of the air force is progressing. The fact that Finland has decided against the Swedish fighter jet and in favor of a US model could also be an indication of further rapprochement with NATO, which, like Sweden, has existed for years. Finland is also a founding member of the PfP and has also participated in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Although it is not a defense alliance, EU membership offers Finland – like Sweden – protection from Russian aggression. In recent years Moscow has intervened in Transnistria, Georgia and the Ukraine in Europe, comparatively defenseless countries or parastate entities.

In order to arm themselves, three northern European countries were represented when NATO was founded in 1949: Iceland, Denmark and Norway, which shares almost 200 kilometers of land border with Russia. After the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sought to integrate with the West as quickly as possible. In 2004 they were accepted in both the EU and NATO. Under the umbrella, the Baltic countries became Russia’s most vocal critics; Among them was the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was in office from 2006 to 2016. Influence within the EU remained limited, however, and concerns associated with Poland against the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline as Russia’s geopolitical weapon were brushed off the table by Germany for years.

The Balts were able to make their voices heard from the United States, also because they are meeting the NATO target of two percent of the annual gross domestic product for defense spending. This is not the only reason why the US will definitely reject another Russian demand: that troops or weapons should no longer be stationed in countries that were not yet part of NATO in 1997. The request is aimed at all post-communist countries in Europe and would destroy the existing security architecture.

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