HELSINKI — Nordic governments are scaling up defense cooperation and preparedness planning against the backdrop of regional tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Nordic states are looking to accelerate the deepening of joint defense measures that may lead to more serious discussions around the need for a Nordic-styled solution modeled on the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, which considers an attack on one member state to be an attack on all states.
Political leaders in Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen are becoming increasingly concerned that Ukraine may be a deliberate first step by Moscow to use military force to reconstruct the Soviet Union empire that collapsed in 1991.
Nordic suspicions, if proven accurate, would directly threaten the sovereignty of neighboring NATO-aligned Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The Baltic states have become close working partners in Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), the pan-Nordic military vehicle founded in 2009 and tasked with establishing joint initiatives between the armed forces of NATO-members Denmark and Norway in addition to unaligned Finland and Sweden.
There is a general feeling among Nordic military top brass that NORDEFCO is underused and lacks the ability deliver more concrete and effective forms of pan-Nordic defense that can add many decades of close cooperation regionally.
There have been promising developments in the area of common procurements through NORDEFCO, the latest of which covers a joint €425 million ($464.3 million) deal to acquire soldiers’ uniforms. The first uniforms are to be delivered by year-end 2022. The design will be unique to each Nordic military, but based on a joint manufacturing standard.
Although Finland and Sweden have flagged a desire to join NATO since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the pathway to membership for both countries, which formed a Partnership for Peace relationship with the Alliance in 1994, is unlikely to take shape until after upcoming parliamentary elections. Swedes are due to go to the polls on Sept. 11, while Finland is scheduled to hold general elections in April 2023.
NATO membership is certain to become a hot election topic in both Sweden and Finland based on fresh opinion polls since Feb. 24 that indicate popular majorities, for the first time, to joining NATO as part of enhanced national security strategies.
Sweden’s and Finland’s relationship with NATO is already substantial. They are two of six Enhanced Opportunity Partners for NATO — a group that also includes Ukraine — which constitutes the closest form of partnership with the alliance.
In addition, Finland and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Host Nation Support with NATO in 2014 that grants logistical support to allied forces located on, or in transit through, their territory during exercises or in a crisis. And on March 4, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced the two countries would be included in alliance information-sharing about the war in Ukraine.
Geopolitical factors will also influence the pace of any future dialogue by Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Unlike Finland and Norway, Sweden does not have a land border with Russia. By contrast, Finland has a land border of 832.6 miles (1,340km) with Russia, the longest of any European Union member state. Norway’s land border with Russia extends to 121.6 miles (195.7 km).
Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defense minister, urged the need for strengthened Nordic defense collaboration during Swedish-Finnish preparedness exercises in the Baltic Sea on March 2. The exercises marked a ramping up of joint military operations that had an elevated sense of importance given the heightened security tensions in the High North and Baltic Sea neighborhoods.
“Joint exercises with Finland are an important part of strengthening Swedish defense. The exercises increase our capability to take action together as neighbors if needed. The war in Ukraine is a threat to Europe and European values as a whole. It is an exceptional situation,” said Hultqvist.
The joint Swedish-Finnish exercises, which also involved participation by special forces units, were focused primarily on testing and developing the interoperability of Navy and Air Force assets, including front-line fighters and surface vessels.
Rising tensions over Russia’s military expansion in the Baltic Sea and High North regions may also trigger a review of the Nordic “Vision 2025″ defense pact signed in 2018.
“Vision 2025″ was launched as a political framework to outline ambitions for a deeper form of Nordic defense cooperation. It included defense tools, if activated, that would allow Nordic militaries to cooperate not alone in peacetime but also in the event of a crisis or conflict.
The potential for further tightening pan-Nordic and bilateral Swedish-Finnish defense collaboration was on the agenda when Hultqvist met his Finnish counterpart Antti Kaikkonen on Gotland island, Sweden’s militarized stronghold in the Baltic Sea, on March 2.
“The intensified security situation in the neighborhood underlines the importance of good cooperation and joint training between our two countries. We must take care of our own area,” Kaikkonen said.
The meeting on Gotland followed a historic commitment by Finland and Sweden to approve arms exports and send defensive weapons to aid Ukraine’s military efforts against invading Russian forces.
The level of defense cooperation between Finland and Sweden is the most far-reaching between Nordic states. To date, collaboration has leaned towards improving defensive capabilities, conducting joint operations and joint measures to bolster the often tense security situation in the Baltic Sea Region.
Finland’s specific and growing defense cooperation relationship with the United States was reinforced by the country’s €10 billion ($11.3 billion) contract to purchase F-35A stealth fighter jets from Lockheed Martin to replace the Finnish Air Force’s aging F-18 Hornet fighters.
Kaikkonen is scheduled to meet with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for talks during a three day working visit to Washington, to end on March 9, and which will include proposals to deepen US-Finnish defense cooperation, including enhanced exchange of information regarding the security situation in the greater Baltic Sea region.
Any future NATO membership for Sweden and Finland will comprise a number of complicating factors informed by military and economic trade threats by Moscow against the two Nordic unaligned states. Russia views the prospect of Finnish membership as extending NATO’s reach that directly threatens its borders.
There are also unknown factors, such as if Finland and Sweden will agree to “leap together” into NATO or act separately. The option of NATO membership is already included in Finland’s National Defense Strategy Plan. Sweden has no such fast-track mechanism to joining the alliance.
Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, is pushing for a national debate on NATO membership in advance of parliamentary elections in September. Andersson also wants cross-party support to significantly increase Sweden’s defense spending and capabilities.
“Our capabilities need to be strengthened. Rearmament is being brought forward. We must have a strong defense. A total defense of the Swedish people and for the Swedish people. We have already substantially strengthened our Total Defense as part of a broad political agreement. It’s clear that the pace must now increase. The government will now take the initiative to invest additional resources in our Total Defense,” said Andersson.
Gerard O'Dwyer is the Scandinavian affairs correspondent for Defense News.