Finland and Sweden and Security in the Baltic Sea Region

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René Nyberg – 12th June 2017

Polish Institute of International Affairs – Warsaw

History is present in Poland in a unique way. The impressive museums of Warsaw and Gdansk are witnesses of a country that knows its past. Touring the museums over the weekend I was reminded of the Estonian author Viivi Luik who in her novel The Seventh Summer of Peace (1985) tells the story of a little girl – herself – taking food with her grandmother to the Forest Brothers. I was born the same year as Viivi in 1946. My summer of peace coincided with the Olympic Games in Helsinki. My father was a member of the organizing committee so we had free tickets to all events. The last train carrying war reparations crossed the border to the Soviet Union only three weeks after the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Symbolically that was the end of the post-war era for Finland.
The last time I had the honor to address a Polish audience was in March 2014. The topic was the Winter War with the background on the ongoing war in Ukraine. Most of the historic conclusions of that presentation are still valid. Let me repeat but two.

First — There is an important Polish footnote to the Winter War. Waiting for a swift success, Lavrenti Beria ordered camps to be prepared immediately for 26,500 Finnish prisoners of war relying on the proven Katyn modus operandi. The execution of up to 30,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest took place during the Winter War. The camps prepared for Finnish officers came in handy when the Soviet POWs captured by the Finnish Army returned and had to be dealt with.
Two — When then Prime Minister Putin came to Gdansk on the 1st of September 2009 to mark the day World War II started seventy years earlier, this was an important event for Finland, too. For Poland and Finland, World War II did not start in June 1941.


There is a clear context for the work of the Finnish report on The Effects of Finland’s Possible NATO Membership for Finland presented end April 2016. The assessment was not written in a vacuum. The debate in Finland reflected the heightened tensions in the Baltic Sea Region due to the war in Ukraine. Also, a similar debate was taking place in Sweden. Sweden’s previous center-right Government had commissioned a study in 2012. A second report of Sweden’s security policy was commissioned by the new Government and submitted last September.

The focus of the Finnish report was the concept of a common strategic area shared by Finland and Sweden. In doing so it challenged the findings of the first Swedish report, which characterized Finland’s position as peripheral in the changing geopolitical setting of the Baltic Sea area. The first Swedish report emphasized that possible military threats would be focused far from Finnish shores in the southern Baltic Sea. It also implied that Finland, unlike Sweden, could not afford to join NATO because of its physical proximity and relationship with Russia.

A closer look at the geopolitics of the Baltic Sea provides a more nuanced view. The most salient fact remains that there is no separate southern Baltic Sea theatre of war. Any development in the Baltic Sea area impacts Russia’s northern capital St. Petersburg, too. And the security of St. Petersburg cannot be separated from its crucial assets on the Murmansk coast.

Thus, deployments in the Baltic Sea automatically raise the issue of missile defense, which leads to the crucial issue of strategic balance. It is not the Southern Baltic Sea, the Karelian Isthmus, or the road to Smolensk that worries the Russian General Staff. It is the fear of being technologically surprised and forced to face a new threat to its second-strike capability. This would undermine the basis of Russia’s valued superpower status. Russia, of course, is painfully aware of its military, economic and technological limitations relative to the United States. I am here referring specifically to missile defense. It is still too early to predict if the United States and Russia could in the coming years find their way back to the negation table and talk again about nuclear weapons and missile defense.

The analysis of the new Swedish report, which drew among other things on the findings of the Finnish report, is therefore more balanced than the first one.


The differences in the debate climate play a role as political cultures differ. Partisan lines are more marked in Sweden than in Finland – especially when it comes to security policy. There is also a difference in the debate culture. Finns tend to de-dramatize as alarmist tones are not alien in the Swedish discussion. To quote the Moscow correspondent of both Hufvudstadsbladet published in Helsinki and Dagens Nyheter in Stockholm, a Finn, Anna-Lena Laurén commenting on Swedish and Finnish reactions to developments in Russia: “The Swedes are more worked-up than worried, as the Finns are more worried than worked-up about Russia.” I fully agree with her and this is why we welcome the NATO decision on Enhanced Forward Presence to reassure the Baltic States by deploying troops in Poland and the Baltic states. It does stabilize the situation in the Baltic Sea area. A look at the map confirms why it is vital for Finland that the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland is and remains free.

At the same time, the relationships of Sweden and Finland with NATO have changed fundamentally. Joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace and making full use of the tool kits it has offered to develop interoperability and participating in operations both in Kosovo and Afghanistan have peu à peu resulted in the full compatibility of Finnish and Swedish armed forces with NATO. Today the Finnish Government is considering participation in the Joint Expeditionary Force led by Britain. But again, the claim that joining NATO would be a mere technicality is just plain silly. As noted in the Finnish NATO Report a small country like Finland has good reasons to be careful when considering choices of grand strategy.

In parallel, with deepened NATO cooperation, Finland and Sweden have engaged in military cooperation aiming at, in the words of Swedish PM Stefan Löfven, “operative cooperation beyond peacetime.” This is historic and unprecedented. There is no denying that an increase in strategic depth would greatly benefit Finland. On the other hand, Sweden’s interest in pursuing cooperation reveals a deep interest in rebuilding the Swedish armed forces after having abolished territorial defense and suspended conscription. It is precisely territorial defense and conscription that remain the forte of Finnish defense and the basis of its strategy of denial of access. Territorial defense based on a mobilization system of trained reserves creates an ability to receive aid and increases the value of Finland as a partner.

Sweden can still rely on its diverse defense industry, powerful air force, a navy equipped with top submarines and its world-class intelligence capabilities. The Finnish weaknesses remain materiel and the lead time in raising readiness. This is also the reason why Finland has a vested interest in developing defense cooperation within the European Union. The wide range of issues concerning procurement and defense industry cooperation plus hybrid warfare are now in the forefront. A European Center for Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats was established this April in Helsinki.


I would maintain that the development of bilateral Finnish-Swedish military cooperation has surprised us all in both its scope and the speed at which it is happening. Above all, I want to emphasize its success. To press the Swedish or the Finnish Government to elaborate and define the final goal of this cooperation is futile, of course. It is open ended. — Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Although the Finnish and Swedish views are very close, there are noteworthy nuances in their relationship vis-à-vis NATO membership. Both armies are already fully compatible with NATO, and both governments participate in 28+2 NATO Summits and ministerials. Still the Swedish Government has clearly stated that it does not intend to join the Alliance. Finland, for its part reserves the possibility to apply for membership. Despite this apparent paradox, I would maintain that neither Finland nor Sweden is about to join the Alliance. — Yes, it’s smoking, but not inhaling.