Despite Crimea, Finland and Sweden stay wary of NATO

Russia's North-Western neighbours take a cautious approach after events in Crimea.

The Baltic states have been outspoken about their concern of Russia’s action in Ukraine. Their history as former Soviet states has left Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia with deep anxieties that were revived by the annexation of Crimea.

 “Thanks be to God, we are NATO members“, said the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite last month.

Latvia and Lithuania announced that they will boost military spending, bringing it in line with NATO requirements of two percent of the GDP by 2020. In early April, NATO assured the anxious Eastern members of its support. The alliance didn’t rule out situating permanent military bases in the Baltic states and is considering sending more troops to its eastern borders.

Russia’s other Western neighbours, Finland and Sweden, have chosen a more cautious approach. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has caused concern, but no concrete measures have been taken to change their military doctrines.

Finnish Defence Minister Mr Carl Haglund says it’s too early to estimate what kind of impact the Ukrainian crisis will have on Finnish defence and security policy. 

“It will affect things somehow, but it remains to be seen how exactly“, Haglund told the German daily Die Welt in early April.

The annexation of Crimea has heated up the public discussion about possible NATO membership both in Finland and in Sweden, which are the only Nordic countries outside the alliance. They are in NATO’s Partners for Peace Programme and support close cooperation with the alliance, as close as possible without actually joining. Both countries participate in the NATO-led ISAF operation in Afghanistan.

“The last thing Russia wants to see is its neighbours joining NATO. Ironically, the crisis has prompted a NATO discussion in Finland and Sweden and increased support for NATO“, Haglund said.

Still, rather than NATO membership, a possible option for Finnish security policy in the future is intensified military cooperation with the other Scandinavian countries under Nordic Defence Cooperation, NORDEFCO. In addition, Finland and Sweden have been active in developing the EU’s common security and defence policy. Both countries wish EU’s battle groups to be more active and they consider sending soldiers to the Central African Republic in EU military operation.

Especially for Finland the membership in the EU was seen as a safe haven and main political goal after the cold war, which made the NATO membership less urgent at that time. Now the major obstacle for NATO membership is the strong opposition among the citizens. This prevents even the parties in favour of NATO from pushing membership. The political risk is simply too high.

In the recent polls, conducted after the annexation of Crimea, public support of NATO membership remains below 25 percent in Finland. The annexation only marginally increased the share of those in favour of NATO membership. In Sweden the support for NATO membership, interestingly, slightly decreased in March. The poll published by the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet shows that only 31 percent of the Swedes would like to see their country in the Western military alliance. Fifty percent prefer to stay outside.

Last year Swedish military leader Sverker Göranson publicly estimated that Sweden could only hold off a military invasion for a week. The concern over Sweden’s military credibility increased support for NATO, but only briefly. In April the independent Swedish National Audit Office published an alarming report that Sweden wouldn’t be able to defend itself if the country faced a military aggression.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and reports of Sweden’s military weakness would be valid arguments for NATO-minded politicians to start promoting the membership both in Finland and Sweden. In fact, a recent poll by the conservative news site Verkkouutiset showed that 53 percent of the Finns could be persuaded to support NATO membership if the country’s leadership started promoting it.

However, reluctance to join any military organisation is deeply rooted in the history of the two countries.

The outcome of the second world war was very different in Finland than in the Baltics. Finland fought against the Soviet Union during the war but was not absorbed afterward, unlike the Baltic states. During the cold war Finland was forced to stay neutral because the special relationship with the Soviet Union prevented Finland from joining Western alliances freely.

Emphasis on neutrality is also the reason why the Swedes prefer to stay militarily non-aligned. “Neutrality” is often considered to be the reason why Sweden has not had a war on its soil for two hundred years.

Russia has made it very clear that it doesn’t want to see any of its Western neighbours, Ukraine or even Finland, joining the Western military alliance. Russia has proven its readiness to wage economic wars, which concerns especially Finland. Russia is Finland’s top trade partner and Russian tourists alone bring more than one billion euros annually.

So why rock the boat, if you have a more or less functional relationship with your much larger and complicated neighbour?  That’s the question Finns wary of NATO tend to ask.

In fact, some elder scholars have stated that Ukraine should use Finland as a model for its relations with Russia. Even Henry Kissinger has suggested as much. “[Finland] leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia“, the former Secretary of State wrote in his op-ed.

However, the historic neutrality of Sweden and Finland was essentially abandoned when the countries joined the EU in 1995 and NATO’s Partnership in Peace Programme in 1994. For many observers, NATO membership would be the next logical step in the countries’ integration into Western institutions.

One thing is for sure. Finland will not apply for membership without Sweden and vice versa. In January the Finnish and Swedish leaders agreed that the countries would move hand in hand in their cooperation with NATO. If one joins, it would be impossible for the other to stay outside.

The text is edited version of an article originally published in the German newspaper Die Welt. The writer is a staff writer in the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and is currently assisting Die Welt.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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