In early September, the leadership of Sweden’s Center Party voiced concerns that the country should seriously consider joining NATO in the face of Russian policy in Ukraine. This reflects the growing fears in Scandinavia about the Kremlin’s intentions. 

NATO warships are exercising in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean as part of a NATO Response Force training, 2014. Photo: AP

“The Swedes have succumbed” – read media headlines in Russia – implying that Russia’s northern neighbor may be giving in to outside pressure to join NATO. Yet, it would be more appropriate to say “The Swedes have gotten scared” or, more precisely, “We have gotten the Swedes scared.” 

It is an unfortunate fact that an increasing part of the populations in Sweden and Finland are coming to consider Russia a threat and to fear what it might do. They are rethinking whether their countries’ neutrality – as it had been in the Cold War period – still provides adequate protection or whether they should take more rigorous steps to ensure their national security. 

It is important to keep in mind that the initiative in this case comes not from NATO, whose more recent focus has arguably been primarily on building partnerships rather than enlargement, but from the respective states themselves. 

Why Sweden is now actively debating NATO membership

It is important to note that discussions on the possibility of joining NATO had been taking place in Sweden and Finland long before the Ukrainian crisis. Yet in the last eighteen months, due to the events in Crimea and Donbas, they have intensified. 

The debate is further fueled by the increased activity of the Russian Navy in the Baltic Sea and the increased number of flights of the Russian war planes over the coast of the North European and Baltic countries, often resulting in their dangerous encounters with military and civilian aircraft of other states. 

 Also read: "Will the Ukraine crisis bring Finland into NATO?" 

Western media broadly reported the incident with the two Russian SU-24 fighter-bombers on Sept. 17, 2014, when they allegedly penetrated Swedish airspace.  

In addition, the notorious episode with the submarine of an unknown origin spotted in the Swedish Sea had the suspicion fall on Moscow, spurring the biggest military reconnaissance operation in Sweden’s post-World War II history and prompting a series of upgrades to the Swedish Navy to improve its ability to detect submarine activity. 

Moreover, some local pundits have voiced fear of a repeat of a hybrid war scenario on Swedish territory. According to the Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, “It’s a general fact that Russia is carrying out bigger, more complex, and in some cases more provocative and defiant, exercises.”

Western media reported that during military training exercises in March 2015, 33 thousand Russian troops allegedly simulated the seizure of Gotland Island off the Swedish east coast, the Finnish Aland Islands, and the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, as well as parts of Norway. 

It is thus more than a mere coincidence that Gotland Island has been mentioned time and again by the proponents of joining NATO in Sweden and Finland – both as a warning to their compatriots and as a bargaining chip to convince current NATO nations to “take in” new Nordic members. As the argument goes, the Baltic States are “extremely exposed and cut off from the rest of NATO” – so that logistically it is hard to help them in case of an external attack. 

 Recommended: "Why Cold War-style military exercises of Russia and NATO are heating up." 

The advocates of joining NATO suggest that the alliance should therefore accept new members and build a military base on Gotland Island, rather than risk a surprise Russian occupation of the island – which, they claim, is quite possible in light of the events in Georgia and Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, they continue to repeat the long-time mantra of NATO that the alliance does not pose a threat to Russia. What the local media does not often mention is that the activity of NATO aviation and navy forces have also increased significantly in the past couple of years. However, it should be noted that the number of NATO aircraft flights over the Baltic near Russia’s borders actually plunged in August 2015.  

In Sweden, concerns are also fueled by its reduced military capacity, which was very significantly downsized after the end of the Cold War, far more than that of Finland.

Even with an 11 percent increase planned for the period from 2016 till 2020, the Swedish military budget will still be about one percent of the country’s GDP; while the country’s armed forces number 25 thousand and are considered to be better geared towards peace-keeping than conducting active warfare. 

The Swedish military doctrine is built around the concept of “one week defense” – the idea being that Sweden should be able to defend itself against an all-out military attack for one single week – until the anticipated outside troops would, hopefully, come to its rescue.

Weighing the odds of joining NATO 

Though it is generally considered that both countries would join NATO only together, in reality in Sweden the number of the supporters of applying for participation in the alliance is higher than in Finland. Yet in both countries, the support for joining NATO has dramatically increased over the last few years. 

While various Swedish polls differ on the exact figures and some data sources state that the plurality is still against it, others indicate that, for the first time, the voices in favor have actually outpaced those against, placing the figure at 37, 45 or even 48 percent of the population (up from a mere 17 percent in 2012). 

Meanwhile, 73 percent of Swedes now say that they are concerned about the developments in Russia, up from 45 percent a year ago. And 55 percent would also like to see Sweden reintroduce mandatory military conscription that had existed during the Cold War, while nearly six out of ten – twice the 2012 figure – want an increase in defense spending. 

In Finland, where the support for joining NATO, as already mentioned, is also on the rise, the number of those opposing it, however, still prevails, with over half of the population convinced that Finland should refrain from the decision even if Sweden goes for it. 72 percent of Finnish citizens also think that if the issue of NATO membership is to go on vote, it should be put to a nationwide referendum, requiring a majority rather than a simple plurality of votes for the decision to be taken. 

 Also read: "Why Finland's role is vital to resolving the Ukrainian crisis." 

While the public mood in Finland appears less pro-NATO than in Sweden, it is, ironically, the other way around as far as the respective dominant parties in Sweden and Finland are concerned. 

The Swedish ruling coalition’s leading Social Democratic Party is against NATO membership, while, to the contrary, the governing Finnish National Coalition is the only party in the Finnish Parliament to back the option. 

Accordingly, the Finnish government has commissioned a report to study the effects of joining a military alliance, while in Sweden the ruling coalition has so far refrained from it. Yet in both countries, the positions of the top government officials have split over the issue. 

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has stated that NATO membership remains an option, while the Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö has said that now is the time to consider it seriously. Yet the country’s new Foreign Minister Timo Soini – though himself a long-time Kremlin critic and U.S. supporter – has nevertheless emphasized that there is no question of any new step to join NATO and that the Finnish government’s line regarding NATO has not changed. 

His statement that the security of Finland and North Europe will not be in any way strengthened if NATO emerges at their common border has been broadly quoted in the Russian press.  

The Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, for his part, has also stressed that the issue of NATO membership is not relevant since the majority in Riksdag, the country’s parliament, do not support it. Yet the local advocates of joining the alliance insist that, if not the current Parliament, then the next one needs to take on the issue. 

The agreement on defense priorities – signed in the beginning of the year by the leading Social Democratic Party with the three parties of the opposition alliance – does not foresee measures towards NATO membership. But the Center Party (the former Farmers’ Party) – that together with the Moderate Party, Liberal People’s Party, and Christian Democratic Party comprises the opposition alliance – is set to put the issue of NATO membership to vote at its upcoming congress in October. 

The reason for this turnaround in the party’s position, which was previously in favor of neutrality, is said to be “the change of the situation in the security field.” One should keep in mind, however, that the party holds only six percent of the Parliament seats and may be representative of the changed voices, but not of the entire nation.

The brouhaha over the new “Russia scare” saw Sweden and Finland in 2014 sign an agreement with NATO on cooperation during disasters or security emergences. The document foresees the possibility of prompt deployments of the NATO spearhead force on the respective countries’ territories for military training or dealing with security threats. 

Finnish experts have repeatedly stated though that the signed agreement does not grant automatic access for NATO to local territories, which is to be decided on a case-by-case basis. In addition to this benchmark agreement, on Apr. 9, 2015, five Nordic states – Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland – announced their joint decision to enlarge cooperation with NATO and to intensify their military programs. The declaration that they all signed called Russian conduct “the biggest challenge to European security.” 

The Kremlin’s dilemma: Scaring its neighbors away from NATO?

Would the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO pose a danger to Russia? Granted, Russia has a powerful military arsenal, including nuclear weapons, sufficient to enable it not to fear the attack of any country or alliance. 

Yet this new wave of NATO expansion would be an unpleasant development (which should not, however, be exaggerated), similar – but arguably not worse, than the earlier NATO enlargements. After all, previously, former Soviet bloc countries, and then the former Soviet republics, were considered for admission to the alliance, to which the Russian government at that time demonstrated a rather passive reaction. 

And, as for the military implications, they could be compared to those witnessed in early 1980s during the deployment of American Pershings and cruise missiles in Western Europe. 

If new weapons systems were to be deployed near Russia’s borders, their flight paths would be reduced. In this case, there would be less time to take the decisions on alert in critical situations, further increasing the probability of an erroneous decision and an accidental conflict spilling into a war. 

The related risks could actually be higher now than in the 1980s, since the weapons systems would be deployed closer. Not to speak of the negative military-political and psychological effect of having neutral neighbors join an alliance that considers Russia among the biggest security threats. 

Russia’s dilemma seems to mirror in a way the dilemma of its northern neighbors. While the latter are pondering whether they should join NATO in order to keep Russia away, Russia seems to be trying to scare its neighbors away from NATO. 

 Related: "How the Kremlin reassessed its military approaches after Ukraine." 

Needless to say, Sweden and Finland are sovereign states and it is up to their citizens to decide what measures to take to ensure their national security. Yet is seems that they would contribute best to their countries’ and Europe’s safety by continuing on their non-aligned course. 

And Russia should do everything it can to de-escalate the situation, leaving no doubt about its intentions and demonstrating, by word and deed, that it is not interested in expansion and does not plan to violate the borders of the neighboring states. 

Moreover, if Russia’s joint work with EU countries to resolve the Ukrainian crisis along the lines of the Minsk Agreements becomes successful, this may also lead to a situation where the issue of Swedish or Finnish NATO membership would not be as acute as it appears now.