HELSINKI — Nordic governments have welcomed NATO's intention to strengthen its military presence in the Nordic-Baltic region through closer cooperation with non-aligned partners Sweden and Finland.
NATO's plans were outlined by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during two days of talks between Nordic and Baltic defense ministers in Stockholm, which ended Tuesday.
NATO's higher military profile in the Nordic region is to be achieved largely through more numerous and visible joint exercises with the Nordic Partnership for Peace cooperation states Sweden and Finland.
"It makes sense to deepen our cooperation further, not alone among our Nordic allies and partners, but also with our Baltic allies," Stoltenberg said.
The interstate Nordic defense cooperation talks took place against the backdrop of continuing tensions between the Nordic and Baltic countries, as well as a more unpredictable Kremlin.
The prospect of deeper military collaboration with NATO has been particularly welcomed in Stockholm, where the Swedish government has been exploring new avenues to bolster cooperation with the alliance.
Stoltenberg cited the "use of force to change the borders of Ukraine," together with the increasing and more assertive military activities by Russia in the Baltic Sea area, as a fundamental justification for NATO's move to deepen its military presence in the Nordic region.
"Not in any way does NATO seek confrontation with Russia," Stoltenberg said. "What we are looking for is cooperation and dialogue. However, that cooperation must be based on predictability and strength."
Stoltenberg played a pivotal role in improving political and military relations with Russia during his two terms as Norwegian prime minister, first from 2000 to 2001, and then achieving his biggest successes in bridge-building with the Kremlin during his second term from 2005 to 2013.
But Norway imposed a ban on military cooperation after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, an event that triggered the Kremlin's military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Norway introduced an initial cessation in military cooperation in March 2014, and the action remains in force.
Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist described NATO's proposal to bolster its military presence in the Nordic-Baltic area as a positive development that would enhance security.
However, Hultqvist rejected the idea that the NATO plan would pressure Sweden to move toward a formal application for membership with the alliance.
Sweden will continue to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation with fellow non-aligned Nordic state Finland, said Hultqvist, while the country's closer partnership with NATO will be used to build greater stability in the Nordic-Baltic region.
"Joint exercises are one way for Sweden to signal that the country is part of a collective force, even though we are not NATO members," Hultqvist said.
Closer military cooperation among Sweden, Finland and NATO is set to include greater intelligence sharing. This will be initially achieved by opening secure communication channels between the Finnish and Swedish militaries and NATO.
Cooperation also will include improved collaboration in cyber defense, situational awareness, hybrid warfare, joint training and exercises.
"The development of secure communication links will be of paramount importance once defense cooperation begins and deepens," said Finland Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö.
The alliance has already strengthened its presence in the Baltic Sea region by doubling the size of the NATO Response Force. NATO has also increased air and maritime patrols, while rotating more troops through central and eastern Europe for exercises in the area.