During the last few years, there has been a noticeable surge in bilateral and multilateral defence cooperation ventures among the Nordic states. The most well-known of these is NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation). However, NORDEFCO is, essentially a framework for cooperation – it is not even a standalone organization , let alone a body resembling a political or military alliance.
The Nordic countries have also ramped up military exercises considerably in recent years. To provide just a few examples: in 2014, the Finnish and Swedish air forces joined their Norwegian counterpart—which was already conducting a separate NATO air policing mission—for the Iceland Air Meet. A year later, the exercise Arctic Challenge drew a total of 4000 troops from the Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, British, French, German and US air forces to Norway in 2015. In 2016, ground forces from Norway, Germany, Finland, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US teamed up for the Cold Response exercise in Norway. In September 2017, the Aurora exercise – the biggest military exercise to be held in Sweden in about 25 years – will feature a majority of active-duty Swedish personnel alongside forces from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Norway, Germany and the US, totalling some 20,000 troops.
Sweden and Finland have also signed Host Nation Support agreements with NATO. These treaties make it possible for the Alliance to station NATO troops in Sweden and Finland, after a decision by the respective host nation government—including for the purpose of defending another NATO country that has come under military attack.
So why now are officially non-aligned Sweden and Finland seemingly integrating so fast into bilateral and multilateral security structures while participating so often in military exercises either run by NATO or dominated by NATO members? The main factors driving these developments are highly geopolitical: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and its generally aggressive behaviour in the Baltic Sea region.
However, the lingering logic of non-alignment means, as fellow non-aligned countries, Sweden and Finland normally find it easiest to cooperate with each other. Thus, the realm of Swedish-Finnish bilateral defence cooperation has expanded rapidly since 2014. In the latest Swedish Defence Bill of 2015, the government embraced a very far-reaching approach to defence cooperation with Finland. Bilateral defence cooperation, it was noted, should entail operational planning and preparations for the use of military and civilian resources in various scenarios—which could involve defence of territorial integrity (i.e. defensive warfighting) as well as self-defence actions in line with article 51 in the UN Charter (i.e. defensive warfighting again).
Yet, these statements were tempered with others: bilateral cooperation and military planning should be a “complement to, but different from” national military planning, and cooperation as a whole should provide a “possibility, but no guarantee, of common action”. These caveats indicate first that no substantial common military defence planning, of the kind a real alliance such as NATO produces, will take place. Second, they reveal that both countries maintain the freedom of action not to help the other – if circumstances so demand. This reflects the basic logic of non-alignment still pervasive in the thinking of the current governments of both countries. The problem with this approach is, of course, that it directly undermines the cooperative venture. If a lot of effort is made to make common defensive action in wartime likely, then it must be considered very counterproductive to combine this with a policy that always allows for unilateral decisions not to cooperate at all.
But there is more. Despite the seemingly similar policies of Sweden and Finland – which remain essentially non-aligned while getting closer to NATO all the time – there are some profound differences between them as well. This relates primarily to the Swedish unilateral so-called “declaration of solidarity”, which was introduced in a major defence bill in 2009 and has been repeated ever since in official texts. Basically, it states that Sweden will act if a Nordic or EU state is attacked, and that Sweden expects these countries to act as well if Sweden is attacked. This declaration has been called a “unilateral article 5 light”, which elegantly underlines its complexity. In practical terms, however, it means that Sweden from the outset has decided to be a part of the conflict if, for example, a Baltic state is attacked (or if Finland, Norway, Poland, Germany or some 20 other countries are attacked). How Sweden would help in such a conflict is not clear, though, and will be dependent on the situation at hand and on the capabilities of the Swedish armed forces.
There is nothing resembling this in official Finnish doctrine. Quite the contrary: in 2015, Finnish president Sauli Niinistö stated very clearly that defending the Baltic states is not a task for Finland, and that all states, especially the small ones, must focus only on their own security. Finnish officials have also been more muted and indirect than their Swedish counterparts in criticizing Russia officially for its actions in Ukraine and elsewhere; instead, they have placed more stress on the importance of a continued dialogue with Russia.
Taken together, however, both the credibility issues in Swedish-Finnish defence cooperation and the differences between the two countries in terms of some fundamental security policy issues mean that this venture must be considered essentially a peacetime policy. As such, it functions well, and promotes regional stability and political-military integration – to a point. But its deterrence value is very limited, and it can never replace real operational military planning, as this only can take place in an alliance setting – i.e. in NATO. Thus, Swedish-Finnish bilateral defence cooperation is, together with NORDEFCO and other bilateral efforts with countries like the US and the UK, essentially a way of trying to increase national security without– dismantling the non-alignment policy for domestic political reasons; the result is a kind of ersatz NATO membership policy.
If Sweden and Finland were to join NATO, however, the military defence cooperation between them would be boosted dramatically, as the Nordic-Baltic region is and must be seen as a military-operational whole. The possibilities for real military defence planning and cooperation would be immense, as all states in the wider Baltic Sea region – except Russia and Belarus – would belong to the same military framework. This also would be very good deterrence policy for the Baltic Sea region as a whole.
The prospect of Swedish NATO membership has become more realistic during the last two years or so, despite the complications generated by the new Trump administration in the US. Four out of the eight parties in parliament now explicitly advocate NATO membership, and polls show that the public opinion is evenly divided on the issue. In Finland, however, only a couple of the parties in parliament openly advocates membership, and polls show that a majority of the general public is in favour of continued non-alignment.
Thus, it will take some to bring about common Swedish-Finnish NATO membership. In the meantime, however, other decisions could enhance integration and cooperation in the Nordic-Baltic region. Some of these could include: full membership in NORDEFCO for the Baltic states, deepened military cooperation between Poland and the other states of the Baltic Sea region, and stronger German military presence in exercises in Sweden and Finland. The world’s problems are not going away, and the states around the Baltic Sea need to prepare themselves for them.