The bloody war that broke out in Ukraine three months ago has expanded well past the territorial borders of Europe’s second largest country. The invasion by Putin’s army leaves no doubt. In a recent interview, Prof. Francis Fukuyama, author of the book The End of History and the Last Man and a world-renowned expert in political economics, stated that this is an all-out war against Western democracy, the status-quo and the existing world order.
The massive humanitarian crisis that is currently taking place in Ukraine, the unprecedented international sanctions against Russia and global upheaval in the international arena have rekindled the centrality, importance and forcefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Beyond the additional military force available following the increase in the number of member countries in the NATO alliance, the accession of Sweden and even more so of Finland to NATO would be a significant strategic move that could lead to a crucial turning point in the war.
The opening of a new front in the Baltic Sea region and the Arctic Circle in northern Europe could be a deciding factor leading to significant change in Putin’s conduct, which is dictating the rhythm and general direction of the war in Ukraine. He is even more dangerous while he is losing, and this move could lead to an escalation of the war and the use of unconventional weapons as a way to show that Russia is winning.
Finland, Sweden and NATO
The facts speak for themselves. Although Sweden and Finland are not official members of NATO, for years they have been considered important allies and strategic partners in the alliance, which has grown from 12 to 30 countries over the years, since 1949. Since the time when the two countries joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1994, they have been taking an active and intensive role in ongoing security activity and peace missions around the world, as well as in military exercises with leading member countries, including the United States, UK, France and Germany. Moreover, they have taken part in intelligence and security collaborations between NATO members and Scandinavian countries led by Norway, Denmark and Iceland, such as the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO).
Although the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Bloc were supposed to put an end to the immediate military threat to the sovereignty and independence of both of these countries, this did not occur in reality.
Despite the fact that since then, the Russian Federation has been considered weaker and less threatening, its potential threat to NATO, and especially to Finland and Sweden, has not disappeared - and certainly not since Putin rose to power in 1999. Instead, this threat has become more complex and nebulous.
Meanwhile, the waning of the Cold War and the ideological struggle between the superpowers has led to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The security challenge, however, remains the same, and only its character and dimensions have changed. It is no longer just a physical threat on the surface, but also a digital threat in which cyber-attacks are being carried out in cyberspace.
Against this background, the Nordic countries have maintained a strict independence and neutrality as a new virtual reality that has been expanding since the early 1990s, and especially over the last decade, has forced them to continuously carry out strategic changes and pragmatic adjustments.
Sweden and Finland have gradually expanded their military might and upgraded their national defense and security systems, alongside increasing military cooperation, bolstering defense agreements, and strengthening political ties with NATO member nations and other international bodies.
From a geopolitical and security standpoint, the two Nordic countries are important strategic partners for NATO, both quantitatively and qualitatively. They both bring with them extensive military forces and rich warfare experience, as well as an advanced air force and navy, an assortment of weapons, fighter jets, sophisticated cyber capabilities and military resources, a strong presence in the Arctic region and bases in the Baltic Sea region.
ALL OF this is necessary for NATO, especially in the areas surrounding Greenland, Iceland and the UK, given NATO’s strategic weakness at sea compared with the superiority of Russia’s navy, which operates nuclear submarines and other aquatic vessels. Their joining also helps upgrade the balance of power between the rival sides and improves the defense of the Baltic countries, specifically Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which are frequently exposed to threats coming from Russia.
Moreover, Sweden and Finland are well-established democracies with strong economies that have been part of the European Union since 1995, have a similar liberal approach and share core values with NATO member countries. As countries with advanced high tech industries, they bring with them a wealth of knowledge and technology that is essential for the development of NATO’s security and military wings, including space and cyber activity. In this arena, they not only meet the required conditions for acceptance to the alliance, but would greatly contribute to it, due to their high standards. They constitute a role model and high point of reference for the rest of the NATO countries.
Nevertheless, there is a significant gap between the two candidates. Aside from the size of each country’s population (Finland has 5.5 million residents, whereas Sweden has over 10 million), there are also differences with respect to history, national identity and geographical location, which have led to different traditions vis-à-vis war issues and a stark difference in the size of their defense budget (in Finland, it is 2% of GDP, whereas in Sweden it is only 1.3% of GDP). Moreover, Sweden has chosen to maintain a policy of neutrality and non-intervention for ideological reasons, as this has been a mainstay of the country’s identity for over 200 years.
Finland’s style of neutrality, on the other hand, is more a matter of functionality that has been in effect for only seventy years. For Finland, the Cold War never really ended, since Russia and Finland share a 1,340 km.-long border, and the two countries have had an explosive relationship since the Winter War, in 1917. Moreover, in later years, Putin exerted political pressures and security threats on Finland.
The Finnish consciousness has always been and remains focused on defense, which is supported by receiving high-level funding over the last five decades through the national budget. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Finland’s decision to purchase F-35s, the percentage of the budget allocated to defense will be higher than the rate set by NATO for member countries. In addition, it’s important to emphasize that Finland has one of the strongest militaries in Europe, with the ability to recruit 5% of its population for military duty, compared with France, the UK and Germany, where only 0.3% of the population serves in the military.
It’s important to point out that the decision made by Sweden and Finland to join NATO was not a reckless whim that popped up out of nowhere. In fact, the opposite is true. Although the acceptance process is complicated and requires approval by all of the current member countries and could take a long time, from their point of view, they are taking these necessary precautionary measures instead of waiting for the Russian bear to carry out its threats to attack them, as was the case with Ukraine.
Furthermore, their decision to join an organization that enjoys broad public support (76% in Finland and 57% in Sweden), is coming after years of strong opposition. The two countries have been mulling over this decision, and soberly examining the cost-benefit considerations as the situation in Europe becomes more and more chaotic. Because of Putin’s aggressive policies, Europe is no longer a calm quiet place. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and in 2014, Russia unilaterally annexed the Crimean Peninsula. And of course, the most recent deterioration over the last few months of relations between Ukraine and Russia.
There is no doubt, therefore, that these steps constitute another front in the struggle against the leader of the Kremlin, which could spur him to carry out his threats in Ukraine and use chemical, biological or tactical nuclear weapons in an effort to illustrate the seriousness of his intentions.
Finland and Sweden’s strategic decision to move from a neutral to an active stance and become a de facto member of NATO is a dramatic change that goes beyond adjustments in its political positioning. It reflects rapid changes following the upheaval and transformations that are currently taking place in the international arena, and the transition from self-reliance and national security to joining a collective force and relying on alliances and joint agreements that provide international security.
Another benefit of their joining is that NATO will become a bigger organization, with greater geopolitical deployment. It would finally be a European Bloc with the power to block the Russian bear. With Finland and Sweden as members, NATO would benefit from greater capabilities and resources it never had in the past, enabling it to finally be capable of responding to threats on several fronts simultaneously, especially at specific borders between Russia, and eastern and northern Europe.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated last week that NATO is not part of the struggle between Russia and Ukraine, and that although the war will probably not end any time soon, Ukraine will be victorious and NATO will support it until it wins. Is that really so? Do any of these proclamations constitute a true guarantee for Ukraine’s security?
And what about Sweden and Finland’s declaration that they wish to join NATO? Will it deter Putin, or will it act as a catalyst and spur him on to intensify the struggle to erase Ukraine and the Ukrainians from the map? There’s no way to know; only time will tell.
The writer is an expert in International Security, Geopolitical Crises and Global Terrorism.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.