February 20, 2015

A Shock from Sweden

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom speaks during a panel discussion at the "Global Security and Gender" forum at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2015.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom speaks during a panel discussion at the "Global Security and Gender" forum at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2015.

The beginning of the week brought quite a frightening report: Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström had allegedly bowed to pressure from Moscow and promised the Russians that Swedish fighter planes would not land at Estonia’s Ämari Air Base during joint exercises with the US.

The Swedish daily Expressen, which broke the story, claimed that it had a memorandum of a meeting between Annika Söder, the state secretary for foreign affairs, and Russian Ambassador to Sweden Viktor Tatarintsev. Now, it isn’t 100 percent known what was talked about at that meeting, but Russia presumably had some trump cards to play, as a result of which Swedish aircraft will not be landing at Ämari. Maybe Tararintsev laid out the results of last autumn’s submarine reconnaissance mission in Swedish waters. It’s all speculation, of course.
It could also be that the Expressen story was an exaggeration. Still, there is no doubt that Russia is pressuring non-NATO members Sweden and Finland to tone down its cooperation with the defensive alliance. At a time when views of countries’ national sovereignty are being reappraised due to the events in Ukraine, it isn’t surprising that one country is dictating terms to another country on how it should develop its military.
Sweden has reason to worry, and so does Estonia. A report compiled by the ICDS from late January reveals that in spite of its solid economy, Swedish armed forces are in a fairly precarious condition. This was also pointed up by the presence in Swedish waters of a submarine that was never identified and ultimately eluded capture.
The report makes no bones about it: “Sweden, which is the rear guard for the Baltics, is an important part of preventing Russian forces from cutting Estonia, Latvia Lithuania off from its allies. The retired major general Karlis Neretnieks has said that the possibility of using Swedish soil and airspace has decisive importance for NATO when it comes to defending the Baltics. It is just as important to block an adversary from accessing it. If Sweden is unable to defend its own territory and cannot make preparations for supporting a NATO-led operation and receiving assistance, Sweden will also weaken NATO’s capability to defend the Baltics.”
Although people in Estonia like to tout the partnership between Sweden and Finland and NATO, even NATO has its doubters in the wisdom of such a partnership. NATO partnership does not mean that Article Five of the Washington Treaty will be triggered; Sweden and Finland can always say that partnership is just that – partnership. They have no obligations to defend NATO members on the basis of that partnership.
A problem also appears to lie in the fact that European countries are not all NATO members, and this forces them to look for defence alternatives. A report released by Sweden and Finland this week concluded that the countries should engage in closer defence cooperation.
There may be some solution to be found on the European Union level as well. Also in the ICDS blog, the deputy head of the NATO and EU department of the Ministry of Defence, Liis Mure, writes that in June, EU heads of state plan to evaluate common security and defence policy and set out the strategic directions of that policy.
Mure recalls that this time around, the discussion will take place in a completely different context as the previous European security architecture is crumbling and the European Union has to find a solution to it.
It is clear that if the European Union is able to attain a new level in security cooperation, Estonian security will also gain from it. The warnings from world leaders that Russia intends to target the Baltics next should be taken seriously. This isn’t part of an election campaign or warmongering. For Sweden and Finland, stronger integration with European Union security structures is just what the doctor ordered right now.
This comment first aired on Retro FM’s Europe news on 20 February 2015.

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