By William Tucker
During a recent trip to Europe, U.S. President Joe Biden offered the “full, total and complete backing” of the U.S. for Sweden’s and Finland’s application to join NATO. Though both nations have long had relations with Europe through trade and diplomacy, Sweden and Finland have provided for their own defense throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War eras without NATO’s assistance.
The recent move of Sweden and Finland to request NATO membership ends several decades of neutrality in most defense matters. Both nations have highly developed economies and militaries that have worked with NATO extensively in the post-Cold War era, meaning that their potential membership will require little difficulties for integration into the alliance. With the addition of Sweden and Finland to NATO, Europe’s strategic outlook changes meaningfully and could bring increased tension along Nordic borders.
Why Did Sweden and Finland Apply for NATO Membership Now?
Though Sweden and Finland are well suited for NATO membership, the two nations have successfully wielded their neutrality throughout the Cold War, making their move now somewhat questionable. Granted, both nations have long cooperated with NATO in some form or other, but it doesn’t appear that Sweden or Finland have suffered a decline in their security.
It is also worth mentioning that Russia’s performance in Ukraine has been a strategic disaster. Russia doesn’t have the combat power to actually want – or even need – to take on Sweden and Finland.
There is a key difference between now and the Cold War that likely played a role in Sweden and Finland reassessing their security needs. The war in Ukraine may be a disaster for Russia, but it was a disaster Russia chose.
Helsinki and Stockholm clearly view modern Russia as more reckless than its Soviet predecessor. Facing a larger, well-armed power on your doorstep is one thing, but watching that nation use its power recklessly is quite another.
Both Sweden and Finland are geographically large nations – compared to their European neighbors – and have small populations. This discrepancy has a profound impact on their homeland security; the current population of Sweden is 10.7 million and Finland is 5.5 million, so both nations can offer some internal defense so long as any potential conflict does not drag on.
Understanding this population issue may have been another reason for Sweden and Finland to join NATO. While NATO does provide a collective defense for its members, it also offers improved logistics from far-flung members able to provide arms and equipment, should either nation face an overwhelming conventional attack.
The geography of Sweden and Finland is a mixed blessing. Their northern regions are comprised of difficult terrain that is locked by ice for much of the year. As a result, those areas are difficult to defend, but are equally difficult to seize and occupy.
For the most part, the populations of both nations reside around their respective capitals and away from the border they share with Russia. While the inclusion of Finland more than doubles the length of the border between NATO and Russia, the geography of the Nordic region does offset that up to a point.
Related link: Why Sweden Has Remained Hesitant about Joining NATO
NATO Membership Means Sweden and Finland Will Have to Come to Other Nations’ Defense
A new challenge for Sweden and Finland will arise in the activities of some NATO members outside of Europe. While these two nations will receive the benefit of NATO Article 5 – the provision that requires NATO members to come to the aid of a member-state under attack – it also means that Stockholm and Helsinki will need to come to the defense of other nations if their application for NATO membership is granted.
NATO members such as the U.S., UK, France, and Canada all have interests outside of Europe that could result in a NATO call to arms, and Sweden and Finland will have to answer the call in some way. Neither country have had that obligation in the past, and this requirement could cause their respective populations to object.
The Implications for NATO
NATO counts among its members nearly all of Europe and North America, making the defense commitments for this organization rather vast. In some ways, expanding NATO increases those demands for defense, but those demands can be mitigated in other ways.
For instance, including other nations like Sweden and Finland in NATO makes sense since it would give NATO more control over strategic areas. Sweden and Finland offer this advantage in an interesting way as both nations are already in close proximity to or share a common border with other NATO nations.
Perhaps the most important aspect of obtaining these two new members is that NATO would gain de facto control over the Kattegat Strait, the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. This control greatly constrains Russian coastal areas near St. Petersburg, allowing NATO the ability to create a naval blockade if it ever became necessary.
Naturally, Russia relies on the Baltic Sea environs for military matters. However, NATO would have greater control of those waters with the inclusion of Sweden and Finland.
The Implications for Russia
Although Russia borders NATO members Estonia and Latvia, Moscow has relied on Sweden’s and Finland’s neutrality to act as a buffer region. But with the potential membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO, Russia loses that protection for its naval assets on the Barents Sea.
What’s worse for Russia is that the region on its border with Finland is woefully underdeveloped, due to economic crises in Russia over the years and the lack of any threat. With Finland in the NATO mix, NATO would be able to more quickly strike Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula and easily stress Russia’s naval assets in its Arctic region.
Moscow will have to find a way to bolster its defenses in the Arctic, but the funds and military personnel needed to make this defense goal a reality are not readily available. Russia has long been strictly focused on its security goals and has sacrificed its economic viability at times to pursue those goals.
How Russia Could Combat the Increased Security Threat Posed by NATO
There are several areas where Russia could counterattack and compensate for NATO’s expansion. Cyberattacks, fuel cutoffs and military expansion in the Arctic are all within Russian capabilities.
Cyberattacks are a low-cost, low risk (for now) form of attack, while fuel cutoffs will stress the energy needs and economics of Russia’s foes. The North Sea is a major energy-producing region and may be able to supplant Russian economic dominance over energy production in the region, but that will not come anytime soon. Russia has used energy as a weapon in the past, so it will continue to use this weapon in Europe.
There is one last weapon Russia can wield against Europe and that involves refugees. Taking in people from the Middle East and Ukraine has caused strain on numerous European nations over the past decade.
With the world running short on wheat due to the Russian war on Ukraine and drought, look for refugees fleeing the Middle East and North Africa due to food shortages. Though a food shortage is not a weapon in the traditional sense, it is a result of the war in Ukraine and will work to Russia’s advantage if for nothing more than to cause political division and economic pain.