NATO, Russia, and the shifting dynamics of European Defense

NATO, Russia, and the shifting dynamics of European Defense

Harshita Prashar
Latest posts by Harshita Prashar (see all)

Source: Foreign Policy

“Mentally prepare for a war,” said Sweden’s military commander-in-chief Gen. Micael Bydén as the country moved towards joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In an era of geopolitical tension and shifting alliances, the landscape of international security is continuously evolving. The recent inclusion of Finland and Sweden as members of NATO marks a significant juncture in European defense dynamics. As these Nordic nations join the Western military alliance, they find themselves at the centre of a geopolitical chess game, with Russia casting a watchful eye and expressing vehement opposition. 

Finland and Sweden applied for NATO’s membership days after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s decision was rooted in crushing the slightest possibility of Ukraine fraternizing with its supposed enemy. However, ironically, the Kremlin inadvertently prompted the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. The decision by Finland and Sweden to seek refuge under NATO’s umbrella represents a strategic recalibration in response to the evolving security landscape in Europe. By aligning themselves with the Western alliance, they signal a clear rejection of Russian hegemony and a commitment to upholding the principles of collective security and territorial integrity.

The Problem of Territorial Integrity

Finland

As Finland initiated itself into the Atlantic Alliance in 2023, it received warnings from Kremlin President Vladimir Putin stating that there would be ‘problems’ after the West ‘dragged (Finland) into NATO’. However, this is not the first time Russia has tried to intimidate its neighbour. Finland has faced persistent threats from Russia over centuries. Helsinki’s proximity to Russia placed it within Moscow’s sphere of influence, subjecting it to strategic interests and occasional assertive actions. Finland’s previous non-NATO, non-aligned status made it vulnerable to Russian influence and coercion.

The prime source, still, of the insecurity that Finland has faced has been the lengthy border it shares with Russia. The Karelian question, a recurrent topic, marked the territory as a zone of potential tension. 

Finland’s Prime Minister Petteri Orpo. Source: Al Jazeera.

A more public debate, than a political discourse, the issue emerged in the aftermath of World War II, when Finland ceded the Karelian region (10 per cent of their territory) to the Soviet Union as part of the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940. Despite Finland’s post-war attempts at reconciliation, the question simmered down. By 1975, Finland accepted the closing of the issue as it approved the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe document, which denounced any secessionist movements or territorial claims. With the unification of Germany and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Finnish brought the question of Karelian back on the agenda but to date, the territorial dispute remains unresolved. The Karelian question, nevertheless, loomed in the shadow of Helsinki-Kremlin relations. As Russia illegally annexed Crimea and launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Finland’s security has been on the brink of a crisis. The escalating aggression of Russia made Finland reminiscent of the Winter War and allowed itself to deviate from its post-war policy of neutrality.

Sweden

Sweden, much like its immediate neighbour, had maintained a policy of non-alignment throughout the Bipolar world. Once the bipolarity ended, Russia and Sweden were on good terms. There were no feelings of fear or animosity between the two. Instead, Sweden saw it as a chance to have a positive influence on its Eastern neighbour. Sweden contributed with economic and political aid, which Russia gladly accepted.

However, with the onset of the 21st century, Swedish-Russian relations went downhill. The political ties were at their lowest point with the Russo-Georgian War. Moscow’s move of deploying its military in the pro-Russian militia areas was met with heavy criticism by Stockholm, a reaction that caused scepticism in the Kremlin. Sweden has always been vocal about the violation of human rights by Russia inside and outside its territories.

Map of Baltic region, showing possible NATO reinforcements to Russian Offensive. Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

Similar to Finland, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022 pushed Sweden over the edge to depart from its neutrality, which it held for over 200 years, and join the Atlantic Alliance. The threat of Russia was always there, but it was only after the Ukraine crisis that the warnings seemed legitimate.

It also revived fears of intrusion into Gotland. Gotland, a popular holiday destination for Stockholmers, is a strategic base located just 350 kilometres (ca. 217 miles) from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Sweden abandoned its garrison stationed on the island in 2004 to scale back its defense. In 2015, the remilitarisation of Gotland formed part of the defense bill. The process was further sped up with a permanent and immediate deployment of forces to the island. In light of the recent events, the defense planners fear that Russia can seize the base and attack territories of Sweden as well as Finland. 

Conclusion: Is there a Possibility of War?

NATO is more geographically cohesive than ever before. The Baltic Sea is now the NATO lake, and the Russian bases and forces of the Kola Peninsula are at greater risk. The increasing deterrence of the North Atlantic has forced the Kremlin to rethink its strategy in the Baltic Sea region. Putin warned the two countries of “serious military and political consequences” as to would be obliged to “restore military balance” by strengthening its defenses in the region, including by deploying nuclear weapons. Although a full-scale war seems highly unlikely in the near future.

Soldier of the Sweden forces. Source: Bloomberg

The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, coupled with the looming threat of Russian aggression, brings into play the pivotal NATO Article 5. This article enshrines the principle of collective defense, stipulating that an attack on any member shall be considered an attack on all, triggering a united response to safeguard the security of the North Atlantic Area. Consequently, Russia would be confronted with a formidable coalition comprising over 30 nations, should it engage in warfare.

Furthermore, the historical ties between Russia and Ukraine imbue the latter with a significance that Sweden and Finland lack in the eyes of Moscow. President Putin has explicitly cited the protection of Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine as a key objective of Russia’s military intervention, motivated by concerns about their perceived subjugation. Given this, Russia lacks the compelling incentives to target countries like Finland or Sweden, thus potentially averting military action despite its disapproval. 

Thus, as Sweden and Finland embark on the NATO path, they should do so with a sober recognition of the challenges and risks that lie ahead. The prospect of Russian retaliation cannot be mitigated altogether, and the delicate balancing act between deterring any kind of hostility and avoiding escalation will require deft diplomacy and steadfast resolve.

  • Is NATO membership going to guarantee complete security to Sweden and Finland?
  • Can Russia afford to wage a war against NATO?
  • Is the departure of Sweden and Finland from their past foreign policy a mistake?

Suggested Readings

  1. Black, James, Charlotte Kleberg, and Erik Silfversten, “NATO Enlargement Amidst Russia’s War in Ukraine: How Finland and Sweden Bolster the Transatlantic Alliance.” RAND Corporation, 2024.
  2. Lokker, Nicholas and Hautala, Heli, “Russia won’t sit idly by after Finland and Sweden join NATO.” War on the Rocks, 2023.
  3. Nyberg, René, “Russian Collateral Damage: Finland and Sweden’s Accession to NATO.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022.

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NATO, Russia, and the shi…

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