Candidacy of Finland and Sweden to NATO: Remaining neutral is no longer possible in Europe

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A new Rubicon has just been crossed in Europe, under the shock of the war in Ukraine: on Sunday May 15, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Republic of Finland officially submitted their application to become full members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Does this development only dissipate a diplomatic artifice, since these two States had already left to the NATO Partnership for Peace since 1994 and participated, as such, in numerous military and diplomatic activities of the Alliance? Or is it another step in the strategic polarization of the continent?

What is certain is that this dual candidacy is a game-changer for the two Nordic states and for the Russian Federation. Beyond that, it also demonstrates the acceleration of the strategic recomposition at work throughout the northern hemisphere. The main victim of these accessions will undoubtedly be European strategic autonomy outside NATO.

The end of a two-century strategic winter for Sweden

Seen from Paris, Brussels or Berlin, the strategic postures of the two Nordic states may seem similar: historically attached to their respective neutralities, these two societies experienced the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, a little less than three month, like a strategic "wake-up call". However, their official candidatures for NATO constitute two noticeably different ruptures for one and for the other.

For the Kingdom of Sweden, neutrality is very old, deliberately chosen, and contributes to its international prestige. Wanted in 1812 by the former Marshal of the Empire Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte having become king of Sweden and Norway under the name of Charles XIV (1818-1844), she was destined to prevent the Kingdom from being drafted on one side or the other in the Napoleonic wars.

Ancient great power in the XNUMXth century, Sweden had a strong military tradition, a desire for regional domination repeatedly claimed and disputes with several States in the Baltic area and Eastern Europe. Neutrality in wartime (and its corollary, non-participation in military alliances in peacetime) enabled Sweden to achieve a Industrial Revolution then a remarkable economic development for two centuries, sheltered from European and then global conflicts. So that pacifism, first experienced in decline, has become a hallmark of Sweden.

Presenting its candidacy today for NATO is, for Sweden, a strategic break : its rearmament efforts – in particular to the island of Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic – today find an unexpected outcome. From now on, Sweden could once again become a party to an armed conflict within NATO. The famous article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty indeed provides for automatic assistance in the event of an attack by another member of the Alliance. Although a Russian attack on Sweden is still unlikely today, there are significant sticking points in the Baltic – where Russian submarines operate - and in arctic space. The serene ice of Swedish neutrality is now broken.

Farewell finlandization

For Finland, the stakes are very different.

Former territory of the tsarist empire during the XNUMXthe century, this State has acquired are independence only thanks to the Russian Revolution of 1917. And relations with the USSR were particularly tumultuous.

Indeed, after the Winter Wars (1939-1940) then continuation (1941-1945) with the USSR, the young Finnish state lost both an economically and culturally essential territory, the Karelia, and the possibility of conducting an autonomous foreign policy.

In Finland, neutrality is suffered, and results from a defeat against the big neighbor. It is also experienced as a prolonged humiliation by many Finns for whom “Finlandization” is anything but a matter of national pride. The contrast with Sweden, which has chosen neutrality as a condition for its economic success and which has turned it into a sign of prestige, is obvious. By throwing a fast and dense debate on its strategic realignment, Finland has truly broken a taboo. Indeed, the country shares 1 km of borders with the Russian Federation. It is particularly vulnerable to air, naval and even ground incursions by Russia. In Helsinki, the dilemma was therefore almost existential: either maintain this "finlandization" imposed by the USSR in the hope of a certain security in the face of an active military power at its gates, or to benefit from the life insurance of article 5… at the risk of provoking Russia.

Ukraine: Finland requests NATO membership and breaks with its military neutrality (France 24, May 16, 2022).

The strategic risk taken by Finland underlines the turning point taken by international relations in Europe over the past three months: a member of the EU since 1995, this Nordic republic considers that the security guarantees given by European solidarity are insufficient in the face of Russia; it also affirms on the European scene the end of the freezing of its strategic positioning because it thus erases the "finlandization" that several Finnish movements consider for a long time as a mark of political minority; finally, it announces that rapprochement with the United States will henceforth be the focus of its foreign policy.

Beyond the significant differences between Sweden and Finland, their respective candidatures for NATO mark, for the Baltic region, the entry into a period of growing tensions, accelerated rearmament and instability. Indeed, this candidacy clarifies or radicalizes the Baltic strategic deal by eliminating a buffer zone marked by neutrality in free partnership with NATO.

Soon, the Baltic coasts will be overwhelmingly those of NATO, as Germany, Poland and the three Baltic States are already parties to the North Atlantic Treaty. Soon, the two States will intensify their efforts to significant rearming, that their public finances and their industrial apparatus allow them. Soon, NATO troops will be able to be deployed on these territories in contact with strategic areas for the Russian armed forces.

All of these developments will change domestic politics in Sweden and Finland. But, in addition, it will certainly radicalize the Russian position in the region.

Another setback for Russia

The strength of Russian reaction to the Swedish and Finnish candidacies gives the measure of the shock that the Moscow authorities feel or claim to feel. For a week, even before the official declaration of candidacy, Russian statements have taken a threatening turn and have resulted in the suspension of hydrocarbon deliveries to Finland. The strategic break is indeed important for Moscow because of these two candidacies, especially the Finnish one.

Since World War II, the two Nordic states had been considered unthreatening by Moscow, due to their neutrality. Consequently, simple “tests” of sovereignty – violations of airspace or maritime space – sufficed to maintain the pressure at little cost and thus preserve a strategic balance that was ultimately favorable to Russia. From now on, Russia will no doubt strengthen its military in a vast area, heavily armed and where it has only two levers of action: the military bases of Saint Petersburg and the enclave of Kaliningrad, located between Lithuania and Poland. For Russia, worried about its western and southern borders, it is the end of military “comfort” in the north.

The consequences could be very serious for the federal budget, already strike by European military spending and sanctions, and for the state of the Russian armed forces, today critical inside and outside Russia. Russia risks budgetary and military exhaustion in the short term, especially if the accelerated membership procedure is adopted by NATO.

In the longer term, Moscow's strategic posture will be greatly modified. First of all, Russia will consider itself directly besieged and threatened in all northern areas: the Baltic Sea but also the North Atlantic and the Arctic.

It therefore risks increasing its aggressive initiatives in the area in all forms – naval, cyber, air, economic. Outside the zone, it will try to fight against the domino effect of these candidacies for NATO. Because the establishment of buffer zones was one of its strategic objectives. Today, if the Nordic candidacies are accepted and prosper, they could well be imitated by many other States which will seek the protection of the Alliance: the Georgia, Moldova and of course theUkraine will not be able not to reassess their respective candidacies in the light of this precedent.

These candidacies are certainly a setback for Russian strategists. For two decades, within the NATO-EU Council and since 2014 against it, Russia's main course in Europe has been to make further enlargements of the Atlantic Alliance impossible, after its extension in 1999 and 2004 to the former people's democracies (Poland , Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia) and the former Baltic Soviet Socialist Republics). By launching the military operation against Ukraine, Russia obtained a back effect (backlash) strictly contrary to its cardinal objectives. The reverse is obvious today.

Resurrection of NATO and requiem for European strategic autonomy?

These national candidacies will have continental effects, in the short and longer term.

Indeed, these two States have, by the very fact of submitting their candidatures, shown the lack of confidence they place in the mutual assistance between Member States of the European Union provided for by 42 article of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). For them, the war in Ukraine shows that only the mutual assistance of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides real military life insurance.

The Nordic candidacies are, implicitly, a sign if not of defiance, at least of skepticism towards the efforts made by Europeans in the field of collective security. We see it in the media: it is the member states of NATO, but outside the European Union, which are the most active within the Alliance following these candidacies. The Turkey and UK immediately spoke out on the subject. Their goal is to regain a role in Europe that their difficult relations with the European Union denied them.

A domino effect?

The strategic reorientation of the two Nordic states will also serve as a precedent inside the EU for all states that have historically attached themselves to a form of neutrality, such as Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta. These four member states are also members of NATO's Partnership for Peace. Each has a tradition of non-engagement in alliances and armed conflicts which can be explained either by size, or by position in the European space, or by a colonial past. In a Europe where buffer zones are disappearing, where blocks are being reconstituted and where neutrality is becoming synonymous with vulnerability, rapid changes are to be expected.

For the Nordic states as for Russia, for the Alliance as for the EU and for all the states which maintained a certain distance with regard to NATO, these candidacies mark a significant turning point. Whether non-membership of NATO is chosen (Austria, Ireland, etc.) or endured (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova), from now on, only membership of the Alliance appears as a guarantee of security. In the short term, all the States of the European space in the broad sense will be summoned to take sides: it is, in Europe, the end of neutralities, the extinction of buffer zones and the disappearance of ambiguous or balanced postures. Military blocs are being rapidly formed and the consequence is that Europe will henceforth be crossed by a lasting front line.

Cyrille Bret, Geopolitician, Sciences Po

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Vitalii Vodolazskyi

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