Amid the backdrop of increasing security tensions sparked by Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and the provocative display of underwater force in the Baltic Sea, the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), the primary vehicle for military collaboration among Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, is pushing for unprecedented levels of interstate defence collaboration. On 12 February Sweden asked NORDEFCO to examine the feasibility of assembling a modular-style Nordic-Baltic Battle Group (NBBG) modeled on the European Union’s Swedish-led standby Nordic Battle Group (NBG). The current geopolitical atmosphere has not only put Sweden – whose new centre-left coalition government is in the midst of preparing its first budget – but also Finland in an awkward situation. Both countries have longstanding historical objections to NATO membership, however, there can also be no question that a number of fundamental post-Cold War European security assumptions have been upended in recent months. That said, Western rhetoric of a ‘new Cold War’ is both counterproductive and wholly inaccurate. While recent geopolitical developments do raise a number of questions, namely how and in what direction is Nordic defence cooperation likely to develop and what would be the efficacy of Swedish and Finnish NATO membership, the construction of a comprehensive European security protocol in the post-Cold War era cannot be accomplished without or against Russia.
From 17 to 24 October 2014, the Swedish Armed Forces, operating on credible reports of ‘foreign underwater activities’ in the Stockholm archipelago and Kanholmsfjärden Bay area, conducted a weeklong surveillance operation in search of a submarine. The operation ultimately proved unsuccessful, thought its significantly composed Sweden’s largest post-Cold War military mobilisation. Of course, neither Denmark nor Sweden are strangers to such activities. Owing to the Stockholm archipelago’s dense island topography and ample natural features that assist concealment and evasion from surface vessels, the area became a notorious playground for submarines during the Cold War. Yet, to say nothing of events in Ukraine and Crimea, such events appear less and less isolated. A NATO report released in November 2014 highlighted no less than 39 incidents of military encounters, violations of airspace and simulated bombing attacks between Russian planes and boats in the last eight months. Regionally, these included: the approach of an armed Russian aircraft to the heavily populated Danish island of Bornholm in June 2014 before breaking off in what appeared to have been a simulated attack, subsequently described by the Danish as ‘of a more offensive character than observed in recent years’; and, a close encounter between a SAS passenger plane and a Russian reconnaissance aircraft that was not transmitting its position in Denmark in March 2014. Whereas in 2005 the Norwegian Air Force (NAF) recorded 16 scrambles, identifying 23 Russian military aircraft, in 2014 NAF F-16s have scrambled 41 times identifying 67 Russian planes.
Clearly such events were not lost to current chair of NORDEFCO Sweden nor its Minister of Defence Peter Hultqvis, who has proposed scaling up Nordic and Baltic defense vis-à-vis NB8 cooperation. This is likely to include future joint air-surveillance, naval mine countermeasures capabilities, combined Arctic training, and the possibility of forming joint Nordic naval and air force patrol units. Sweden’s proposals also touched upon the successes of the 1,600 strong standby NBG comprising forces from Finland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania highlighted in NORDEFCO’s 2014 Annual Report released on 2 February. Assembling a modular-style Nordic-Baltic Battle Group (NBBG) project would also add increased adaptability. Joint units would be able to participate in NATO, OSCE or UN operations as a ‘plug-and-play’ component.
Although increased NB8 defence cooperation vis-à-vis NORDEFCO certainly appears both prudent and proportional in its response to recent geopolitical events, it is far from the only outlet Sweden and Finland possess. Both countries are extremely active members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program (PfP) established in 1994, contributing troops and logistical resources to several NATO-led missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Libya. Additionally, it would not be surprising to see the US and the non-NATO NB8 consolidate and expand the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which to date has excluded ‘defence’ from its cooperation mandate. Far from an uncontroversial initiative, many argue that the TTIP aims to reduce environmental legislation, banking regulations, and corporate barriers to trade, and that ongoing TTIP negotiations have been very secretive and undemocratic. Both the United States and arms industries, however, are likely to use recent geopolitical events as a window of opportunity to expand the cooperation mandate.
Of course, owing to the Baltic Sea area’s strategic importance, both Sweden and Finland have long been courted by NATO as prime candidates for membership: in the words of Jan Joel Andersson, a senior research fellow at the Swedish institute of International Affairs, NATO’s ultimate aims is to turn the Baltic Sea into a ‘NATO lake’ However, both countries have long-standing policies of nonalignment rooted in socio-historical and cultural norms. Nonetheless, in wake of last year’s national elections and the surge in support for far right party Sverigedemokraterna (SD) alongside NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s vocal warnings that although it is one of NATO’s most active partners, Sweden cannot expect assistance in the event of an attack vis-à-vis the invocation of collective security and Article 5, whose guarantee extends only to members of NATO, one wonders how seriously Sweden might consider NATO membership.
Indeed, Sweden’s new center-left government, which includes the Green Party who campaigned on a promise of cutting defense spending, duly unveiled an increase in military expenditures in the inaugural budget on 23 October 2014 amid the highly publicised submarine hunt. The budget was not without controversy, however. ‘Budgeten är klar. Ubåtsjakten avslutad’ (“The budget is ready. The submarine hunt completed) tweeted Maria Wetterstrand, a former spokesperson for the Green Party. Although the coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SAP) and the Green Party has indicated that they do not plan to seek NATO membership, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, who are aware of the importance of Sweden to their own security, have continued to lobby loudly for the membership of Sweden (and Finland) in NATO.
Of course, more holistically speaking, the primary question is less how the NB8 and NORDEFCO might counterbalance Russian aggression and more how might the EU, NATO, and the Nordic countries avoid the highly counterproductive result of alienating Russia? The construction of a comprehensive European security protocol in the post-Cold War era cannot be accomplished without or against Russia. The current geopolitical landscape is very different from that of the Cold War. Policy makers must take care not to get caught up in the brinksmanship of the international media. That said, the Nordic countries carry a long tradition of preference for diplomatic engagement and norm entrepreneurship, practices not least likely to be forgotten at such turbulent times as the present.