Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen arrives March 6 at the European Council building in Brussels. He has since asserted that while Finland is not aligned with NATO, 'the country is not neutral.' (Getty Images)
HELSINKI — Heightened regional tensions, which have grown in the wake of the disputed legality of Crimea’s referendum to join the Russian Federation, have rekindled debate over whether non-aligned Sweden and Finland can protect their sovereignty outside of NATO.
Nordic NATO-aligned neighbors Denmark and Norway have long sought a High North defense solution that includes Finland and Sweden as permanent members of the alliance. This is regarded as the optimum pan-Nordic solution to establish a lasting, credible deterrent against threats to countries in the region.
The Kremlin has, in inter-governmental talks with Finland and Sweden since 2012, urged both countries to forgo NATO membership and join a Russia-led Eastern Alliance, a prospect that neither of the two Nordic states has shown any appetite for.
Against a backdrop of growing support for NATO membership in Sweden, opinion in Finland is slowly shifting toward what the country’s Council of State describes as a “collective defense solution.”
The increasing unease within the Finnish government, which declared the referendum on secession in Crimea to be illegal, provoked Premier Jyrki Katainen to assert on March 18 that while Finland is non-aligned, “the country is not neutral.”
“We have been a member of the European Union for 20 years,” Katainen said in a statement. “We keep open the option of becoming a full member of NATO, and this will not stop us from maintaining excellent bilateral relations with Russia.”
The primary defense issue for Finland and Sweden is to determine if Russia will pose a serious, long-term and destabilizing threat to regional and national security, said Jussi Niinistö, chairman of Finland’s Parliamentary Defense Committee.
“Nordic defense cooperation has produced only limited results, while European Union membership had delivered little in substance in the absence of a military capability edge. Finland and Sweden need to consider other avenues.” Niinistö said in an interview.
The three most viable military alliance options being considered by Sweden and Finland, said Niinistö, include deepening the relationship around Nordic cooperation; NATO membership; or creating a bilateral Swedish-Finnish defense partnership offering practical benefits such as commonality of equipment, joint forces and task sharing under a new defense treaty.
There is more support for NATO within the Finnish and Swedish political and military establishments than ever before, Brussels-based political analyst Theo Ebly said.
“The barrier is constitutional. Any decision to join can only happen by popular referendums,” Ebly said. “If the electorates vote for constitutional change to join NATO, this will ease passage into the alliance.”
The pro-NATO mood can be expected to strengthen in the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and military rebuilding programs in the High North, he said. But it remains to be seen how far Finnish public opinion will swing to favor of membership of the alliance.
The potential for deepening defense cooperation between Finland and Sweden was discussed during informal talks on March 7 here between the defense ministers of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Other issues, such as the crisis in Ukraine and NATO cooperation, were also on the agenda.
Norway, which holds the chair of the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) project this year, wants Finland and Sweden in NATO, said Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide.
“I hope Finland and Sweden do join NATO. They would be welcomed with open arms by Norway and the alliance,” Søreide said at a news conference.
Senior members of Finland’s National Coalition, the leading coalition government party, are pushing for negotiations with Sweden on a bilateral defense treaty.
The destabilizing impact of Russia’s warlike behavior must lead to a clearer picture of where Nordic defense collaboration is headed, said Karin Åström, president of the Nordic Council, a primary vehicle for regional cooperation.
Russian plans to reopen military bases, and relocate more than 150,000 personnel to facilities near the Finnish and Norwegian borders in coming months, are certain to accelerate the search by Finland and Sweden for long-term “collective defense” solutions, Ebly said.
The Finnish-Swedish defense-strengthening dialogue has opened the possibility that the countries could partner to build and acquire new multipurpose warships with dual open-sea and littoral operating capabilities.
“We are exchanging information about possible cooperation. We both have similar projects in the pipeline with the same time frame, so collaboration can be considered,” Rear Adm. Kari Takanen, the Finnish Navy’s commander-in-chief, said in an interview.
The talks relate to the MTA 2020 project, under which the Finnish Navy plans to develop a new warship class to replace the main body of its surface vessel fleet. ■