HELSINKI — Nordic unaligned states Sweden and Finland are to further deepen bilateral defense collaboration as part of a coordinated action to strengthen national defense systems and inject a greater level of stability into regional security.
The road map to closer military cooperation was discussed during a two-day Foreign And Security (FAS) summit hosted by Finland. The two-day meeting, which was attended by political leaders and senior security officials, ended Monday.
Russia's destabilizing influence in the region featured prominently during the summit meeting, which took place at the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö's summer residence at Naantali in southwest Finland.
The summit talks took place ahead of a planned meeting in Finland in July between Niinistö and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two leaders last met in Moscow in March.
Finland hopes to use the July meeting to build stronger political, trade and security relations with Russia. Relations between the two countries remain somewhat cool as Moscow continues to frown on Finland's deepening military relationship with NATO.
Moreover, the traditional predictability of regional security, particularly in the greater sweep of the Baltic Sea region, has been destabilized by Russia's illegal action to annex Crimea and the Kremlin's interventions in eastern Ukraine.
The scope of Finnish-Swedish defense collaboration is set to have a long reach and include the sharing of military infrastructure, common defense tasks such as combined air-patrols, and joint equipment procurements.
However, neither Finland nor Sweden has any immediate plans to negotiate a treaty-based military alliance, said Stefan Löfven, Sweden's prime minister.
"We will continue to improve military cooperation with Finland. We have no ambition that this will result in a defense alliance, and nor are we seeking it," Löfven said.
Despite the lack of a formal defense treaty, Löfven said Sweden is prepared to defend Finland against hostile attack, if needed, in the name of Nordic "solidarity."
The Finnish-Swedish meeting took place against a backdrop of the Finnish government’s new Foreign and Security Policy Report (FSPR). This underlines Finland’s retention of its nonalignment policy status while keeping the strategic option of possible NATO membership as a fall-back position.
"Finland must, in our foreign and security policy, prepare for rapid and even unpredictable changes in our operating environment. We do not have the option or desire to isolate ourselves," Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said.
The report holds that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and its actions in Eastern Ukraine, "constitute a major shift in European security."
Heavily armed troops displaying no identifying insignia and who were mingling with local pro-Russian militants stand guard outside a local government building on March 2, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine. At the time, the new government of Ukraine appealed to the UN Security Council for help against growing Russian intervention in Crimea, where thousands of Russian troops had reportedly arrived.
Photo Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
"In light of the security situation in our vicinity, the use or threat of military force against Finland cannot be excluded," according to the report. It also cited "increasing radicalization and uncontrolled migration" as new threats to the security and stability of the Nordic and Baltic regions.
Soini described the use of bilateral and multilateral defense cooperation tools as reinforcing Finland's ability to maintain, develop and optimize its defense capacity.
Apart from sharing military infrastructure, defense deepening with Sweden will also include more regular multi-branch exercises and exchanging situational intelligence, according to Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä.
"The basis for our military cooperation with Sweden will be focused on realistic goals and follow a concrete framework," Sipilä said.
The general consensus reached at the Naantali summit was that while the security picture in the greater Baltic region is destabilized, Russia does not pose a direct security threat to either Finland or Sweden.
"Russia presents no concrete, clearly discernible threat to our security," Niinistö said.
This situational appraisal by both Sweden and Finland, said Löfven, contributes to Sweden's view that joining NATO is not an option for the unaligned Nordic country at the present time.
"Sweden has lived in peace for centuries and we intend to do so for at least another 200 years. We seek predictability and long-term development in our immediate vicinity. NATO membership is not timely," Löfven said.
Löfven stressed that while maintaining good relations with Russia remains an important goal for Sweden, the underlying conditions for "normalizing relations" will remain lacking so long as "Russia behaves as it has done in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine."
In April, a Finnish expert group presented a strategic assessment of the probable consequences were Finland to join NATO. The report concluded that the optimum scenario, in terms of maintaining good relations with Russia, would be if Finland and Sweden jointly decided on the issue of full NATO membership.
"The threat from Russia is sometimes over exaggerated. Our defense forces and systems are in good shape, and we have strong partners, especially Sweden. We intend to develop these relationships further," said Antti Rinne, chairman of Finland's Social Democratic Party.
According to Rinne, Finland has a clear objective to secure its national borders and security in collaboration with regional and European defense partners, including the European Union, the United States, NATO and Sweden.
The Naantali summit did expose one possible bone of contention between Finland and Sweden over Russia: Swedish MP Karin Enström, a former minister of defense, questioned the long-term value of next month's meeting between the Russian and Finnish presidents.
"We in Sweden find the meeting somewhat difficult to understand. We understand that Finland has a special relationship with Russia but wonder if the visit has an actual security benefit," said Enström, who is both deputy chair of the Swedish parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs and a member of the parliament's delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
Finland operates a pragmatic approach when it comes to maintaining good and transparent relations with Russia, said Niinistö.
"It is important to make it clear to Russia when it has acted wrongly. It is equally important to maintain dialogue. Countries, including the United States, are keeping lines of communication open with Moscow," he said.