Sweden’s entrance into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a coup for the West and especially the United States. Stockholm’s participation will add militarily and politically to the Washington-led Atlantic security bloc. Its membership also represents a sea change in the history of the Nordic lands and the geopolitical balance in the Baltic Sea. Along with Finland, which joined NATO a year ago, the Swedes have abandoned their long-practiced neutrality to link shields with Denmark and Norway in partnership against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Thus, NATO’s Article 5 has been extended into the Baltic region, guaranteeing members the security of the alliance.

But one NATO campaign victory is not a war won; Russia will strike back with guile as well as gunfire.

Over the past couple of years, the Nordic region has undergone a singular diplomatic reorientation. This reordering reflects, more than in any other global arena, the new realities of Russia’s aggression.

For Sweden, the first step toward an Atlanticist alignment came after the Iron Curtain collapsed and it was integrated into the European Union. Like Finland, Sweden tepidly participated in training exercises with NATO before formally affiliating with the transatlantic group. But the Nordic holdouts could no longer count on their aloofness to escape the growing threat of a revanchist Russia, whose militarism is casting a shadow over lands to Russia’s west. Given Moscow’s past military interventions in Finland and the nearby Baltic nations, the Nordic lands could no longer feel secure.

Neutrality was useful

After the end of the Napoleonic wars and the demise of the French dominance, Denmark and Sweden buried the hatchet and began steadily embarking on democracy. The Norwegians peacefully slipped from their union with Sweden to assert their own sovereignty in the early twentieth century. Sweden lost its five-hundred-year control of Finland in the 1808–Finnish War. The Fins, however, succumbed to Russian occupation, until they broke free in 1917 in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Twenty-two years later, the Red Army returned to invade its much smaller neighbor at the start of World War II. Even when Soviet forces left after the war, Finland carried on under Moscow’s vassalage in the course of the Cold War.

The Nordic nations’ penchant for neutrality, in part, grew from disengagement in numerous wars with European nations two hundred years earlier and the overarching menace of Russia. Being seafaring states, they often benefited from ocean commerce when other nations fought conflicts and imposed economic sanctions on adversaries. So, neutrality could be profitable, too. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, German unification and militarization prompted even more wariness in the Nordic world. The military’s rise within Wilhelmine Germany convinced them even more fully that war avoidance was the better part of valor. Indeed, World War I saw Sweden, Norway, and Demark declare and implement neutrality. In the course of World War II, the Danes and Norwegians tried to replicate their disengagement from conflict, but the Third Reich occupied both nations. The Swedes managed to keep out the war, while both Soviet and German troops moved on Finland.   

Once again, Finland weathered the worst because of its proximity to the Soviet Union, its neighbor across an eight-hundred-mile border. After World War II ended, to hold Helsinki in its thrall, Moscow seized some 11 percent of Finish territory and exerted political pressure—known as “Finlandization,” a term that would be applied more broadly to small countries dominated by larger ones—that limited the country’s sovereignty. Even after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Finland stuck to its policy of neutrality, although from time to time, the Finns cooperated with other nations in limited military maneuvers.

But when Russia attacked Georgia in 2008 and occupied Crimea in 2014, Helsinki and Stockholm began to grasp the prospect of the Kremlin’s neoimperialism targeting them as in centuries past. When the Russian hammer fell on Ukraine, it was the last straw.

Nordic dawn

The Russian war against Ukraine led the Nordic states, laggards in defense spending, to pledge to meet the requirement that NATO nations spend 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense—a goal that has long gone unmet by most members. This year, approximately eighteen of the thirty-two NATO allies are likely to invest at least the required amount. This constitutes a sixfold increase since 2014, when only three governments reached the threshold (Poland, the United States, and Greece). None of the Nordic governments came even close, but all have now promised to fulfill their obligations.

After the Soviet Union imploded, these states, as well as most NATO members and nonmembers, had slashed defense expenditures. Demark, Sweden, and Norway reduced or held steady military expenditures from the dissolution of the Soviet Union until the day the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. Each substantially cut its ground forces while maintaining minimal navies and air forces. Even Finland, the most endangered Nordic state, reduced its military.

Denmark and Norway did send fighting units to America’s war in Afghanistan. These two, plus Finland, manufacture their own small arms and many of their armed vehicles.  Of the four, Sweden possesses the most robust arms industry, which produces most of its weapons systems and exports them around the world. Despite Sweden’s relatively small population of ten million (the three other states have five million people apiece), it boasts of producing the Gripen, a fighter jet rated close to the American F-16 and in great demand by many nations with far larger populations and economies than Sweden.

More remarkable even than the increased defense outlays are the public statements and new policies emanating from Nordic capitals meant to draw attention to the emerging threats. For example, Stockholm’s civil defense minister warned that “there could be war in Sweden.” This was sobering talk for the country’s leadership, yet there was little real opposition among Swedes to the warning—an acknowledgement of its acceptance.

Denmark is handing over its nineteen F-16s to Kyiv, with the first six to arrive within months. The Danes plan on replenishing their air fleet with newer aircraft. Copenhagen recently undertook another dramatic development, announcing plans to conscript women for military service, where Danish women already serve as volunteers. The conscription  move was preceded years earlier by Norway and Sweden, the only other European countries with this policy. In Norway, selection for the military is highly selective, so not everyone has to serve; military branches are small and prestigious, and the ranks are full of volunteers.

A NATO lake

Stockholm had looked to the United States and its NATO allies to hold the Soviet navy at bay in the Baltic. Now, Sweden and its Nordic partners are turning these waters into a NATO lake. This will also benefit the deterrence capabilities of the three tiny Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), all of which are NATO members, too. Thus Putin, who once dreamed of returning Russia to its imperial past, now confronts dawning opposition in his northern territory. Oblivious to history’s law of unintended consequences, Putin undid Russia’s political upper hand and undercut its military leverage in the Baltic Sea. The Russian dictator has unlocked Nordic motivation to pursue self-defense: their military forces are up to date and inured to operations in extreme inclement weather, typically a Russian advantage.

Sweden’s long coastline and strategic islands will enhance NATO’s bottling up of Russian warships in Baltic waters. Finland and Demark also possess islands. NATO can surveil the strategic Russian port of Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula, which houses some two-thirds of Russia’s second-strike nuclear missiles.

In addition, Finish, Norwegian, and Swedish territory extends into the Arctic Circle. Denmark also lays claim to Arctic real estate through its association with Greenland. The Arctic Circle is a crucial geostrategic asset in America’s growing confrontation with Russia and China, both of which lay claim to territorial rights in the Arctic zone.

It is all but certain the Russian dictator will retaliate. Russian hackers have taken down Danish transit and communication sites. In the Soviet era, the Red Army kept Norway and Finland on edge with border provocations. Moscow can return to these tactics. Russia has been pushing asylum-seekers from Syria, Yemen, and Somalia toward Finland, prompting the Helsinki government to close its border crossings with Russia.

Final thoughts

The membership of the Nordic nations in the transatlantic alliance has altered the power balance in the Baltic in a way not seen in the history of the region. Centuries of wars, foreign occupations, and divisions going back more than a thousand years have been swept away.

It behooves Washington to make the most of this new strategic reality. Finland and Sweden will have to integrate their national forces with those of Denmark, Norway, and the other NATO members, and established members will need to understand the Swedish and Finnish strengths and military capabilities. The growing pains are not likely to be long or arduous. Moreover, the new order of defense stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Kiel Canal is a bulwark worthy of the effort.

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