The decision by five Scandinavian defense ministers to release a public joint declaration on strengthening defense capabilities may irritate the Kremlin further and exacerbate tensions in the region.
Three Scandinavian countries (Norway Finland and Sweden) participated in a military exercise in the framework of the NATO Response Force training, in the Garrucha beach near Almeria, Spain in October, 2014. Pictured: Spanish Navy Marines take positions during the military drill. Photo: AP
On April 10 the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten published a joint declaration by the Defense Ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden on the expansion of military cooperation in connection with the growing military threat emanating from Russia.
The statement, curiously published in the form of a newspaper article, explains how and in what areas the Scandinavian countries plan to work together to strengthen defenses. The question arises as to whether the declaration presages the creation of a new regional military structure in Scandinavia and the Baltic region, or just closer military contacts.
The statement itself is quite symbolic. It begins by openly accusing Russia of violating international law, strengthening its army, and showing willingness to use force if need be. There is no doubt that the move towards closer military cooperation between the Nordic countries is linked solely to the “Russian threat.”
That said, the five initiators of the declaration are far from being homogenous. Finland and Sweden, for instance, are not members of NATO, and the latter has for many years maintained a policy of neutrality. Iceland has no army. Norway's interests are mainly concentrated in the Arctic. Denmark lies a fair distance away from Russia’s borders.
Nevertheless, all five countries intend to pursue a regional format of cooperation in the area of defense. More interesting still was the absence in Oslo of the defense ministers of the Baltic countries, all new NATO members whose governments have expressed even greater concern about the Russian threat. At the same time, one of the priorities of military cooperation highlighted in the declaration is the need for close cooperation with Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
It should be noted that military cooperation between the countries of the Baltic Sea is already quite solid. Since the 1990s, Finland has granted Estonia use of its firing ranges and military centers, primarily to train artillery officers. In the early 1990s, Stockholm took a hands-on part in creating the armies of the newly independent states, and actively supplied them with weapons. Perceived by many as a neutral power, Sweden has always operated in close collaboration with NATO.
Suffice it to recall that NATO and U.S.-backed reconnaissance flights along the Soviet Union’s borders involved the Swedish Air Force, one of whose scout planes was shot down over Liepaja, Latvia, in 1952. Perhaps only Finland, which maintained close economic ties with the Soviet Union, could be said to have been non-aggressive and truly committed to its non-aligned status.
Helsinki and Stockholm watched NATO’s expansion in the 1990s and 2000s from the sidelines. What’s more, the idea of joining the North Atlantic Alliance did not appeal to the general populace of either country. In 2013, according to the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, only 36 percent of Swedes supported the country’s accession to NATO. In Finland the figure was even lower, just 30 percent.
That is not surprising given that Swedes and Finns are well aware that joining NATO would mean additional military spending and, as a consequence, a review of their traditionally socially oriented budgets. However, both Sweden and Finland de facto maintain close relations with NATO.
Since 1994 they have participated in the Partnership for Peace program and regularly taken part in joint exercises. For example, NATO’s largest regional maneuver, Steadfast Jazz 2013, involved the Swedish and Finnish military. Another circumstance of no little importance is that the armies of these two non-aligned countries are effectively armed according to NATO standards, which greatly facilitates reciprocal action with Western allies, as and when required.
Over the two decades since the end of the Cold War, this state of affairs has suited everyone. The Swedes and Finns have acted as allies of NATO and its de facto leader, the United States, yet maintained a kind of special relationship with the Alliance. The statement in Aftenposten was seen by many as a major step towards NATO on the part of Stockholm and Helsinki.
That being the case, a detailed analysis of the document raises questions as to which parts are declarative in nature and which will actually be implemented. The four areas highlighted pertain to increasing the number of joint exercises, intelligence sharing, military industry, and combating cyber threats.
The mechanisms needed to implement the initiatives in the declaration are lacking at present. Moreover, most of them require permanent cooperation and the establishment of coordination centers in the field of intelligence gathering and cyber security.
Put another way, it is, in fact, a bid to set up a separate entity with its own staff, divisions and, it seems, head office. However, all this requires significant additional outlays and the signing of specific multilateral agreements. Yet such structures already exist within the NATO framework; for instance, Estonia’s cherished Cyber Defense Center.
It is more than likely that within the framework of enhanced cooperation all five Nordic countries will start taking an active part in the operations of these structures. However, it is clear that neither Stockholm nor Helsinki wants to play second fiddle to the Baltic countries and both are intent on creating their own agencies in the field of security in conjunction with the rest of Scandinavia. Hence, another cyber center could crop up on Russia’s borders within a few years.
It is also quite possible that large-scale military exercises simulating a joint response to an attack from the East could be carried out with the Nordic countries. However, the preparations for such maneuvers take time, so they are unlikely to be a near-term prospect. Stockholm and Helsinki will rather increase their involvement in exercises already scheduled, by sending troops or increasing the size of their contingents.
For instance, expect to see Finnish and Swedish, as well as Danish and Norwegian, observers at the Hedgehog 2015 drills in Estonia to be held in May this year. In terms of scope and number of participants, they will be the most ambitious exercises to take place in the Baltic region since independence.
The declaration itself, incidentally, provoked a very mixed response from experts, some of whom noted the absence of real content and stated that the most likely effect would be to irk Moscow. Markku Kivinen, director of the Aleksanteri Institute at Helsinki University, said that the Defense Ministers should have chosen their words more carefully.
Of interest in this context is the statement by Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who said that Nordic cooperation is not directed against Russia and specifically mentioned collaboration with Sweden as the key factor in ensuring Finland’s defense capability. His statement essentially contradicts the text of the declaration, and suggests that Finland wants to avoid any further deterioration in relations with Moscow, which has expressed concern about the release of the declaration.
What were the Nordic Defense Ministers trying to achieve? What practical effect has the declaration had? Basically, two previously neutral countries have said they are ready to cooperate more closely with NATO, but only to ensure the safety and status quo of their own region.
Sweden and Finland seem to be saying to their large eastern neighbor that they are ready to act as a united front with the Alliance if called upon to do so. At the same time, neither Helsinki nor Stockholm is prepared to intensify the dialogue on NATO membership or bear the costs involved, although public support for Euro-Atlantic integration inside Sweden and Finland in the wake of the recent anti-Russian rhetoric has increased slightly.
It is clear than neither country wants to completely abandon its neutrality given that the international tension could one day abate. Instead, they are looking to maintain long-term cooperation with NATO in the specific regional format declared in Oslo.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.