HELSINKI – Nordic governments are set to deepen cross-border defense collaboration against the backdrop of rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine.

Despite renewed threats from Russia, unaligned states Finland and Sweden have decided against joining NATO at this time. Instead, both plan to strengthen Nordic defense cooperation and establish closer bonds with the alliance and the European Union.

Unlike Sweden, which does not have a land border with Russia, Finland wants to retain the “NATO option” as a security tool. Finland, which has a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) land border with Russia, has responded to the Kremlin’s military build-up and muscle-flexing in the region by reinforcing its defense infrastructure.

In December 2021, Finland signed a $11.2 billion deal with Lockheed Martin to purchase 64 F-35A aircraft to replace its aging fleet of Boeing F/A-18C Hornets.

Nordic alliance members Denmark and Norway have both increased their military presence and readiness in the High North and Baltic Sea. Denmark has provided additional frigates and four F-16 fighters to support NATO’s naval and air operations in the Baltic Sea area.

“Our actions in support of NATO, which have the broad backing of parties in the Danish parliament, are intended to enforce the sovereignty of the Baltic states. We will supply more capacity if a changing situation demands and the need arises,” said Trine Bramsen, Denmark’s defense minister.

NATO has extended an open invitation to Finland and Sweden to join Nordic neighbors Norway and Denmark in the alliance. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated the organization’s stance when he met with the foreign ministers of Finland and Sweden in Brussels on January 25 to discuss defense joint cooperation opportunities.

“Good cooperation with Sweden and Finland is of vital significance to NATO, as is sharing assessments of the situation as it unfolds. This ongoing cooperation is important for the security of whole of the Baltic Sea region,” said Stoltenberg.

Given the volatile nature of the situation on Russia’s border with Ukraine, and uncertainty over Moscow’s immediate intentions, the Norwegian government may request Stoltenberg to remain on as secretary general of NATO and withdraw his candidacy to become the new governor of Norges Bank, Norway’s central bank.

The Norwegian government is expected to appoint a new central bank governor during the second quarter of 2022. Stoltenberg’s term as secretary-general of NATO is due to end in October.

With longstanding experience in using diplomacy as a tool to resolve security issues with Russia, Finland has offered itself to NATO as a bridge builder to de-escalate tensions with Moscow, said Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s foreign minister.

“The continuing cooperation between Finland, Sweden and NATO will bolster the stability of the Baltic Sea region for the foreseeable future. Such cooperation benefits all parties,” Haavisto said.

On the question of NATO membership, Haavisto said that Finland’s national security policy contains a mechanism that gives the government the option to apply for it. “Finland’s security policy is decided in Finland. NATO membership is one option, but it’s not a given,” said Haavisto.

Russia has continuously warned Finland and Sweden that such membership, driven by a residual fear in Moscow of alliance forces on its eastern borders with Finland, would result in a significant deterioration of trade and political relations with these countries.

Finland’s deepening defense relationship with NATO was evidenced in January when U.S. aircraft conducted refueling exercises over northern Finland as part of international maneuvers led by the Finnish Air Force’s Lapland Air Squadron. The exercises, run over four days to Jan. 27, saw Finnish F/A-18 Hornets refueling with a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker.

Unlike Finland, which is open to activating the membership option should regional military and political events dictate, Sweden has ruled out joining NATO in favor of expanding cooperation with the alliance under a wider national security strategy that also includes broadening the scope of defense collaboration with the neighboring NATO-aligned Nordic and Baltic states.

“It is not our intention to apply for membership of NATO at this time. Sweden’s interests are already well served being outside of NATO. There are no indicators that Finland feels any differently. This issue is just not on the table right now,” said Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister.

Swedish governments have been reluctant to contemplate Nato membership for historical reasons, dictated by a desire to maintain independent defense and security policies, said Anna Wieslander, the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council and the Chair of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.

“I used to believe that Sweden, given it’s the largest of the Nordic countries, would take the lead on NATO membership. However, given how the dynamics are now, I would imagine that events might move more quickly in Helsinki rather than Stockholm,” Wieslander said.

Sweden and Finland want the European Union to play a greater role in the area of defense, based on the belief that the EU should take more responsibility for its own security, said Wieslander.

“We can expect to see more defense cooperation at a Nordic level, and between Finland and Sweden especially. There is already a solid foundation for closer cooperation that is regulated under existing defense and security agreements between the two countries,” Wieslander said.

Sweden is on course for a 40% increase in defense expenditure between 2020 and 2025. Even with this significant boost, and starting from a low base, Sweden’s defense spending will still only reach 1.5% of GDP in 2025.

Gerard O'Dwyer is the Scandinavian affairs correspondent for Defense News.

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