Among the Finn population, more than half in a recent poll favored a military alliance with Sweden. (NATO)
HELSINKI — Nearly 54 percent of Finns would support a formal, treaty-centered, bilateral military alliance with Sweden, according to an opinion poll conducted March 17-20 by the Helsinki-based research organization Taloustutkimus for the Finnish public broadcasting corporation YLE.
By contrast, 36 percent of those surveyed opposed such a pact.
The poll reveals that a Finnish-Swedish relationship aimed at creating common defense systems, including joint deployments, is preferred over NATO membership by Finland. Latest polls show that less than 25 percent of Finns support either joining the Western alliance or participating in the so-called European Union Common Defense project.
The poll provides a useful barometer of the Finnish mood in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the related surge in military exercises, together with large-scale armored troop movements, by Russian forces along the country’s 800 mile eastern border with Russia.
“The results of the poll are interesting. We already cooperate with Sweden’s armed forces on various military fronts, but there is nothing formal in our relationship. We have, so far, not discussed a treaty-based military alliance. While one should not rule out the option of entering a military alliance, we are not at this point, at present,” said Carl Haglund, Finland’s defense minister.
The poll does reveal strong cross-party support for a bilateral Finnish-Swedish defense alliance, with the Christian Democrats emerging as the only political group in the eight party Finnish national parliament to oppose such a collaboration.
According to a poll conducted Jan. 12 by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, Swedish support for NATO membership has risen from 30 to 36 percent year-on-year; 40 percent of Swedes oppose NATO membership while 24 percent are undecided.
Russia’s defense strengthening in the High North, combined with a more aggressive and expansionist Kremlin, has rekindled debate in Finland and Sweden over the sustainability of their separate positions on non-alignment and remaining outside NATO.
Defense leaders in both countries have been playing down the “Russian threat” while talking up cross-border cooperation in recent days. The restated positions of both governments is to retain NATO membership as a “viable future option,” Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen told parliament on March 20.
“It is healthy for democracy that we should debate our neutrality and future defense options. That said, I do not believe that Russia poses a threat to Finland. We have a different history to countries in Eastern Europe that were conquered and occupied. Russia would not dare come here. It would get a bloody nose, and it knows that,” said retired Gen. Gustav Hägglund, the commander of Finland’s armed forces from 1994-2001.
Conceding that the activity of Russian forces had increased close to the borders of Finland and Norway, Sweden’s defense commander, Gen. Sverker Göransson, ruled out the immediate possibility of an attack by Russia on the NATO-aligned Baltic states.
While the possibility of such an attack could not be fully ruled-out, against the backdrop of Russian aggression in the Ukraine, Göransson pointed to what he called the “huge differences” between the Baltic NATO states and Ukraine.
“Although Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have land borders with Russia, they are so integrated with NATO and the European Union that Russia’s leaders will, in the short term, not dare attack,” said Göransson.
Sweden and Finland have responded to increased activity by Russian forces along the eastern border and in the Baltic Sea by increasing radar surveillance and deploying more aircraft to monitor force movements.
Finland is particularly keen to track Russian military exercises on the Karelian Isthmus. The Finnish Air Force has moved more F-18 Hornets to air bases along the border, while radar stations are also on high alert. ■