More than a year ago, I presented a study commissioned by the Swedish Minister of Defense, which pointed to the growing contradictions in current Swedish security policy. The conclusions were the following. Our present forms of defense cooperation can add only marginally to our national capability, and we cannot defend ourselves against a major aggression unless we do it together with others, just as we publicly declare. But our self-imposed restrictions prevent us from engaging in the kind of preparation and planning, integration and role-sharing with others for conflict situations that is the only way to significantly enhance our capabilities and raise the threshold. So, in spite of what we say, we cannot really prepare our national defense in advance together with NATO. Nor can we effectively prepare any military assistance to neighbors, although we have issued a binding declaration of solidarity, promising that we shall not remain passive if they are attacked.
True, the solidarity formula is far from a promise of military help. And a study of the official Swedish discussion would indicate an asymmetric view of solidarity: not having to give military help, but counting on getting it, if need be. In our own domestic tradition, this is considered to be a sophisticated form of statecraft, and there was a small-state logic to it, as long as we had a sizable defense of our own.
To increase the possibilities of getting the help we may need, and to develop our own high-end capabilities, we now have a NATO member’s level of interoperability. Our privileged participation in all kinds of operations and advanced and complex exercises, including for deterrence and reassurance purposes, has brought us to a hitherto unseen level of identification with NATO. And quite intentionally so. As the Swedish Minister of Defense wrote in Dagens Nyheter last summer: “Such exercises are also an important marker for where we belong, and they send security policy signals.” We are simply part of the West.
To push it a bit, one could say that our policy journey since the fall of the Berlin Wall has taken us miles away from the position of Foreign Minister Östen Undén, the icon of classic Swedish neutrality policy. We are now much closer to the position of the hapless King Gustav IV Adolf in 1807. That is, we are clearly identifying ourselves with one major part in a large potential conflict, without having any commitment for support against the other side. Our policy is more than a half-way house – we have changed it in almost everything but name, and without taking the final decisive step.
The report I mentioned concluded that this identification with NATO, although desirable, has brought us additional risks in a new European security climate of unpredictability and confrontation generated by Russia. The report also pointed out that these risks are not compensated for by any corresponding undertaking from those whose help we are counting on. The new risks are there, but the protection and the insurance are not. Almost to the contrary, NATO troops are much harder to find and less available nowadays than during the Cold War. We usually count on being important enough to the Alliance to get the help we expect. That is, we still have confidence in our own indispensability to NATO. But we have no clear idea of how the alliance intends to make use of us or of our territory, and no direct influence over it. And we also hear from the Alliance that the distinction between members and non-members is still fundamental for Article Five situations, and that – of course – no guarantees can be given to non-members. The report therefore concluded that the logical thing to do would be to make an impartial study of the pros and cons of a NATO membership, preferably together with Finland, since, if the conclusion was that we should join the Alliance, the best thing would be to join together.
The new Swedish government rejected that conclusion of the report, as expected. But since the government shares the pessimistic view of the security situation, it has taken a number of steps to strengthen our defense capability: increased budgets, deepened partnership cooperation with NATO, and deepened bilateral cooperation with Finland, perhaps Poland and above all with the US.
All these measures taken by the government are important by themselves, but they have one more thing in common: they attempt to show that the situation is getting better, in the sense that something is being done, and that, accordingly, the growing issue of NATO membership can be kept at bay. The reason is that NATO has become a very divisive issue domestically, and that the Social Democrats, already hard squeezed from the populist right on migration, can ill afford a serious internal debate on NATO, since it would risk sending a certain part of their voters leftward, to the Greens or the Left Party. Therefore, foreign policy veterans are mobilized and ingenious new arguments are invented in order to prove that NATO membership is not an option. But essentially, this is more about party strategy than national strategic analysis.
Let us now look at how the worsened security situation, the new military capabilities, and the geography of the Baltic Sea area impact on our two countries.
But first about Russia. The new conflict between Russia and the West is multidimensional, real, and here to stay for quite some time. The Baltic Sea area and the Arctic seem to be where the potential points of controversy can most easily lead to escalated conflict. No one seriously foresees a planned, intentionally initiated large-scale Russian military attack in our area. Article Five works, and deterrence is a reality at this rational level.
But the conflict is here, and what some call non-linear war is already going on at lower levels. The stakes can be raised if Russia so wishes, still with the intention to weaken NATO’s resolve and cohesion without passing any NATO thresholds. Escalation of some sort is not a far-fetched risk, given that the present Russian system requires recurrent crises to maintain itself. And we are dealing with not only a clash of interests but in a way a clash of civilizations, at least of values, perceptions and understanding of fundamental principles. This mental divide, which has generated deep misunderstandings in the past, seems to grow again in the present climate of Russia-West confrontation. Essentially, the clash is about the logic of a rule-based and transparent system, both nationally and internationally, on the one hand, and on the other patrimonial governance based on personalized power in a system, where the delimitation between nation, state and empire has been blurred from the beginning.
For Russia, the lack of geopolitical identity has been compensated for by the creation of client states and extension of defense parameters. To quote James Sherr, Russia now wants to convince the European Union that the systemic divide is not between the EU and Russia, but between the “historical Europe” and “the Russian world,” allowing for some possible grey zones in between.1 While the EU wants clarity and treaty-based delimitations, Russia wants to use its old civilizational maps to assert its separate identity and special interests once more. In this context, it is not at all unthinkable that miscalculations or misunderstandings, combined with rash or emotional decision-making, can lead to conflicts no one would rationally want.
In our region, Swedish vulnerabilities combined with ambiguous Swedish policies may contribute to such miscalculations. During the Cold War, ambiguity might be seen as having had also a dissuasive function: the military capability was a deterrent in itself and contributed to stability, and the lack of definition for its use in a war created an uncertainty that contributed to raising the conflict threshold. At least this could be argued. At the same time, our non-alignment was a contribution to the regional pattern of low tensions that we traditionally called the Nordic Balance.
But in today’s world, and without a sufficient defense of our own, this lack of clarity and definition is no longer the contribution to stability it used to be. We offer ourselves as a new kind of grey zone, open to probing, testing and perhaps to misunderstandings. For Sweden, the fair weather of the 90’s and early 2000’s encouraged not only military spending cuts and radical reform but also light-hearted thinking and fundamental contradictions in our security policy. And now the new security climate is not so forgiving about inconsistencies as the fair weather we enjoyed earlier.
While military conflict is not unthinkable, deterrence remains the fundamental dimension of security and stability in the region. Both Sweden and Finland share this interest in strengthening deterrence, that is, in raising the threshold for conflict. NATO membership would be a form of insurance, in the form of securing help if war broke out, but above all it would be a protection against war breaking out at all. Both elements are necessary, but the fire protection may be more essential than the fire insurance. In this respect, I assume that Swedish and Finnish interests are identical in viewing the strengthening of deterrence as essential.
But if military conflict actually occurred, in the form of a Russian military intervention in any or in all of the Baltic countries, can one then be sure that Sweden and Finland would be affected in identical ways? It is not a given that we have the same possibilities, interests or ambitions to remain outside or intervene in a conflict between Russia and some Baltic country, that is between Russian and NATO, which is the conflict in our region that seems the least unlikely, and which seems to be at the heart of most informed discussions. And the new bilateral Finnish-Swedish military cooperation has not been accompanied by any special political commitments or new declarations of solidarity. So our differences are worth analyzing.
Finland shares a 1,300 km long border with Russia. Finland’s perspective on its security is quite naturally conditioned by geography and by national concerns. Its territory, in one corner of our region, will not automatically be at the center of a regional conflict. Its focus is Russia directly, so to speak, and the Finnish discussion seems still to be marked by experiences between 70 and 80 years ago.
Sweden has the Baltic Sea, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania between itself and Russia. That distance used to be a strategic advantage, and naturally our thinking has been conditioned by it. But as we know, long-range precision weapons and electronic counter-measures have greatly increased the possibilities of area denial and anti-access, and the Swedish advantage is not what it used to be. Possibilities to “close down the Baltic” already exist and could change the traditional pattern. Different from peripheral Finland, Sweden would be located at the center of a potential regional conflict that will serve as a test of NATO’s ability to prevent a Russian seizure of the eastern Baltic coast, or to retake it, if prevention fails.
The US and NATO have explored what is required in such a situation, and as far as I understand, those studies conclude that the use of parts of Swedish territory, be it air, land or sea, would greatly increase the chances of allied success. So much so, that it is difficult to imagine a conflict in the region not involving Sweden. This is more or less what we declare ourselves, too. But it is important to note that it is the use of Swedish, not Finnish, territory that is of key importance to the Alliance in these scenarios. That is also why a Swedish NATO membership is seen as desirable from a NATO point of view, not primarily a Finnish membership. If we joined together, we would probably be seen as an attractive package – or at least a passable one. But it would primarily be the Swedish part of this package that was perceived as adding needed capabilities to NATO itself.
Sweden’s attractiveness to NATO in this respect is also its main vulnerability. The issue of Gotland or the use of Swedish key territory on or near the Baltic Sea is too familiar to require comment here. They are essential to anyone wanting to establish anti-access or sea/air denial in the Baltic Sea area. Consequently they are essential to the issue of the credibility of NATO guarantees to its most exposed members – as well as to anyone with an interest to undermine that credibility. Therefore, Swedish territory might actually be affected very early, before anything else has happened in a pending conflict, and this realization has slowly started to have its consequences for our defense planning. Those reluctant to accept the new realities could dismiss this as a modern version of speculations during the cold war about various Soviet surprise attacks. Maybe, but this possibility is part of NATO concerns.
What I have described so far are fairly objective consequences of old and new facts in our neighborhood. But one would also have to reckon with the differences in the current policies pursued by our two countries. Finland has a tradition of a successful reassurance policy towards Russia, even after its old bilateral framework with Moscow was quickly abolished after the demise of the Soviet Union. Finland has made less far-reaching statements of support to its Baltic neighbors than Sweden has, and even put some distance between itself and that idea. If deterrence fails, an ensuing Russia-NATO conflict is likely to go beyond the context of the region, and it would be difficult to see how any country in the region could remain unaffected. But if at all possible, to stay outside seems to be the Finnish policy, more or less in the logic of the old traditional Swedish doctrine. But as already noted, for geographic/military reasons, Sweden will certainly be dragged into such a conflict, and our solidarity rhetoric also indicate our possible readiness to let that happen or even to participate actively.
It does not require imagination to see that from a Russian point of view, it makes sense to count with Sweden as part of NATO in that kind of conflict. And to my understanding, that is exactly what Russia does. It also fits with the stronger stand taken in Stockholm against Russian neighborhood policies in general, and a clearer association in principle with NATO and the US on European security issues.
Part of these Swedish-Finnish policy differences may be ascribed to tradition, style and method rather than substance. But enough remains to leave the impression of two distinct approaches to the main conflict scenario that is seen as the most likely one – or the least unlikely – in our region.
These differences are not trivial, since Sweden and Finland have decided to engage in a military cooperation at a new and deeper level, with some common planning and force integration and preparing for military conflict situations (something previously unthinkable for Swedish non-aligned policy). This integration has rightly received a lot of attention. But very little or nothing has been said about what we should use our integrated capability for, that is, in what context it should be used and what policy it should serve.
Can one have integrated units and a prepared defense planning if one does not have a common defense and security policy? Our two prime ministers have recently echoed the suggestion by the Finnish president that we should further develop our foreign and security policy cooperation. If Sweden would be drawn into, or engage itself in, a Russia-NATO conflict, after a Russian attack on one or several Baltic countries, and if Finland was not directly affected initially, would our bilateral force integration come into action or would it cease to exist? Would Finland accept the risk of being drawn into that conflict, which it might otherwise at least theoretically avoid, through Sweden’s more exposed position or activist policies?
Those may seem unwarranted and premature questions to ask, but I think it would be unwise not to ask them, as we go deeper into a bilateral defense cooperation in the face of a clearly revisionist Russia. Both countries are adamant that our growing bilateral cooperation does not create any obligations. Any deployment in a conflict will be a national decision, when the time is due. It is true that the perspective of a binding bilateral defense alliance is referred to now and then, more often in Finland than in Sweden. A formal defense treaty between two small countries with limited resources may slightly raise the threshold, but it can of course not replace what is the real and obvious option, that is joining the only defense alliance that exists and that works.
I also think that the adherents of a bilateral defense alliance have underestimated the difficulties of creating the necessary political groundwork, that is a common security and defense policy. To those interested in a bilateral defense treaty I would recommend reading Krister Wahlbäck’s analysis of what it would have required politically in 1939, if the idea had reached a more serious stage then.2
But deep cooperation, also without treaties, usually create dependencies that influence political decisions. The situations “beyond peace,” for which our bilateral cooperation will prepare, could influence both sides in directions that would otherwise not have been chosen. That is why the questions above are not unreasonable to ask. And the reverse of those questions, at the political level, would be the following: could Sweden later join NATO on its own, if we so wished, while keeping the deepened cooperation with Finland? In other words, could our new bilateral cooperation have a creeping influence on the possible use of a unilateral Swedish NATO option, either because of Finnish concerns or NATO concerns? Or should we rather, in the tradition of ambiguity, see this cooperation as a preparation for a next step together, in a common dialectic exploration of the possibilities?
And that brings me to what kind of responses to the new security situation seem feasible and desirable. My own conclusion is that Sweden needs to be part of a system of collective security, and that membership in NATO would significantly raise the threshold for any military conflict in the Baltic Sea area in general and thereby also the threshold for a conflict affecting Sweden. This is the fundamental argument. It is a way of protecting not primarily others but ourselves, through common security, since the only way a conflict could reach us is through others. That is why regional deterrence is the key. Equally important, all NATO member states in our region think that Swedish membership would make the alliance stronger and more credible in its commitments, and thereby strengthen deterrence and stability. The reasons why this is so are not very complicated. Also in Sweden a growing number of people understand the logic, and public support for NATO membership seems to be growing steadily. Those less impressed and captivated by the romantic dimensions of our neutrality tradition (and maybe less impressed with Russian threatening propaganda) seem to understand this more easily. It is interesting to note that younger people seem more open to the new realities. With time, it is realistic to count on a clear pro-NATO majority in Sweden. And as the issue of membership acquires more political legitimacy and the influence of an older generation fades, that change can happen faster than foreseen, also in the Social Democratic Party.
I think that the only issue on which the Swedish debate might become really complicated is Finland. Will Finland join a Swedish entry into NATO? If not, will it try to discourage it? Or could it even come to encourage it without joining itself? And how would Finland be affected if it stays outside after a Swedish accession? I can imagine that Finland is not particularly attracted by being used as an argument in the Swedish debate, but the fact is that “the Finnish argument” has become a major tool for the NATO opponents in Sweden.
I suppose that today Finland has no official position on whether Sweden should join NATO or not, just as we don’t when it comes Finland. At an individual level, those in favor of Finnish membership also favor a Swedish one of course, and vice versa. But it seems that very few public figures in Finland, especially in office, actually advocate NATO membership as a practical and concrete alternative for the foreseeable future. The value of the NATO option seems to be as part of current deterrence policy, as a contingency that can regularly be referred to. In that way it seems to have been incorporated as an element in Finland’s long and successful tradition of a pragmatic security policy more than as a guide to action.
What kind of relationship to NATO does Finland actually want? – that question might in time become a debate of its own in Sweden. I think that it is recognized that membership would mean a more dramatic change for Finland than for Sweden, and it might be seen as more provocative in Moscow and perhaps less necessary by NATO. In a coming debate, some will say that Sweden’s decision should entirely be made dependent on Finland’s choice. That is, we should never join NATO without Finland. Some, maybe many but far from all, will say that. Others will think that Swedish membership in NATO will benefit the overall regional stability in a way that will benefit Finland too, and that those advantages should outweigh any perceived negative consequences of us not joining together. Some may also think that Finland might have reasons not to join the Alliance that Sweden does not necessarily have to share. Or even that Finland would support a Swedish accession in its heart while regretting it publicly.
From the Cold War, we are used to thinking that of our two countries Finland is the more exposed one. But in terms of the new realities, Sweden may have less of a chance to remain outside a regional conflict. Perhaps we need NATO membership more than Finland does? If that is so, should we let Finnish hesitation decide that issue for us?
If Sweden refrains from joining NATO, we will probably have a new kind of debate, based on the need to compensate the new vulnerabilities by further deepening our bilateral ties with the United States. That is, we are likely to see a much stronger development of a tendency that is visible already today.
Some of the things highlighted above point in the same direction: that perhaps there is no full symmetry or identity between Swedish and Finnish conditions and policies. This is not to say that they are conflicting, far from it. To be mutual, interests do not have to be identical. They can still be mutually supportive and supplementary. And as supplementary they can in fact be quite diverse. Intelligent diversity can be forge stronger mutual interests than clinging to a notion of identical interests or common destiny that might not be there.
We can decide to create or preserve our “common destiny” by becoming members of NATO. That would simplify very many things, in particular our bilateral cooperation. But short of that, the asymmetries in our positions and policies will probably continue to be expressed.
It does not mean of course that we should not continue to deepen our military cooperation. That has an undisputable value in itself. It adds to our capabilities and shows that we are doing what we can – it demonstrates our effort to the world, to any aggressor, as well as to NATO and to the United States in particular, whose help we are hoping for, if needed. And as a saying goes, one is more likely to get help, if one helps oneself.
But it will be an error to see our bilateral cooperation as something separate that can save us from our dependence on external military assistance from NATO and the United States in a regional conflict. From a Swedish point of view, deepened defense cooperation with Finland will mean an engagement eastwards in the face of a revisionist Russia. In order to make sense, it will also have to be anchored in deeper cooperation with NATO or with the US directly. This is a security dynamic that has to work both ways in parallel. Without the wider context, our cooperation runs the risk of becoming another fair-weather construction, like the Swedish declaration of solidarity, and a dangerous illusion, if it took the place of further integration with NATO. It would be surprising if this logic looked differently from a Finnish perspective.
In conclusion: pursuit of a common identity would mean NATO membership for both Sweden and Finland. But if that is not possible in the foreseeable future, more thought should be given to the alternatives. They could imply some diversity between us. But diversity could still be founded on mutually supporting choices, when each country helps the other to contribute what matters most for the region as a whole. Whether it will be a common identity or a new kind of regional pattern based on our bilateral defense cooperation and Swedish NATO membership or deepened bilateral ties to the US, I don’t know. But certainly the new security situation requires an upgrading of our policies, one way or the other. That conclusion has not been calibrated with what is seen to be easy or practical to implement in the short term. It comes as a conclusion drawn from the other direction. The new realities have brought the inconsistencies and contradictions of Swedish security policy to such a level that something should be done about them.
Tomas Bertelman is a retired Swedish diplomat and previously served as ambassador to Spain, Latvia, Poland, and Russia. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a January 22, 2016 seminar in Helsinki, organized by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.
1. James Sherr, The New East-West Discord, Clingendael Report, December 2015.
2. Krister Wahlbäck, ”Rickard Sandlers nordiska politik,” in Krister Wahlbäck: Fred och säkerhet i tider av förändring, Santérus 2014.