Europe’s grand illusion is fading.
As much time passed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Minsk Agreements (1989–2015) as between the Storming of the Bastille and the Congress of Vienna (1789–1815). Both periods represent political shifts in European history in which the initial success for liberal ideas gradually turned into disappointment. Today we can conclude that the triumph of the European project, which showed so many vital signs in the 1990s, was an illusion. Its vitality was not due to the superiority of liberal values, but rather explained by a lack of any existential challenge to Europe. In fact, while hidden by the rapid creation of a number of ambitious institutions in Brussels, Europe actually became weaker and more dependent on American leadership after the end of the Cold War.
There have been warning signs all along: for example, it was the United States that ended the conflicts in the Balkans in 1995, and the sanctions against Austria in 2000 displayed that Europe as an actor was never stronger than its most anti-liberal leader.1 This simple conclusion about the European illusion serves two purposes. First, it highlights the relevant factors behind the current nightmare in Europe. What we are now witnessing is the gradual beginning of what Samuel Huntington called the “reverse wave” of democracy, and the end of a liberal époque. Second, the relevant factors behind the current malaise highlight why a common European approach to security problems is not on the cards. While the problems (i.e. the eurozone mess, the Schengen situation, etc.) show that a failure of some states to fulfil European commitments begs collective solutions, domestic anti-liberal sentiments in many states make any collective action difficult. This lack of trust in common efforts spills over to European security concerns, and ultimately a new Yalta-based Europe hangs in the balance.
Nowhere is this danger more visible than in the Baltic Sea region. The Kremlin is shaping the battlefield in the Baltic States, and is preparing Russia for war. In the face of aggressive Russian behaviour, the Baltic States request a permanent and meaningful US presence in the region. Such a presence would constitute a “threshold” of deterrence, based on the assumption that it would be impossible not to make a collective transatlantic effort to defend the Baltic States in the event of Russian aggression. However, in the absence of American leadership, the current deterrence formula is a “tripwire” with rotational presence and a promise to act once a Russian attack has been initiated. It means deterrence through exercises. The risk is not only that—in the words of the recently-retired SACEUR, General Philip Breedlove—“virtual presence is actual absence”, but that common action against Russian aggression becomes difficult to initiate in the Alliance. This is perhaps the greatest worry in the current European nightmare: the Americans hesitate to escalate because they are not present, while the Europeans are paralysed into passivity because they are too divided. This is not a mere hypothetical concern, but a real one for many actors in the Baltic Sea region. When former Finnish foreign minister Pär Stenbäck recently gave a lecture in Stockholm, there was a chilling silence when he asked the rhetorical question about solidarity with the Baltic States: “Does anyone in here believe that Germany would intervene militarily?”
Sweden and Baltic Regional Strategy
Recognising the challenges of the present situation, the strategic debate in the region concerning defence of the Baltic Sea area is focused on the creation of a credible and coherent effort to deny Russia any control of (primarily conventional) escalation. While this would not necessarily stop Russian military provocation and incidents, it would diminish their strategic importance. Furthermore, such efforts would increase the ability to reinforce the Baltic States in the event of a conflict, which in turn increases the likelihood of US involvement, and thus would be a deterrent to Russian aggression.
Two fundamental aspects emerge from this line of reasoning. First, while NATO forces are important, the most rapid response is likely to be from US air assets; and second, the need to use Swedish territory in any rescue operation in the Baltic States. This is why there has been recent interest, and concern, regarding Sweden—over both its defence capabilities and its security policy.
The current Swedish centre-left coalition government is not going to apply for NATO membership. Instead, defence minister Peter Hultqvist has opted for a strategy based on deeper defence cooperation with neighbouring countries (like Denmark and Poland). This “Hultqvist Doctrine” is portrayed as “solidarity” which increases the “threshold” and deterrence against Russia, and includes special military cooperation with Finland. It should be noted that this Swedish–Finnish cooperation is allegedly prepared for situations of crisis and war, which would make it a somewhat confusing form of alliance between non-aligned countries. The strongest part of this “web” of defence cooperation is, according to the doctrine’s slogans, bilateral ties with the US.
The Swedish–Finnish defence cooperation is currently hotly debated among Swedish defence intellectuals. The crux of the matter concerns security policy related to a collective effort for the Baltic States in a conflict with Russia. Some analysts argue that Sweden and Finland have asymmetric interests, based on different geographical locations. Finland is less important to the US in a rescue operation in the Baltic States, and thus the Finns are likely to stay out of an East–West confrontation, at least a short one. By contrast, Sweden is likely to be dragged into conflict from the start. Logically, it would be foolish to create deep military ties between Finland and Sweden, including common military units; and the assumption that Sweden and Finland should join NATO together is flawed. Other analysts argue that Sweden and Finland—as non-aligned states close to Russia—actually share most security interests. According to this perspective, there is no point in a Swedish alleingang regarding NATO, as Finland’s decision over NATO will not influence Swedish public opinion. Furthermore, a rift between Sweden and Finland would only serve the Kremlin’s interests.
Swedish military defence capabilities are of great concern to its security intelligentsia. The Defence Bill of 2015 was a clear break with the earlier transformation trend that dominated Swedish defence policy for almost 20 years. Nominally featuring significant increases, it is likely to produce a “skinny” military organisation with many systems below critical strength. This “post-transformation” syndrome is likely to render Sweden a military vacuum in the region.
To sum up, Sweden cannot defend itself. Furthermore, there is no credibility in the doctrine of solidarity, as a lack of military capabilities and non-membership of NATO clearly indicates. There is no political process leading to NATO membership, as the current government refuses even to contemplate the issue. Thus, it is tempting to conclude that Sweden is in a desperate search for a coherent strategy.
The fairy tale about the three little pigs comes to mind. The arrogant and careless Fifer Pig (Sweden) is forced to cooperate with the somewhat more robustly equipped Fiddler Pig (Finland) in the face of existential danger. But this will not suffice. In the event of war, Swedish–Finnish cooperation is likely to fall apart like a house of cards. They need to run to the Practical Pig (NATO) in order to get a proper brick house.
Alas, this is just a fairy tale.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.