Determined By History: Why Sweden and Finland Will Not Be More than NATO Partners


“Posterity, stand here upon your ground and never rely on outside help”

Augustin Ehrensvärd (1710-1772), Builder of Sveaborg/Suomenlinna fortress guarding the inlet to Helsinki


When the Warsaw summit started last week, the heads of NATO’s 28 member states were joined by their colleagues from two of the alliance’s closest partner countries, Sweden and Finland. This would have been impossible 20 years ago, but much has happened since. As the region around the Baltic Sea has become a focal point of geopolitical conflict, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Finnish president Sauli Niinistö will continue walking a fine line of deepening cooperation with NATO without overly aggravating Moscow.

In the middle of the 1990s, Sweden and Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) together with Russia and several other countries who are now NATO members. The objective of PfP was to offer countries a way to develop their individual relations to NATO. However, as James Goldgeier touched in yesterday at War on the Rocks, most of the countries that joined, arguably used PfP as a route toward future NATO membership. Sweden, Finland, and Russia have, however, just used PfP as a vehicle for cooperation. The 2008 war in Georgia and Russia’s more recent invasion of Ukraine have changed this dynamic. The two Nordic countries are now doing whatever they can to improve their security and their relations with NATO short of actually applying for membership.

To understand the context of these choices, it is necessary to look back into history to get an appreciation for the events, values, and geopolitics that still form basis of Swedish and Finnish security policy. The two countries are closely linked —  Finland constituted the eastern half of Sweden until 1809, when Sweden ceded Finland to Russia with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn. This marked the end of several hundred years of wars between Sweden and Russia for hegemony over the Baltic Sea. Sweden had tried to control the sea its trade routes, while Russia aimed to expand its window to the West, having been previously relegated to just a small strip of land near St. Petersburg. For Sweden, the peace meant a drastic shortening of its vulnerable land border with Russia.

1814 was the last time Sweden was openly at war with another country. It joined the alliance against Napoleon in order to pry Norway from the pro-Napoleonic Denmark. The common perception of Sweden is that it has since been neutral, but this is inaccurate. During the Crimean War, Sweden was on the verge of joining Britain and France with the ambition of retaking Finland when the war ended in 1856. Yet French and British naval forces had already been using the Swedish island of Gotland as a base of operations against Russia in the Baltic Sea. During World War I, Sweden declared neutrality. This was also the case during World War II, except for the Russo-Finnish Winter War, in which Sweden declared itself as a non-belligerent, but allowed substantial volunteer units from its army and air force to deploy in support of Finnish forces.

After the peace of 1809, Finland became the Russian Grand-Duchy of Finland until it declared its independence shortly after Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution. Finland’s independence was respected until November 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. This was a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, where Eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and Finland constituted territory that fell under the Soviet sphere of influence. Finland, which had declared neutrality following the German invasion of Poland like the other Nordic countries, found itself in an existential struggle without any possible overt support from the Allies or Sweden. The Allies were cut off from the Baltic Sea and could not pass through neutral Norway and Sweden. Sweden had initiated massive defense spending cuts during the 1920s and only planned for a threat from one direction, but now found itself simultaneously threatened by the Soviet Union in the east and its then-partner Nazi Germany in the south. Sweden also became concerned about a possible Allied expeditionary force forcing its way through northern Sweden to cut the German iron ore supply under the pretext of assisting Finland.

After being forced to sign a peace treaty with the Soviet Union in the spring of 1940, Finland joined sides with Nazi Germany in the late spring of 1941 to try to reclaim the territory it had ceded. When the war turned, Finland once again made peace with the Soviet Union and instead had to push German forces out of Finland. In the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance forced upon it by the Soviet Union, Finland promised to adhere to neutrality unless the country itself was attacked. This resulted in a strong, openly neutral Finnish standpoint in foreign and security policy. The treaty was cancelled in 1992 and replaced with a new, more liberal treaty on friendly relations.

The experiences of World War II were formative for Swedish and Finnish security policy and still influence the countries’ security policies. Sweden was the only Nordic country that managed to stay out of the war, a success for its policy of neutrality. Yet one could argue that it was actually the exceptions that Sweden made to its policy of neutrality, in the form of concessions both to the Allies and to Nazi Germany, that kept the country out of World War II. Finland emerged from World War II with two experiences. First, that the country was ill-positioned to receive any outside help in the event of war, and that it therefore would always be dependent on its own capabilities to defend its interests and independence. Second, that it would have to carefully balance its own interests with the interests of the Soviet Union/Russia owing to their long land border.

After the war, Sweden tried to form a Nordic defense alliance. This was rejected by Denmark and Norway who in 1949 instead chose to join NATO. Sweden resorted to an official policy of non-alignment in peacetime and aimed at neutrality during times of war. As strange as this might look today, there was a good reason for this. Had Sweden joined NATO at the time, this would probably have caused the Soviet Union to tighten its grip on the already subdued Finland, possibly even annexing it. This would have benefited neither Sweden, who would then once again have its own land border with the Soviet Union, nor NATO, which would be faced with an even longer border with the Soviet Union. The neutrality policy and the experience of being surrounded during World War II resulted in Sweden, like Finland, investing heavily in having a credible sovereign military capability. At the same time, Sweden would go on to covertly cooperate very closely with NATO, primarily the United States. One example of this was the very close intelligence cooperation during the Cold War. Another reason influencing the Swedish choice of neutrality could possibly have been to try to stay out of an initial nuclear exchange between the two blocs.

With the downfall of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Moscow’s restraints on Finland loosened, and Sweden saw new opportunities for improving its security. When the three Baltic states became independent, Sweden seized the opportunity to support the their creation of defense forces while reducing its own forces. By sending one complete brigade set of equipment to each of the Baltic states, Sweden assisted the three young states in their independence while strengthening its own security. Officers from the Baltic states were also trained at Swedish defense academies, and Baltic units were trained by Swedish mentors.

The Baltic states have always been important for Sweden, be it during the 17th century or today. The countries have a common history, and Sweden improves its own security by supporting the defense of the Baltic states. This is arguably also one of the reasons for the unilateral Swedish declaration of solidarity in 2009 with the Nordic and Baltic states. Should one of these countries be attacked, Sweden would come to its assistance and expects that other countries would do the same. The declaration has since been reiterated in several parliamentary defense bills. Finland has not offered a similar declaration, but is like Sweden bound by the E.U. Lisbon Treaty’s article 42.7 (the European Union’s equivalent to NATO’s article 5). This article, however, leaves an opening for the “special character of the security and defense policy of certain Member States”.

The events following Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea and its war in eastern Ukraine have forced Sweden and Finland into the middle of the West’s dispute with Russia. Finland now has the majority of the EU border with Russia.

For both Sweden and Finland, it is of vital interest that NATO is successful in its reassurance and defense of the Baltic states. Analysis from the Swedish Defense Research Agency show the region surrounding the Baltic Sea as one theater of operations in the event of war. This view is also reflected in the Swedish Parliamentary Defense Commission’s reports since 2007 onward, which state that it is impossible to foresee a military conflict in the Nordic region that would only affect one of the countries. The close operational interdependency of the region is also one of the reasons why the Sweden and Finland are invited to the NATO Warsaw summit. The Swedish island of Gotland, located in the middle of the Baltic Sea, has throughout the centuries been strategically important terrain and remains so today. As a result of Russia’s anti-access/area-denial dome over Kaliningrad, NATO lines of communications to reinforce the Baltic states are pushed northward. As shown by several analyses and simulations (see also the criticism), NATO would need to use bases in Sweden to defend the Baltic states. Likewise, Finland dominates the Gulf of Finland, which constitutes Russia’s maritime and airborne access route to the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad.

For Sweden, one of the first wake-up calls of a resurgent Russia was the simulated nuclear attack on Sweden by Russian bombers on the night of Easter Friday in 2013. Both Finland and Sweden have since signed host-nation support agreements with NATO to speed up the process of hosting NATO forces when needed. So why don’t Sweden and Finland just join NATO? Both countries have been very active partners of NATO for many years and are in many respects more NATO-interoperable than several NATO members. For instance, both countries participate in the NATO Response Force and both regularly participate in major NATO exercises and operations.

The reason for not joining is partly a question about identity. Both countries have strong public narratives that support non-alignment and even neutrality, even though public support for NATO membership has increased during the last few years, especially in Sweden. Both countries also understand that it would be advantageous to apply at the same time to avoid provoking a stronger Russian reaction. When Finland signed established its host-nation support agreement with NATO in 2014, it passed smoothly, without outside influence. Yet in Sweden, Russia tried to influence the debate of ratification of the agreement, according to the Swedish security service.

However, the non-alignment line of both countries may offer Russia an opening to drive a wedge between the two states and their partners in NATO by playing on their status and reinforcing the narrative of neutrality. This was also the narrative used by president Putin in his meeting with president Niinistö in the beginning of July. During the Q&A session, Putin falsely stated that Russia had withdrawn its forces 1500 kilometers from Finland’s borders in recognition of Finland’s neutrality. Should this change, he warned, Russia would have to react militarily. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used similar narratives in late April when he told one of Sweden’s major newspapers that Russia would react militarily to Sweden joining NATO. In June, Lavrov stated that “serious and honest politicians know that Russia will never attack any member country of the North Atlantic Alliance.”

Ambiguity is always present in the Russian narrative regarding the meaning of NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. Putin’s thrice-repeated figure about withdrawing 1500 kilometers from the Finnish border caused surprise among the audience, as this would mean that Russia would have abandoned all its bases on the Kola Peninsula and all military installations west of the Ural Mountains. The question is why Putin would make such a statement when it is so easily exposed as false. If Russia would never attack a NATO country, the choice for Sweden and Finland would be easy. Another interpretation of Lavrov’s statement is that countries with intent of joining NATO remain fair prey for Russia if they happen to be in Moscow’s sphere of interest, as in the case of Georgia in 2008. It is also this period between application and membership that Finland’s recently released third NATO report warns about, even though the assessment is that such a crisis may not lead to open conflict. The thin line Löfven and Niinistö continued to walk in Warsaw was to show enough interest and commitment to NATO and the defense of the Baltic states and Poland without severely provoking Russia.

This will be a continuation of the path the two countries have embarked in strengthening their defenses without passing the line of becoming members of NATO. This is the path of close bilateral defense cooperation extending beyond peacetime exercises. Some of the measures included in such cooperation are the establishment of a combined naval task group and the possibility of basing air forces in other each other’s countries. These measures enable greater operational depth, whereby Finnish F-18 Hornets can be based in more secure locations in Sweden in wartime, and Swedish naval assets can operate with their Finnish counterparts in the Gulf of Finland. On the strategic level, the two countries are once again faced with echoes of history. In effect, the agreement means that Sweden once again has a long land border with Russia and that Finland must plan for naval operations in the Southern Baltic Sea.

The question is finally whether a consensus could be reached within NATO to accept Sweden and Finland as new members. Finland’s position just next to Russia and the latter’s geostrategic nuclear second-strike capability may be too much to stomach for some of NATO’s member states who fear provoking Moscow. Russia’s concern for its sphere of interest is nothing new, but in the case of the Nordic countries, the stakes are somewhat higher. Finland directly borders the Kola Peninsula, which holds the majority of Russia’s nuclear second-strike capability in the form of nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

Sweden and Finland will continue their policies of close partnerships with NATO without applying for membership. Both countries will continue to seek strong bilateral partnerships, not only with each other, but also with other major Western partners, such as the cooperation agreements that Sweden recently signed with the United Kingdom, the United States, and neighboring countries. By doing so, Sweden and Finland can strengthen their security while avoiding aggravating Moscow too much. Moscow will always have to take into account that if it pursues its ambitions too forcefully, the two countries may finally seek a full membership in NATO.


Carl Bergqvist (@wisemanswisdoms) is a major in the Swedish Air Force and currently a student of the U.K. Advanced Command and Staff Course. The views presented here are his own and do not reflect the official views of the Swedish Armed Forces. He started Scandinavia’s top defense blog Wiseman’s Wisdoms in 2007 and is now also a columnist for the Swedish newspaper Expressen.

Image: SA-kuva