As world leaders publicly shun and condemn Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Brisbane over Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine, a larger and critically important strategic shift is underway in northeastern Europe and the Baltics. Russia is making a series of moves to block any prospect of regional security cooperation that might anchor Scandinavia, the Baltics, and Central Europe into a larger security configuration. Moscow’s immediate goal is to neutralize any Swedish and Finnish debate on joining NATO. The escalation of air space violations and maritime intrusions by Russia in the Nordic/Baltic space, the most notorious being the Swedish navy’s chase of a phantom Russian submarine last October, amount to an all-out psychological war aimed at intimidating both the elites and the publics of Sweden, Finland, and others in the Baltic region.
Throughout 2014, an unprecedented number of air space violations and incidents have required NATO Baltic Air Policing to scramble jets in response. Most significantly, there has been a dramatic increase in Russian military exercises in the area. Such air space violations have been equal opportunity bullying, targeting Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania alike. The goal of these increased military activities in or near Nordic/Baltic space is to undo the emergence of a collective defense system in the region.
In light of Putin’s goal of rebuilding a sphere of privileged interest along the country’s periphery, Sweden and Finland are increasingly important to NATO’s defense planning. Conversely, any Russian naval planning in the Baltic must factor in a way to neutralize them. For NATO in particular, Sweden and Finland offer a critical link to any planning for operations involving the Baltic States. Hence, any decisions taken by the two on possible NATO membership—or even increasing marginally the scope of their coordination and cooperation with NATO—would have a positive ripple effect on the overall security position of the three Baltic NATO allies and on Central European security. To put it bluntly, if Russia can take Sweden and Finland out of the NATO ledger, any conversation about Article 5 defense for the Baltics becomes a highly theoretical proposition. Hence, Moscow’s ploy to pressure the Scandinavians to stay out of its power play in the Baltic has been underway for several years now, and dates prior to the move to sever Crimea from Ukraine.
Although Sweden and Finland differ on many key defense issues, they hold real potential for the future of stability and security of the Baltic Sea area, and they indirectly impact the viability of Article 5 guarantees for the Balts and Central Europe as a whole, especially given that NATO itself is grappling with credibility issues in the region. NATO has worked to bring them closer, signing host nation support agreements with both at the Wales summit. Though these are the proverbial half-loaves, the agreements nonetheless provide increased credibility for NATO’s operations in the area, allowing for access to their territory and support should NATO be called upon to fight in the Baltic Sea area. This explains Moscow’s recent actions as efforts to undo the budding “special relationship” between Sweden, Finland, and NATO, and ultimately to neutralize the two countries through direct and indirect military pressure, propaganda, and economic and diplomatic means. Russia’s goal is to ensure that, host nation support agreements notwithstanding, the two will balk in a crisis, opting out of the confrontation altogether and preventing the alliance from using their air space and territory. In short, the prize of this game is Nordic/Baltic/Central European collective defense cooperation. Russian planning, exercises, and patterns of harassment aim to convey to the Scandinavians that, should Russia choose to move against them, it would target their territory as well. The goal is to undercut the confidence among NATO members along the northeastern flank that the alliance would in fact fulfill its Article 5 obligations in a crisis.
By targeting and pressuring Sweden and Finland, Russia seeks to, on the one hand, obstruct any move on the part of the Swedes and Finns for full membership in NATO, while at the same time convey a strong message to the Balts that in a crisis their Article 5 security guarantees cannot be taken for granted, and that they will be left to their own resources. If Moscow succeeds, it will weaken collective defense in the region, undercutting NATO’s credibility in the process.
What is missing from the U.S. and European response to the war in Ukraine is a consideration of this larger regional geostrategic context. Vladimir Putin’s strategy is broader than Ukraine alone; it targets the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region as a whole—and through it the credibility of the NATO alliance. The clock is ticking, as Eastern Europe has now entered the next phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war, this time with little pretense on Russia’s side that it is not linked with the events on the ground. Yet this reality isn’t penetrating debates on Scandinavian, Baltic, and Central European security with any sort of renewed urgency. For more than a week now, convoys of Russian military equipment and personnel have been crossing into Donetsk and Luhansk daily, and we’ve seen another “humanitarian” convoy dispatched across the border. Pro-Russian rebels with direct support from Moscow have been on the move in several locations, including the now-symbolic struggle for the Donetsk airport. Meanwhile, Russia has been consolidating its control of eastern Ukraine, with the November 2 elections in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics attempting to legitimize the current pro-Russian separatist element. We are now at a phase in the war where Vladimir Putin has established a claim to local legitimacy. The election has also driven the final nail into the Minsk agreement, as well as the pretense that Russia’s ultimate goal is anything but severing the east outright. The lines have been drawn, and although the Kiev government insists that it is prepared to negotiate, it sees little alternative but to focus on defense readiness issues.
This phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war will reshape the security equation along the Nordic/Baltic/Central European flank. As the events in Ukraine accelerate, Scandinavia is fast approaching a decision point: Will it recognize the reality of the growing danger from Russia and move to join NATO (Sweden has recently gone through a serious debate on NATO membership; Finland has thus far ducked the issue). Still, as Moscow’s bullying increases, Sweden and Finalnd can either respond with resilience, or choose the path of appeasement. Closer ties with NATO and regional defense cooperation are increasingly imperative for Scandinavia, especially when one considers the deteriorating state of the Swedish armed forces and the persistent limitations that small numbers and a large territory impose on any Finnish defensive planning. Let’s keep in mind that, while historically there has been opposition in Sweden and Finland to joining NATO, this is not etched in stone. As a Finnish official told me, the position of the government has always played an important role in how the public frames key national security issues. Like so much in Finnish politics in particular, a strong statement by the elite in favor of membership would go a long way toward convincing the public to change its mind.
Developments in Scandinavia in the coming months, especially decisions by Sweden and Finland, will be critical to devising a credible deterrent posture along the entire NATO northeastern flank, and ultimately to the collective defense of the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region. The countries along NATO’s periphery have so far responded unevenly to the new fault line that the war in Ukraine has opened across Europe. While Poland has moved decisively to invest in military modernization programs, Scandinavia remains the one gap in the emerging defensive perimeter.
As 2015 approaches, NATO finds itself confronted with the urgent need to address the fundamentals of deterrence and collective defense in general, and to go beyond the important symbols of “persistent rotations.” Russia’s military practicing against Swedish targets is not just a political exercise. It’s a deadly game. The Scandinavians need to wake up to this reality.