Divided European Security: Why being alone in a region with an authoritarian neighbor is not wise
Since the Russian attack on Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, both countries have given Ukraine missile systems, assault rifles, ammunition and money to resettle refugees. From my perspective as an international relations expert, Finland and Sweden essentially gave up their political neutrality and non-alignment – central aspects of their national identities – when they both joined the European Union in 1995. The Russian attack on Ukraine was the last drop that broke all remaining obstacles to full integration into the NATO alliance.
Finland’s past and present with Russia
With a combined population of 16 million, Finland and Sweden, as non-members, lack the protection of NATO’s collective security guarantee that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. Russia’s aggression is a particular concern for Finland. Though Finland and Sweden are both sandwiched between Russia and NATO member Norway, only Finland shares a land border — about 830 miles — with Russia.
And only Finland has a recent history of fighting Russian attacks. Between 1939 and 1944, about 96,000 Finns, or 2.5% of the population, died in two separate wars with Russia during the simultaneous Russo-Finnish War and World War II, and more than 400,000 people lost their homes.
Fighting under cover of snow and dense forests, the Finnish army repelled Russian attacks, but lost about 10% of Finnish territory in the subsequent 1948 peace agreement. Finns were also forced by the Soviets to adopt neutrality after losing the country in World War II. That changed with the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
When Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin abolished Finland’s neutrality with her application for NATO membership, she soberingly stated: “Russia is not the neighbor Finland thought it was.”
In early 2022, public opinion polls in Finland showed that only 24% of the public supported NATO membership. But four days after the Russian invasion, 68% of Finns voted to join the NATO alliance. On May 9, 2020, it was 76%.
“You (Russia) caused it,” said Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. “Look in the mirror.”
Three days after Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, Sweden provided Ukraine with 5,000 anti-tank weapons, 5,000 body armor shields, 5,000 helmets and 135,000 field rations.
“It is not in Swedish practice to send military equipment to conflict zones,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said. “The last time Sweden did this on a large scale was when the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939.”
The last time Sweden fought in a war was in 1814 against its neighbor Norway.
“We would be quite naïve if we didn’t realize that there is a threat from Russia to Sweden,” Swedish Major Stefan Nordstrom told Reuters. “The security situation across Europe has changed and we have to accept that and adapt.”
Sweden has a very capable military, which includes a navy with Baltic Sea expertise and experience in hunting down Russian submarines. Global Fire Power, a military analysis website, says Sweden has 16,000 active military personnel and 22,000 paramilitary forces. Sweden has 121 tanks, according to the website.
These numbers are sure to grow. Sweden wants to increase military spending because of the Ukraine war. In 2020, this spending accounted for 1.2% of the country’s GDP, but now it will rise to 2% by 2028. The Swedish military budget for 2022 is about $8.9 billion.
Sweden’s public support for joining NATO has increased significantly since the Russian attack, despite its historical opposition to joining a nuclear-armed alliance.
“There is no going back to a past of illusionary neutrality,” wrote Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, in April 2022.
Common European security
The foreign policy DNA of Sweden and Finland emphasizes collective action and solidarity with those who respect a rules-based system – including the sovereignty and independence of all countries.
Both Finland and Sweden are already active members of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe.
After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, both Finland and Sweden increased their cooperation with NATO by participating in NATO military exercises on land, air and sea.
In addition, due to their shared interests in Arctic and European security, Sweden and Finland maintained security arrangements with each other and with other countries such as Norway and the United States, which included training exercises, sharing of information, operational planning, and the creation of command and control networks.
Consequences for Russia
The possibility of Finland and Sweden joining NATO prompted an immediate reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin – and a realization that what he calls “the special operation” in Ukraine was backfiring.
In my view, the values and traditions of the western alliance and their security interests have persuaded both Finland and Sweden to abandon their commitment to neutrality.
The admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO, if it happens, is likely to lead to a stronger European pillar in NATO. The war in Ukraine may be the first military conflict in which a coalition of democracies confronts authoritarian states head-on.
It’s not wise to be alone in a region with an authoritarian neighbor. Both Sweden and Finland have chosen to be part of the larger conflict to protect the democratic governance and independence of all countries – including their own.