HELSINKI — Against a backdrop of increasing security tensions sparked by Russia's actions in Ukraine, Sweden has won universal Nordic backing for its plan to elevate cross-border defense cooperation to match the actual long-term threats in the region.
Sweden, which has assumed chairmanship of Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), the primary vehicle for military collaboration among Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, is pushing for an unprecedented level of practical interstate collaboration.
On Sweden's agenda is development of joint Nordic situational awareness initiatives to strengthen air and sea cooperation and improve early warning systems.
Significantly, Sweden has asked NORDEFCO to examine the feasibility of assembling a modular-style Nordic-Baltic Battle Group (NBBG) modeled on the European Union's Swedish-led standby Nordic Battle Group (NBG).
The 1,600-strong NBG already comprises forces from Finland and Norway, as well as the NATO-aligned Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Swedish interest in forming a Nordic-Baltic battlegroup stems from regional concerns that more concrete and credible measures are urgently needed to better protect strategic areas, such as the High North, Arctic region and the Baltic Sea area.
The push to scale-up Nordic-Baltic defense cooperation is reflected in NORDEFCO's 2014 Annual Report, released Feb. 2, which underlines the deepening sense of unease over Russia's actions in Ukraine and the flexing of its military muscle in the High North and Baltic Sea regions.
"2014 has been an eventful year for Nordic defense cooperation. Russia's annexation of the Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine has changed the European security landscape, with implications also in our own Nordic region," said Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide.
Norway chaired NORDEFCO in 2014.
Nordic countries, said Søreide, are discussing how they can best adapt defense policies to this new situation.
"The Nordic nations have had to reconsider their security policies and their relationship with Russia," Søreide said.
NORDEFCO, said Søreide, has evolved from being an intra-Nordic forum for contact and dialogue on defense and security policy matters to an organization that not only pursues greater military interoperability and cooperation in armaments, but also strengthened collaboration within the Nordic defense industry sector.
Creation of a Nordic defense and security commission is the best way to establish a functional structure to spur defense collaboration, said Bertel Haarder, the first vice president of the Nordic Council's Presidium.
The Nordic Council is the primary interstate forum for political, social and economic cooperation.
The establishment of such a commission would ensure that challenges to building defense cooperation, including political speed bumps, such as necessary legislation to facilitate collaboration among Nordic and Baltic forces, could be handled quickly, Haarder said.
"With Ukraine constantly in the background, and Russia's aggression there, we have seen heightened activity by Russian submarines, naval forces and aircraft in this region. There is also the growing geopolitical interest in the Arctic region. There is now, more than ever before, a need for real defense cooperation between the Nordic countries," Haarder said.
A strong, united Nordic defense capability in the Baltic Sea and Arctic areas would signal the Kremlin that Nordic and Baltic militaries were prepared to act jointly to ensure regional stability, Haarder said.
The concept of forming a Nordic defense and security commission was first proposed by Thorvald Stoltenberg, a defense and security specialist, in October 2014.
A former Norwegian defense and foreign minister, Stoltenberg said he favored the formation of joint Nordic forces while working with Russia to develop long-term political, economic and security stability in Northern Europe and the Arctic region.
"The issue is obvious: We have a security situation crying out for closer Nordic co-operation on defense and security. A Nordic defense and security commission could be tasked to identify when and how concrete proposals can be followed up. The commission must be able to work quickly and place particular emphasis on concrete Nordic co-operation plans for defense. It must also incorporate the important digital cyberdefense side of Nordic security," Stoltenberg said.
The planned reinvigoration of NORDEFCO's mission under a Swedish chair is likely to prioritize more ambitious "neighborhood" defense strengthening projects, typically conducted among two or three militaries, and several of which are included in the organization's Vision for 2020 roadmap.
Improving common defense sector capacity-building will feature high on the priorities list. Such projects will also look to form joint units that can be offered to NATO, the EU or the UN as a "plug-and-play" component in their engagements.
Moreover, Nordic and Baltic militaries will assess future joint air-surveillance naval mine countermeasures capabilities, combined Arctic training, and the possibility of forming joint Nordic naval and air force patrol units.