By joining NATO, Finland and Sweden would make the Alliance the main power in the Baltic Sea. Together, the two countries boast efficient and highly trained air, sea and ground forces, a good defense industry, and quick response capabilities. They occupy strategic position. And they would greatly consolidate the security of NATO’s most vulnerable member states – the Baltic countries.
Russia’s aggressiveness and unpredictability pushed Finland and Sweden towards NATO
For decades, the Finnish and Swedish governments and their respective societies were reluctant about joining NATO. They continued to stay away from the Alliance even after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, in 2014. Then, the morning of February the 24th, when Russia launched its large scale invasion of Ukraine, changed all that. In February 53% of Finnish supported the idea of joining NATO, in March – 62% and, finally, in May that number increased to 76% meanwhile 12% were against and 11% did not answer, according to a poll managed by Finnish „Yle”.
The trend was similar in Sweden, where support for joining NATO was lower than in its neighbouring country. In May 58% of Swedes supported joining NATO, while 23% didn’t know and 19% were against it. That was a 13 points increase, up from the 45% of Swedes that wanted their country in NATO in April. The increase is more significant if we look back to 2014 – in April of that year only 28% of Swedes wanted their country in NATO; that figure increased to 33% by December. At that time, 47% of Swedes were opposing a NATO bid, down from 56% in April.
Both Nordic countries stayed neutral throughout the Cold War, and they continued that foreign policy line after the fall of the USSR. Finland shares a 1340 km long border with Russia and the country has been part of the Russian Empire and then fought the Soviet Union in the 1940s and managed to survive and keep its independence; however, it had to be careful not to provoke its much bigger neighbor, hence its neutral stance. Sweden decided to preserve its neutral status after World War Two, and then, after the end of the Cold War, it even decided to trim down its army. Russia’s moves in the region forced Stockholm to reconsider its stance, especially after a Russian submarine was spotted in the Stockholm archipelago, in 2014. In 2016, the Swedish army returned to the island of Gotland, which has a key strategic position in the Baltic Sea. However, even in the context of Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance – as shown during the massive 2007 cyber-attacks against Estonia, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and that of Ukraine, in 2014 – they didn’t change their stances.
So why did Finland and Sweden change their minds about NATO membership? Giedrius Česnakas, a professor at the General Jonas Žemaitis Lithuanian Military Academy, points out that previously the Soviet Union and Russia were more predictable players. Present time Russia and Vladimir Putin himself are unpredictable.
Helsinki and Stockholm already had close ties to NATO, but no mutual defense clause
The program director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs Arkady Moshes points out that even before the 24th of February, Finland had a close relationships with NATO, and particularly, with the United States and the United Kingdom. In collaboration with these countries, Finland has done great investments in the development of its armed forces and achieved interoperability with NATO. However, A. Moshes insists that the scale was tipped in favor of joining NATO not by Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but by Moscow’s ultimatum that NATO must not expand Eastward, close to Russian borders. At that very moment, Finland realized that this could violate the country’s sovereignty in foreign policy. In other words, partnership with NATO was no longer enough. 24th of February, of course, played a big role, too, acknowledges A. Moshes, as it made the changes in public opinion irreversible.
Russia warned that there will be „serious military and political consequences” and it will have to strengthen its defenses in the Baltic if Sweden and Finland joined NATO. After the decision taken in Madrid regarding the two countries, Russia announced that it will take measures to ensure its own security.
Both Finland and Sweden had had close relations with NATO for quite some time. Finland had joined the Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997. Sweden had participated in peace-support operations, joint drills, and exchanged analysis and information with NATO.
The partnership with NATO does not provide protection under the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty; Finland and Sweden would have to be full members in order to benefit from the full rights membership provides. They can count on the Mutual Defence Clause, as stated in article 42.7 of the Treaty of European Union (TEU), stating that if a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states have an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power. However, the EU is not a military alliance and is far from having capacities similar to those of NATO.
The new security architecture at the Baltic Sea: increased local forces, more NATO international troops and a weakened Russian army
All three Baltic countries are NATO members since 29 March 2004 and all of them have participated in offshore missions in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali.
Lithuaia is the Baltic country with the largest armed forces in 2022 – a total of 41,000 people, of which 19,900 are on active duty, 14,400 – are paramilitary and 6,700 – are in reserves. Estonia has 7,100 active duty troops and 17,500 reserves, giving a total of 24,600, and Latvia has 6,200 active duty troops and 15,900 reserves.
None of the Baltic states has an air force capable of deterring Russia, so other NATO countries are policing their spaces. The Alliance is also boosting their security with battlegroups that are present in each of them and the neighboring Poland and could be quickly reinforced with troops from the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and the Response force.
The three countries are taking steps themselves to increase their defense capabilities. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are all going to buy HIMARS – the systems put to such an effective use by the Ukrainians against the Russian army.
Finland and Sweden would add significant manpower and capabilities for NATO in the region; in fact, their combined forces exceed by far the combined forces of the Baltic states and the battlegroups deployed by the Alliance. Finland has very impressive air forces and land forces – „an extremely strong country”, no doubt the strongest in the region, according to G. Česnakas. As far as Sweden is concerned, the professor at the Lithuanian Military Academy points to its strong naval forces and the island of Gotland, which is important for ship control in the Baltic Sea. There’s also the Swedish arms industry that could be very useful for NATO. A. Moshes adds that both countries have the capability to lead certain specific projects in NATO and provide security in North-East Europe.
With Finland and Sweden in the Alliance, the Baltic Sea would become a NATO inner lake, and defense of the Baltic countries, which has always been a challenge given the fact they are almost surrounded by Russia and its ally Belarus, would be boosted. The islands controlled by Finland and Sweden would be more secure and thus it would be more difficult for Russia to capture and use them as launch pads for an attack against the Baltics. The researcher from the Latvian Institute of International Affairs Martinis Vargulis stresses that in case of emergency, both Finland and Sweden could send help to the Baltic countries much faster than other NATO countries. Also, even in a worst-case scenario in which the Russians manage to overrun the Suwałki Corridor in order to cut the Baltic countries from their allies, relief could come from the sea.
The war in Ukraine is diminishing Russia’s military threat to the Baltic, but nonetheless, the region needs to be prepared for the future
In spite of their diminutive forces, the Baltic countries are some of the biggest per capita donors of military help to Kiev. For instance, by the end of July, Latvia alone had given more than 200 million euros, providing weapons and individual equipment, drones, dry food rations, ammunition, anti-tank weapons, and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. In June, Lithuania banned the rail transit of sanctioned goods from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad and from Kaliningrad to mainland Russia; the ban was eventually lifted in July. In August, Estonia (together with Finland) asked for a ban of Russian tourism in the EU. All three Baltic countries have been outspoken critics of Russia during the past years. On top of all that, they are all former Soviet republics that joined both NATO and the EU, which is, in Putin’s eyes, the ultimate sin – after all, he ordered an attack on Georgia when the country was vying for NATO membership, the first invasion of Ukraine when the pro-European forces overthrew his ally, Viktor Ianukovici, and he used NATO’s eastward expansion as a pretext to invade again Ukraine this year. It is obvious that the Kremlin, which does not want to understand that the time of empires has passed, is not happy with the policies of the governments in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Understandably, the Baltic states and NATO are worried about Russia’s future plans in the region.
The exact size and capabilities of the Russian forces in the Baltic region are not known since the start of the war in Ukraine, as some of them are said to have been deployed to that country.
Before the war, the Baltic countries were mostly worried about the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, based in Pskov, and the Russian forces in Kaliningrad. This highly militarized enclave hosts the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet, two air bases and one naval base. Nuclear-capable Iskander systems are also based in Kaliningrad.
However, the war in Ukraine is exacting a high toll on the Russian army in general and it’s affecting even units based in Pskov. Latvian defense minister Artis Pabriks tweeted in July that, because of its casualties in Ukraine, Russia will not be a military threat for the Baltic countries at least for the next years. However, that does not mean that peace is guaranteed in the Baltics: “Ukraine is giving us a time to be ready” Pabriks concluded.
Although Russia’s attack on the Baltics in a conventional way does not look possible at this very moment, Russia is unpredictable and can harm the three countries in other ways. M. Vargulis mentioned cyberattacks, which would be nothing new in the region – after all, Estonia has been, in 2007, the target of what has been described as the first cyberwar. The October the 1st elections in Latvia may be a tempting target for the Russians, who have a history of interfering with elections in Western country. Trying to stir troubles with the Russian minorities in the Baltic countries is another venue Moscow might be tempted to follow. And Kremlin’s planners may ponder other options as well.
NATO’s umbrella over the Baltic states is providing deterrence against Russia. With Finland and Sweden in the Alliance, that deterrence would only increase and provide extra-security throughout difficult times.