Columns, Opinion

Worldview: Scandinavia’s embrace of NATO in the face of the Russian threat

The continental Scandinavian countries — Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland — are, at the same time, inextricably connected to and isolated from the Eurasian continent. While they directly border two historic expansionist great powers in Germany and Russia, their harsh terrain and natural defenses segregated them from Europe and, with the notable exception of Finland, prevented them from being subjugated by external powers for the majority of their respective histories.

Scandinavian unity is thus in part derived from this shared geographic situation. Geopolitical problems therefore affect Scandinavia in similar ways, although they may respond differently. The question of alignment in the brewing tensions between Russia and NATO, for example, is salient to all of Scandinavia. While the four countries have different membership statuses with NATO — Denmark and Norway are full members while Sweden and Finland are cooperative partners — the rising threat posed by Russia has pushed all four countries closer to finding counterbalance with NATO.

Norway, which was one of the founding members of NATO in 1949, has been the site of increased activity by both the Russians and NATO members over the past year. Trident Juncture 18 is the name for a NATO-led military exercise in Norway, Sweden and Finland which will take place this October and November in which over 30 nations will participate. Norway’s Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said, “The focus has changed in the last years because the security environment all over the world, but also in Europe, has changed,” in reference as to why  an exercise of this magnitude was being conducted.

While the exercises are intentionally being held far away from the northern border with Russia, avoiding provoking Russia is not a top priority for NATO in Scandinavia, as demonstrated by the plans to deploy 800 British Royal Marines to set up a permanent base there as a part of a broader Arctic strategy. In response, the Russian embassy in London denounced the plans as unjustified and would only exaggerate tensions between the two countries.

Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, are not members of NATO, yet cooperate closely with the alliance regardless. Sweden, while not bordering Russia directly, has felt Russia’s waxing threat in the past few years. Four years ago marked the apex of the tensions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. That same year, a Russian submarine was alleged to have sailed in Sweden’s territorial waters, which stirred up debate among the Swedish military about its preparedness for a potential conflict with Russia’s vastly superior armed forces.

In the years since, Sweden has made steps to bolster its military by reintroducing military conscription, deploying troops to the Baltic island Gotland, and increasing military spending by 2.7 billion Swedish kronor (roughly $300 million). The Swedish government also recently issued leaflets outlining the official plan in the unlikely event of a Russian invasion: to resist the invaders for three months until help can arrive. Such a measure may seem bizarre here in the United States, where there hasn’t been genuine concern about an invasion since 1812, but the sincerity with which Sweden is treating the situation speaks to the magnitude of the threat Russia presents.  

The case of Finland is somewhat different given its 800-mile border with Russia. This, coupled with the history of Russian invasion during the ill-fortuned Winter War of 1940, makes the Finns extremely wary about getting too close to NATO and potentially antagonizing its neighbor. While, in Sweden, public opinion is quickly warming toward NATO, with 43 percent of the population in favor of joining the organization, Finland is far more cautious with only 22 percent of the population in favor.

If Russian bellicosity continues to grow, however, the assurances of Article 5 (which states that attack on one member state is an attack on all) could be the only significant deterrent which Sweden and Finland could rely on in the case of Russian meddling or outright invasion.

Support for joining NATO therefore is likely to continue to grow in Sweden and Finland in the upcoming years. In Sweden in particular, political support is developing behind the idea of Sweden joining NATO. Should the climate continue to worsen, Scandinavia may eventually decide it has no other choice but to seek the protection of NATO and further entrench the division of Europe.

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