Reframing Swedish and Finnish NATO Accession as a Question of Sovereignty

In the run-up to the 2018 Finnish presidential elections on January 28, at least one candidate, Nils Torvalds of the confusingly-named Swedish People’s Party, has strongly endorsed Finnish NATO membership. Further, while opposition to NATO accession is usually a prerequisite for election, current President and clear frontrunner Sauli Niinistö has yet to voice a clear stance on the issue, although opposition to NATO accession is usually a prerequisite for election. A poll from November 2017 indicated that fifty-nine percent of Finns oppose joining NATO.

However, Niinistö’s party, the National Coalition Party, is pro-NATO, and another poll suggests that the Finnish people would be more open to joining if their political leaders recommended it. In Sweden, there also has been a recent spike in interest with respect to NATO accession.

For Sweden and Finland, the question of NATO accession is one that will persist for at least as long as tensions between Russia and the West endure as a part of what some are calling the “Cold War 2.0.” Regardless, Sweden and Finland should not make decisions on the future of their military alliances and other cooperative security measures based solely on fears of Russian reprisal. To do so would be to deny their own sovereignty and reward Russia’s disregard for the external and internal sovereignty of other countries.

Appeasement merely whets the appetite of regimes like Vladimir Putin’s that derive their legitimacy from militant nationalism. A demonstration of resolve on each state’s part will provide an example for other countries facing political, military, and economic pressures from Russia and, at a minimum, not encourage Russian behavior that has been so fruitful in recent years.

Is it any wonder that Finland and Sweden and are seriously considering NATO membership with Russia’s reemerging penchant for asserting its political, military, and economic influence over neighboring states, including the 2008 war with Georgia, its ongoing intervention in Ukraine, and, most recently, a large military exercise conducted in Belarus in September?

During the Cold War, both Sweden and Finland pursued a policy of neutrality, attempting to maintain positive relations with the U.S., Western Europe, and the Soviet Union. Because it shares such a long, indefensible border with Russia, Finland was, and still is, under added pressure to pursue a brand of foreign policy that is inoffensive to Moscow. However, once the Soviet Union collapsed, the two Scandinavian countries sought greater political and economic ties with Western Europe, which culminated in their joining EU in the mid-1990s.

In 2009, Sweden dropped its policy of neutrality after entering into mutual self-defense treaties with the EU and agreeing to lead the Nordic Battle Group—of which Finland is also a participant. Last September, it held a military exercise that included 19,000 Swedish troops and soldiers from Finland and NATO member states such as the United States, France, and the Baltic states. Finland is planning an exercise of similar scale for 2020. In 2014, Finland and Sweden agreed to assistance from NATO troops in emergency situations. Nonetheless, both states have stopped short of full NATO membership due to fears of Russian retaliation.

Russian and Soviet leaders like Putin have always feared hostile encirclement because of the immense size of Russia’s territory and lack of natural geographical barriers (e.g. mountains) at its frontiers. Russian leaders and the Russian people have not forgotten the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War and invasions by Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, France, Germany, and others.

Consequently, when Georgia’s accession to NATO became a topic of conversation in Western political circles, Russia opted for a preemptive invasion to teach its neighbors a lesson about seeking closer ties with the West and jeopardizing the security of its borders. In March 2014, Ukraine was about to sign an EU Association Agreement when Russia annexed Crimea and began providing unmarked “little green men” and military materiel for the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist insurgencies in eastern Ukraine. This treaty, which was ultimately concluded in June 2014 despite the Russian-catalyzed chaos, is widely understood as a decisive step towards full EU membership.

However, there are clear differences between Ukraine and Georgia, and Sweden and Finland. The most obvious ones are that Sweden does not even border Russia, and both Finland and Sweden were never part of the Soviet bloc—nor its contemporary Russian equivalent, the Commonwealth of Independent States, of which both Ukraine and Georgia were members at the time Russia invaded them. In other words, Sweden and Finland are outside of Russia’s formal sphere of influence. Further, neither state’s NATO membership was ruled out by Moscow in the informal Cold War settlement. Every former Soviet state, on the other hand, including Ukraine and Georgia, was to be precluded from the alliance and other overtly Western organizations.

Finland and Sweden also do not have the same political instability that facilitated Russian meddling in Georgia and Ukraine. In both of those cases, Putin was able to exploit existing nationalist or breakaway movements, framing Russian interventions as applications of the liberal principle of self-determination. In a perversion of international liberalism and the UN Charter, he could justify Russia’s denial of self-determination to Georgia and Ukraine as support for the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the peoples of Luhansk and Donetsk’s right to freely determine their political status. Sweden and Finland have no such movements.

While public support for NATO membership constitutes at least a plurality (some polls indicate support as high as 47% and opposition at only 39%) of the Swedish population, only about 22% of Finns support accession to the collective security organization. However, this percentage jumps up to 33% with the guarantee of Sweden’s simultaneous NATO accession.

I believe that support for NATO membership would cross the plurality threshold relatively quickly were NATO and the Finnish government to work together to spread awareness of the differences between the Finnish situation and the Georgian and Ukrainian cases.

On the other hand, I recognize that, because it could be interpreted as encirclement, Finnish accession would pose a greater security threat to Russia. Thus, in the current security context, Finnish, Russian, and European security as a whole would probably benefit from enhanced Finnish military cooperation in less ideologically-charged regional organizations such as the Nordic Battle Group and the Northern Group.