In the past six weeks, Finland and Sweden’s security policies have changed more than they have over the past six decades. In much of what they do, the two countries come as a couple and were militarily neutral during the Cold War – but their defence cooperation has only deepened since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Now, the two are about to break with their long history of non-alignment. Their applications to join Nato are likely to come in the next two months.
The same conclusion holds for the Swedes, and even more so since a Russian move on the Baltic states would likely be preceded by an occupation of Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, to close the air space for Nato air forces. But Magdalena Andersson and her government have been slow to respond to the new security situation, and the country is a few weeks behind Finland. Unlike Finland, Sweden has problems speaking plainly about the pros and cons of Nato membership. The country has not been at war since 1814, and its leaders seem to have forgotten the language of strategy.
Sweden’s defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, has repeatedly ruled out Nato membership. Last year, he said that membership was never going to be on the cards as long as he remains in his job. Just a month ago, Andersson dismissed the project too and said an application to join Nato now would have a destabilising effect on Nordic security. She now seems to have changed her mind, but the fear of stoking tension lingers. Would a Swedish bid to join Nato provoke strong reactions from the Kremlin? A few days before Andersson’s barbed comments about Nato membership, four Russian jetfighters had violated Swedish airspace just outside Gotland. The Swedish fear of Russian retaliation isn’t fiction.
In reality, the main opposition to Nato membership in Sweden is not Vladimir Putin but the country’s own nostalgia for neutrality. Magdalena Andersson’s party, the Social Democrats, is split, and for one wing of the party, Nato sends a shiver down its spine. They combine habitual anti-Americanism with a desire to restore Swedish foreign policy in the image of Olof Palme – an anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist Third World champion who governed Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s. Together with Germany’s Willy Brandt and Austria’s Bruno Kreisky, Palme was a leading star in the group of new internationalists who sought that third way between the Soviets and the West.
The Finnish debate has these echoes from the past too – mostly from those with an anti-American chip on their shoulders. But Finland is close to making its decision to join Nato. And when it does, Sweden will follow.
For now, as long as Russia is bogged down by its war in Ukraine, an attack on Finland and Sweden seems unlikely. Both countries have the capacity to inflict heavy initial injury on an aggressor and are likely to get Nato security guarantees soon. There has been much talk that Nato expansion is ‘poking the Russian bear’. Stockholm and Helsinki don’t see it that way.