, March 12, 2024

The Newest Allies: Finland and Sweden in NATO

View from the boardwalk to the “Three-Country Cairn”.
View from the boardwalk to the “Three-Country Cairn”.

Sweden’s flag was raised at NATO headquarters at midday on 11 March 2024, ceremonially marking one of the most surprising outcomes of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the face of Russia’s aggression and the risks it presented to their own security, Finland, which joined NATO in April 2023, and Sweden had abandoned decades-long policies of neutrality and non-alignment to become the Alliance’s 31st and 32nd member states. Our report examines the consequences of these changes, largely from the perspective of the defence of the Baltic states.

Although Finland had developed armed forces to cope independently with any military aggression, the brutality of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine led to a rapid and substantial shift in public opinion in favour of NATO membership, which was quickly embraced by the leadership. Public opinion shifted rapidly in Sweden too, but the debate there was also heavily influenced by Finland’s inescapable move towards the Alliance, which essentially undercut the logic of Sweden’s continued non-alignment. The two countries submitted their applications to join NATO on the same day in May 2022.

As Allies, Finland and Sweden will bring great benefits to the security of the Nordic-Baltic region. Politically, their accession will strengthen NATO, including by creating a large bloc of states in northern Europe whose memberships of security organisations are (mostly) aligned and who demonstrate broadly similar security thinking. At the operational level, their accession will plug a large hole in NATO territory, reducing the isolation and vulnerability of the Baltic states and allowing military commanders many more options for preparing for and dealing with a possible conflict with Russia. At the tactical level, they add modern, capable armed forces to NATO’s inventory.

Nonetheless, their accession is not without challenges and risks. The most difficult practical challenge for both countries will likely be developing deployable ground forces to meet the requirements of NATO membership. However, perhaps the more difficult challenges related to accession will be mental and cultural.

For Finland, these relate to adjusting an independent, highly self-reliant defence model, held in great regard by both the leadership and population, to meet the needs of collective defence; and to the requirement to bolster Allied cohesion by speaking more openly about threats to the Allies’ common security interests, in particular, Russia. For Sweden, neutrality has been fostered not only as a defining element of its self-identity as a distinctive international actor, but also as a necessary vehicle for the development of a unique democracy and welfare state. These ideas are deep-seated and Sweden’s mental transition to Allied status may be difficult and lengthy.

Among the risks is that the addition of two strong Allies will encourage other Allies or their publics to believe that deterrence and defence in the Nordic-Baltic region is complete, needing no further attention. A second is that the low-key approach Finland and Sweden expect to take to their membership, at least in the years immediately following accession, may mean that the benefits of their joining will be only partly realised. It would be a missed opportunity, for example, if Sweden declined to take a leadership role in the Nordic-Baltic region.

There is also a risk that Finland and Sweden’s commitment to a strong Nordic regional identity, while useful for promoting practical security and defence cooperation, may be disadvantageous to Baltic security if its pull were to result in the diminished engagement of the two countries in the Baltic region. The tension between the two countries northern and Baltic identities has already been apparent in a discussion concerning their place in NATO’s operational-level command structure. Finally, there is a risk that imprecise talk about ‘strategic depth’ that has sometimes been part of the discussion about the benefits that Finland and Sweden bring to NATO may suggest that other parts of Allied territory are somehow less important. This would be unhelpful to coherent deterrence by denial on the north-east flank.

While Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO greatly benefits the security and defence of the Baltic states, it is important that such risks and challenges are recognised, in order that they can be mitigated. We make several recommendations to Finland and Sweden as they continue their integration into the Alliance.

Download and read: The Newest Allies: Finland and Sweden in NATO (PDF)