Understanding Swedish and Finnish NATO Accession as a Question of Sovereignty

By RORY MCCLAIN | November 16, 2017

With Russia’s reemerging penchant for asserting its political, military, and economic influence over neighboring states, including the 2008 war with Georgia, its ongoing intervention in Ukraine, and, most recently, a large military exercise conducted in Belarus in September, is it any wonder that Finland and Sweden are experiencing an acute sense of insecurity?

In 2009, Sweden dropped its policy of neutrality after entering into mutual self-defense treaties with the EU and agreeing to lead the Nordic Battle Group—of which Finland is also a participant. Last September, it held a military exercise that included 19,000 Swedish troops and soldiers from Finland and NATO member states such as the United States, France, and the Baltic states. Finland is planning an exercise of similar scale for 2020. In 2014, Finland and Sweden agreed to assistance from NATO troops in emergency situations. Nonetheless, both states have stopped short of full NATO membership due to fears of Russian reprisal.

Given the immense size of Russia’s territory and lack of natural geographical barriers (e.g. mountains) at its frontiers, Russian and Soviet leaders like President Vladimir Putin have feared encirclement by enemies for at least the last two centuries. Memories of Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War and invasions by Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, France, Germany, and others are not easily forgotten.

Consequently, when Georgia’s accession to NATO became a topic of conversation, Russia opted for a preemptive invasion to teach its neighbors a lesson about seeking closer ties with the West and jeopardizing the security of its borders. In March 2014—when Russia annexed Crimea and began providing unmarked “little green men” and military materiel for the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist insurgencies in eastern Ukraine—Ukraine was about to sign an EU Association Agreement. This treaty, which was ultimately concluded in June 2014 despite the Russian-catalyzed chaos, is widely understood as a decisive step towards full EU membership.

However, there are clear differences between Ukraine and Georgia and Sweden and Finland. The most obvious ones are that Sweden does not even border Russia and both states were never part of the Soviet bloc—nor its contemporary Russian equivalent, the Commonwealth of Independent States, of which both Ukraine and Georgia were members at the time Russia invaded them. In other words, Sweden and Finland are outside of Russia’s formal sphere of influence. Further, neither state’s NATO membership, as part of the informal Cold War settlement, was ruled out by Moscow. Every former Soviet state, on the other hand, including Ukraine and Georgia, was to be precluded from the alliance and other overtly Western organizations.

In a more practical, but perhaps less salient, sense, Finland and Sweden are lacking the geopolitical condition that facilitated Russian meddling in Georgia and Ukraine. In both of those cases, Putin was able to exploit existing nationalist or breakaway movements, framing Russian interventions as applications of the liberal principle of self-determination. In a perversion of international liberalism and the UN Charter, he could justify Russia’s denial of self-determination to Georgia and Ukraine as support for the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the peoples of Luhansk and Donetsk’s right to freely determine their political status. Sweden and Finland, nonetheless, have no such movements.

While public support for NATO membership constitutes at least a plurality (some polls indicate support as high as 54%) of the Swedish population, only about 22% of Finns support accession to the collective security organization. However, this percentage jumps up to 33% with the guarantee of Sweden’s simultaneous NATO accession.

Were NATO and the Finnish government to work together to spread awareness of the differences between the Finnish situation and the Georgian and Ukrainian cases I believe that support for NATO membership would cross the plurality threshold relatively quickly. On the other hand, I recognize that, because it could be interpreted as encirclement, Finnish accession would pose a greater security threat to Russia. Thus, in the current security context, Finnish, Russian, and European security as a whole would probably benefit from enhanced Finnish military cooperation in less ideologically-charged organizations such as the Nordic Battle Group and the Northern Group.

In short, Sweden and Finland should not make decisions on the future of their military alliances and other cooperative security measures based solely on fears of Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime. To do so would be to deny their own sovereignty and reward Russia’s disregard for the external and internal sovereignty of other countries. As history has proven, appeasement merely whets the appetite of regimes that derive their legitimacy from militant nationalism. Finally, since it is the U.S.’ nuclear umbrella that effectuates European security in relation to Russia, a verbal commitment of military support for Swedish and Finnish sovereignty from the current U.S. administration would greatly increase the confidence of their decisions.

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