As Russia continues its violent designs against Ukraine, Sweden and Finland are pursuing membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Both nations have vibrant democracies, professional militaries, and proximity to Russia, which means they have real national security skin in the game.
Yet the news media accounts of the prospective accession into NATO neglect the countries’ long history of warfare with Russia, particularly involving Sweden. They note Stockholm’s neutrality during World War I and II, as well as during the Cold War, with little mention of its historic military role in the Baltic Sea. This one-dimensional coverage belies the dramatic U-turns undertaken by the two Nordic states and the profound realignment among their fellow states in the region.
Sweden’s two-century nonalignment away from grand alliances is rooted in its legacy of wars with its Russian neighbor in the Baltic basin. Conflicts against Russia date at least from the Novgorodian Wars in the early twelfth century (leaving aside the Viking raids three centuries earlier). Novgorod was a medieval state stretching from Gulf of Finland to the Ural Mountains. This fighting was a harbinger of a nearly unbroken chain of conflicts between Sweden and Russia for control of the Baltic Sea and its vital commerce among the bordering countries. Over a dozen Russo-Swedish wars erupted in the next eight centuries. Some lasted a few years; others went on for a decade or more.
So long as the Swedes remained dominant in the eastern Baltic, they checked Moscow’s quest for access to the strategic waterway that connected with the Atlantic Ocean. The tide turned for the Nordic kingdom after the death of Gustavus Adolphus, the warrior monarch, credited with the ascendency of Sweden as a European power in the mid-seventeenth century. His successors confronted a rising Russia to their east.
Russian ruler Peter the Great won a string of victories against Sweden in the early eighteenth century that gave Moscow entrée to the coveted sea. The czar founded the city of St. Petersburg on the site of a former Swedish fortress. Notwithstanding all its future artistic and cultural glitter, St. Petersburg constituted a strategic seaport on the Baltic for an increasingly expansionist empire. Moreover, St. Petersburg’s founding marked the entry of Russia into European history as a great power and a major player in the affairs of the Continent.
Victory in subsequent Russo-Swedish wars seesawed back and forth, gradually sapping Stockholm’s economic and political strength. By the second decade of the eighteenth century, Sweden’s empire had waned and its Baltic pre-eminence faded, as Russia’s hegemony increased.
The Napoleonic Wars contributed to Sweden’s woes when it joined the conflict, fought Russia, and lost over a third of its territory to the aspiring imperial state. The Swedes’ eastern lands were folded into the Russian empire as the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809. The impact was wrenching for Swedish political officials and military officers. Imagine the shock to Americans if the United States had lost a war with Mexico and with it California, Texas, New Mexico, and other lands. The Swedes’ loss of land spawned a sentiment for neutrality and an existential foreboding about Russian designs. Thereafter, Sweden sought to avoid European wars.
Sweden’s neutrality stretched into the next two hundred years, steering clear of the great coalitions like those that fought the Napoleonic Wars. It avoided the twentieth-century global alliances against Germany and its allies in both World War I and the Second World War.
In both these global contests, Russia joined the West against Germany. But Russia’s participation with Britain, France, and then the United States against the Kaiser—and later, Hitler—did not make it any more palatable to Stockholm. Russia remained the archenemy. During the Cold War, Sweden had cordial ties with the West and correct relations with the Soviet Union. True to form, it wanted to escape entanglements brought by alliances with either camp.
The great irony is that Sweden first adopted neutrality because of Russian aggrandizement at the time of Napoleon. Now Sweden looks to another coalition—NATO—to defend it against Russian aggression, as seen in the Kremlin’s wanton invasion of Ukraine.
Finland’s embrace of neutrality also came about because of Russia. It gained its independence from Moscow in 1917 during the political turbulence after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Like Sweden, Finland fought Russia in more than one conflict to keep its nemesis at arm’s length. The Finns initially fought the Red Army to a standstill after Moscow invaded its former province to annex territory in late 1939, claiming security needs, just after the start of World War II. Eventually, Russian brute forces in tanks, planes, and artillery compelled the Finns to sign a treaty. Russian aggression then worked to force Helsinki to ally with Germany against the Soviet Union.
After fresh Russo-Finnish military clashes in the 1940s, a series of uneven peace agreements were signed by the two parties that cost Finland about 12 percent of its territory. In the shadow of Soviet power, Finland deferred to its formidable neighbor even in some domestic questions. Internationally, Helsinki was especially careful to abstain from policies or official statements that could be construed as anti-Soviet during the Cold War. Outsiders referred to this forced neutrality as “Finlandization.” It spared Finland a Soviet military occupation and allowed the country to develop economically.
In time, Helsinki stepped away from its trade and economic nonalignment, and it cooperated militarily in limited ways with Western nations after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Like Sweden, Finland now senses more danger from neutrality than from membership in the NATO security alliance.
The addition of Sweden and Finland will strengthen NATO as it girds for further provocations after the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine. Their accession will be to the good of the alliance. Hardly noticed is the landmark realignment that sees all the Nordic nations under one alliance and in accord about their relations toward Russia. Denmark, Norway, and Iceland are already NATO members. After centuries of battling each other, ruling parts of one another’s territory, and differing over foreign policy, the countries of the High North share a historic unanimity, as their relations with Russia go back to the future.