In the Firing Line: Finland, Sweden, NATO and European Security

7 Jan 2022 03:00 PM

Sweden and Finland’s freedom to eventually join NATO should their electorates decide to do so has been openly challenged by Russia. Anna Wieslander talks to Jonathan Eyal about the reaction in the two countries to this Russian move, as well as broader European security questions.

Anna Wieslander in conversation with RUSI

Jonathan Eyal (JE): Were you surprised at the way in which a crisis which allegedly started over the question of Ukraine’s putative membership in NATO suddenly dragged in the names of Sweden and Finland and their potential future membership in the Alliance?

Anna Wieslander (AW): No, not really surprised, because it became apparent that Russia wanted to create a connection between its agenda for Ukraine and a discussion on the future of the European security order. Sweden has been targeted by Russia with similar arguments before; the real difference is the timing. The last time President Vladimir Putin took a major sideswipe at Sweden in connection to NATO was back in June 2017, when he claimed that, if Sweden joined the Alliance, that would be considered as ‘an additional threat for Russia’, and vowed to ‘search for ways to eliminate it’. Then the threats decreased, only to be revived again as part of the security guarantees that Russia is currently seeking.

This is something that we should very much pay attention to, because it signals what Russia is really after: an expansion of its influence. This is governed by its buffer zone mentality, which resembles the Cold War and in some senses is even worse than the Cold War. We have developed a very close relationship with NATO, especially through the international missions that we participated in during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but also in Afghanistan and Libya. Thus, the current Russian demands represent a big challenge for us.

JE: The words of Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö during his New Year speech, in which he explicitly rejected the right of any other country to dictate Finland’s security arrangements, have received quite a lot of media attention. But there is a perception that Sweden’s reaction has been less audible. Is this true, and if so why?

AW: Yes, there has been a stronger Finnish reaction. We have recently had both Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist firmly reject the idea that Russia should ever enjoy a veto over our country’s security choices. However, it is true that after Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova repeated Moscow’s position on 26 December 2021, there has not been an explicit and direct statement on this point from Magdalena Andersson, our prime minister until very recently. Overall, therefore, Sweden’s response has not been at the same high level of state officials as the response in Finland.

One key explanation for this is that we are not in the same political position. Finland has been clear about its debate: the country frequently talks of its ‘NATO option’ as a future possibility. But the current Swedish government has explicitly ruled out joining NATO. That is not the policy of the Swedish Parliament majority, which almost exactly a year ago called upon the government to include a NATO option in the Swedish policy doctrine, something which the Social Democrats – now in a minority government – have rejected. So, with national elections due in September, it was understandable why the official reaction to the Russian statement was muted in comparison with that in Finland.

Anna Wieslander recently said:

“It is clear that security options are narrowing in Europe, and we may soon need to contend with quite a different security environment on the continent”

JE: And, of course, the histories are very different. You did not have the harrowing experience of Finland’s so-called Winter War, so your approach to European security would be different. Do you believe that the current crisis with Russia is bringing you closer?

AW: This is a crucial question. We have built a very strong bilateral defence relationship since 2015, which is unique for non-aligned countries in that it includes operational planning for war. So, you could say that we are like twins in our postures. However, as you indicate – and this is one of my concerns – Sweden might be slowed down by its domestic dispute, which could hamper us in a worsening security situation. Some of this is clearly due to history: while Sweden has kept outside of great power wars for more than 200 years, Finland has had to fight for its independence against the Soviet Union and against Germany. I believe you can also see this different historical experience in the way we plan our defences. In Sweden, we always plan on the assumption that we will have allies: we expect support from the US and from NATO, so our defence objective is to be able to endure an onslaught until allied help arrives. But the Finns always plan and expect to defend their nation on their own. In the end, it is about the notion of state survival, which clearly differs between the two.

JE: So, where are we on the debate about NATO membership?

AW: There was some movement on this question back in 2014 as a result of the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea. Then, Swedish public support for joining NATO jumped: opinion polls recorded about 35% or sometimes up to 40% support for Alliance membership, and a few of the political parties in Parliament also shifted and actively started to advocate for NATO membership. But then, it lost momentum. The Social Democrats, who have been in government since 2014, have also been noticeably clear that they don't see the need for such a role for Sweden. The Green Party, which was also supporting them, adopted a similar position. So, we have a polarised situation at the moment, and one which seems pretty immobile.

In Finland, however, the matter is more of a leadership question. You can see that public opinion has been around 20–25% in favour of NATO membership for a long time and it hasn't really moved. But on the other hand, you have polls in Finland showing that if the leadership shifted and said ‘this is what our country needs now’, the public would be persuaded to follow. So, you have a different dynamic in Finland.

In both countries, however, there would be a question about a referendum because that is what we had for joining the EU, for instance. And that would be a dangerous situation because it would open up opportunities for disinformation. And we are still being heavily hit by Russian propaganda campaigns. Also, since the situation is one of decreasing security in Europe, any NATO membership process will have to be fast. However, it is clear that security options are narrowing in Europe, and we may soon need to contend with quite a different security environment on the continent. The space for manoeuvre for a smaller state could become very limited outside of an alliance, which Finland clearly senses, given its history with the Soviet Union.

JE: One could argue that for Swedish military planners, what has happened over the last few weeks in Europe has not been a surprise, and that in many ways you were the ‘canary in the mine’ when it comes to continental security. Could you tell us the kind of security developments that have taken place, both in terms of defence spending and military posture?

Anna Wieslander recently said:

“Both Sweden and our Finnish neighbours are keen to explore more what the EU could provide in security areas, because the EU should take more responsibility for its own security”

AW: We have had a major shift in Sweden. I must say we never took our eyes off the rise of Russia; that’s what General Micael Bydén, the Supreme Commander of our Armed Forces, said in an interview for an American media outlet just recently. Finland did not do so either, but Sweden dismantled its defences more extensively, so efforts to rebuild them have been more urgently needed. We were focused on international missions for quite some time, and we are only now rebuilding that kind of national defence posture with the return of conscription, the beefing up of civil defence and the re-establishing of previously disbanded regiments and other defence units.

Having said that, we should do even more on national defence. We have agreed on a 40% increase in the volume of defence expenditure between 2020 and 2025, which, of course, is massive. But still, we will only reach 1.5% of GDP in 2025, because we have started from a fairly low base. But we also need to move on new domains, such as cyberspace and addressing disinformation. We need to engage with developments in hi-tech drones and other unmanned equipment. So, we are on track on current plans, but we could do it a bit faster and with more muscle. There is consensus now, but we will need to have a review in 2023 on how things are going and what our planning should be up to 2030.

JE: In this context, how do you assess the ambitions of the French presidency of the EU for the first six months of this year?

AW: France has been very articulate on the need for European strategic autonomy, on the question of the need for European independence and when it comes to making security and defence decisions. Given the current tensions with Russia as well as the running problems in Belarus and Kazakhstan, I would have expected France to be more vocal on a European say in such matters, but the French appear to have been quite reticent in this regard.

That is the fault of the EU. Sure, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is currently in Ukraine, but the EU as such is not involved in the current framework of diplomatic negotiations with Russia. It is also very clear for the Russians that the EU does not have the military muscle to be a player at the negotiation table. The EU can work on sanctions, of course, but I think, as the Finnish president also indicated in his New Year speech, the road to the EU summit should be much more forward-leaning than being a technocratic guardian of sanctions.

In Sweden there has been a traditional scepticism of the EU having a stronger defence dimension; for many years we belonged to the transatlantic group of states and opposed the EU’s supranational aspirations. But both Sweden and our Finnish neighbours are keen to explore more what the EU could provide in security areas, because the EU should take more responsibility for its own security. We can see that the US is strained with handling security developments in Asia. We also have resources here that we could coordinate much better. Thus, there are good pragmatic reasons for the EU to further develop its common security and defence policy. As members, we want to be at the core of the EU. We need to engage in this discussion, but it is important that it is a realistic discussion that is connected to European security realities, and that it is not naïve and does not detract from other cooperative formats and processes. We have a difficult situation in northern Europe, and we will have to live with it every day.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to commentaries@rusi.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.