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Sweden and Finland’s special relationship with NATO

Sweden and Finland's special relationship with NATO 


By Candace Huntington


Partners are a critical component of NATO. Not only do partnerships provide security and support to non-members, but they allow NATO to project security and stability along and beyond its borders. While NATO was originally founded to establish Western countries' security against the Soviet Union, the range and scope of challenges have shifted since then. Regions beyond the organization's traditional area of focus affect the members' security. For example, the Mediterranean Sea has garnered increased attention recently due to growing foreign influence from Russia and China. NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue includes seven non-member countries in Africa and the Middle East intending to enhance cooperation and project stability in the region.

As an organization rooted in common values, including democracy and rule of law, partnerships allow countries with similar values and culture to work with NATO on defense issues without committing to the mutual defense agreement of Article 5. NATO provides several avenues for non-members to cooperate with the organization – the Partnership for Peace Programme, Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and other dialogues allow allies and partners to coordinate and cooperate on shared interests. But some NATO partners are more involved with the organization than others.

Sweden and Finland’s history of neutrality may seem like an obstacle to NATO partnership, but they have emerged as two of NATO’s closest partners while maintaining their non-alignment. Why is this the case, when other partners (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine) have stated their desire to join the Alliance, whereas Sweden and Finland remain comfortably outside of it? First, Sweden and Finland share political, economic, and cultural norms with many of NATO’s existing members. NATO’s website notes that both Sweden and Finland “share common values, conduct an open and regular political dialogue and engage in a wide range of practical cooperation with NATO.”[i] Second, Sweden and Finland have become integral to the security and stability of the Baltic region. Third, while the Biden administration has ushered in a renewed era of transatlantic cooperation, the U.S. will continue to put pressure on the Allies to contribute more to their collective defense. Partnerships with non-Allies allow NATO to fill in capability gaps and increase Allied presence and power projection in areas of key contestation.


Neutrals to NATO partners: Swedish and Finnish security policy throughout the 20th Century

Sweden and Finland’s history throughout the 20th century has been critical in shaping their perceptions of their security as well as their position in European collective defense. Sweden’s neutrality policy dates back to the early 1800s, and Sweden has avoided involvement in war for nearly 200 years. This is particularly impressive given the global conflicts that touched nearly every one of Sweden’s neighbors. Sweden’s neutral policy throughout the 20th century centered around its fear of confrontation with a Great Power, mainly the Soviet Union. While Sweden remained officially neutral during both World Wars, the policy was particularly unstable during WWII when all of its Nordic neighbors were involved. Sweden’s ability to avoid involvement in both World Wars prompted the country to continue its neutrality policy in 1945.

As Finland’s largest neighbor, Russia has also long been a focus of Finnish security policy. Finland first declared neutrality briefly in the interwar period, but the Soviet Union interrupted this policy in its invasion of Finland in the Winter War.[ii] This weakened the Finnish military, economy, and political system. Experts have since argued that Finland’s sovereignty was crucial for Sweden’s security and maintenance of its neutrality.[iii] Finland created a buffer between Sweden and the Soviet Union, and a key goal of Sweden’s security policy since then has been to maintain that distance.

The post-war period saw a major shift in the international system. As small powers neighboring the Soviet Union, Sweden and Finland stayed committed to neutrality to avoid confrontation with the Eastern and Western blocs. Finland remained in a precarious security position after the war as the Soviet threat still loomed large. In 1948, the Soviet Union pressured Finland into neutrality through the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance to keep Finland separated from the West and prevent a potential invasion through Finland. Although this treaty was not ideal, it preserved Finland's political independence from the Soviet Union and allowed it to stay democratic.[iv] Sweden declared its official neutrality doctrine as “non-alignment in peacetime for the purpose of neutrality in the case of war.”[v] This is an important distinction between Sweden and Finland’s policy; Sweden willingly chose to pursue neutrality, whereas Finland had little choice. Norway and Denmark opted to join NATO, splitting the Nordic countries. Dubbed the “Nordic balance,” this situation kept the region somewhat stable and free of military confrontation between the two blocs.[vi]

The fundamental reshaping of the world order after the end of the Cold War left the utility of Sweden and Finland’s neutrality policy up for debate. The perceived threat of Soviet territorial invasion significantly diminished, and Western powers dominated after the Cold War. Sweden and Finland quickly dropped their neutrality policies in favor of military non-alignment. This move allowed for further involvement in Western institutions, and throughout the 1990s, Sweden and Finland became politically and economically integrated with the rest of Europe. They first became involved in NATO through membership in the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994. A few years later, they both joined the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Swedish and Finnish Armed Forces began participating in joint peacekeeping and international aid missions, including NATO’s operation in Bosnia and the KFOR mission in Kosovo. They have also been heavily involved in NATO’s missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.[vii] Sweden and Finland joined the European Economic Area[viii] followed by their membership in the EU in 1995. Finland adopted the euro in 2002.[ix] This rapid integration into European political and economic institutions demonstrates Sweden and Finland’s strong ties with Europe.


De-facto Allies: Swedish and Finnish cooperation with NATO in the 21st century

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, deemed the “most serious breach of Europe’s borders since the Second World War,”[x] dramatically altered Europeans’ perceptions of their own security. Before 2014, Sweden and Finland had been steadily decreasing their military capabilities based on the assumption that the liberal international order would prevent any major military conflict.[xi][xii] For Sweden and Finland, the annexation brought back Cold War-era thinking of Russia as a threat to their territories and made NATO membership an attractive option. The Finnish defense minister at the time, Carl Haglund, said “the grounds for NATO membership are stronger than ever” and “if you look at the community where Finland would naturally belong, it is NATO.”[xiii] Similar sentiments were felt in Sweden, with some political leaders arguing that NATO membership was necessary because Sweden was not capable of defending itself.[xiv]

The defense of the Baltic states has been the foundation of Sweden and Finland’s partnerships with NATO.[xv] Russia's aggressive actions in its neighborhood left the Baltic states fearful for their security. NATO is bound under Article 5 to defend the Baltic states should they suffer an attack. Cooperation with Sweden and Finland has maintained stability in the Baltic Sea region and ensured that NATO has access to the Baltics during a crisis. Several islands in the Baltic Sea are of strategic importance to NATO. Gotland, a large island off the coast of southern Sweden, is seen as a strategic location for projecting military influence in the Baltic Sea.[xvi] The Åland islands, situated between Finland and Sweden, are also important as they separate the Gulf of Bothnia from the rest of the Baltic Sea. [xvii] The annexation of Crimea brought renewed attention to the security of these islands and Sweden and Finland’s role in their protection.[xviii] In 2015, 33,000 soldiers simulated an attack on Gotland, the Åland islands, and the Danish island of Bornholm, highlighting their vulnerability: “A takeover of these islands would mean that NATO would not be able to send ships into the Baltic Sea and would make NATO irrelevant there,” a Swedish researcher noted.[xix] Further, Russian capture of these islands would provide them with a military stronghold very close to Swedish and Finnish mainland territory and provide their navy with access to all corners of the Baltic Sea. Frequent military exercises in the Baltic Sea demonstrate the Russian military’s ability to operate effectively in the air, land, and sea domains throughout the region.[xx]

Sweden and Finland cooperate with NATO in several key ways that highlight their role in securing the Baltics. In 2014, NATO launched the Partnership Interoperability Initiative that engages select partners on a closer level. As "Enhanced Opportunity Partners," Sweden and Finland consult with NATO at the ministerial level, enhance interoperability through exercises, and share information. This status provides near-unlimited access to NATO programs.[xxi] The Swedish and Finnish Armed Forces participate in the NATO Response Force and are nearly completely interoperable with NATO forces.[xxii] Both countries signed Host Nation Support agreements with NATO in 2016 to provide Allied forces access to Swedish and Finnish territory during a crisis or war. Sweden and Finland participated in the massive NATO Trident Juncture exercise in 2018, contributing 2,200 Swedish[xxiii] and 600 Finnish[xxiv] personnel across land, sea, and sea domains.

While Sweden and Finland lack the political consensus to pursue NATO membership right now, Russia’s actions triggered a revitalization of their national defense policies that have made them more effective NATO partners. In 2015, Sweden re-launched its "total defense" concept, which was a feature of its Cold War policy. This concept aimed to strengthen Sweden's defense across multiple domains, including civil preparedness, in a whole-of-society approach.[xxv] In pursuit of this policy, Sweden re-established a military presence on Gotland.[xxvi] The recent Swedish Total Defence 2021-2025 bill will increase the number of Swedish troops, add to the navy’s submarine fleet, and improve the resilience of civilian capabilities. Finland has also ramped up its defense and made societal resilience a top security priority.[xxvii] These defense policies have enhanced Finland and Sweden’s interoperability with NATO and made them stronger, more capable partners in the defense of the Baltic region.


Looking Ahead

The prevailing assumption among experts is that while the deteriorating situation in the Baltic Sea has caused alarm among the Swedes and Finns, NATO membership is unlikely in the foreseeable future.[xxviii] As the globe emerges from several decades of liberal international world order, however, the security situation in the Nordic-Baltic region will continue to evolve. It remains to be seen whether NATO partnerships will be enough to ensure Swedish and Finnish security in the long term. While a territorial invasion might not be an immediate threat for Sweden or Finland, Russia's recent actions on the border of Ukraine prove that Moscow is unpredictable.

Swedish and Finnish debates on NATO membership vary due to their different strategic positions. Sweden is closer to NATO membership than ever before. In a recent vote, the parliament established the so-called “NATO option” that allows Sweden to join NATO in the future.[xxix] While this move does not guarantee NATO membership any time soon, it is still a notable shift from Sweden’s long-held commitment to non-alignment. Finland, on the other hand, has had the NATO option since 1995 but has not made any major moves towards NATO membership since then for fear of agitating Russia. President Putin remarked that Finland’s NATO membership would cause a “fight with Russia until the last Finnish soldier.”[xxx] The Finnish population also remains skeptical of NATO membership, with only 20 to 30 percent of the population in favor of the move.[xxxi] Putin’s strong rhetoric combined with Finland’s historical memories of Soviet invasion and influence makes Finnish debates on NATO membership less robust than those in Sweden.

Looking ahead, the Biden administration will undoubtedly improve relations within the transatlantic alliance, which will in turn improve Swedish and Finnish security. The U.S., however, will still expect Europe to carry its share of the collective defense burden. Consequently, Sweden and Finland cannot rely solely on their partnerships with NATO for their defense, especially considering they do not have the Article 5 guarantee. Sweden and Finland must continue to develop regional security institutions to address region-specific security problems and enhance defense cooperation with their neighbors outside NATO frameworks. These structures, most notably NORDEFCO, complement their NATO partnerships without duplicating them and provide a platform for Sweden and Finland to develop bilateral defense relationships with NATO members in the region. Sweden and Finland must maintain their dedication to these frameworks to further strengthen the Nordic-Baltic region’s defense and deterrence against Russia.

Beyond the Baltic Sea, another region that is growing increasingly important for Sweden, Finland, and the Alliance is the Arctic. Melting ice resulting from climate change has led to increased economic and military activity in the region.[xxxii] Russia has built up a military presence off its Arctic territory near its border with Finland as part of its expansionist policies. As Arctic littoral states, this development is particularly relevant for Sweden and Finland, which both recognize the strategic importance of the Arctic as it provides Russia access to the North Atlantic.[xxxiii] NATO’s presence remains very limited in the Arctic. As Enhanced Opportunity Partners, Sweden and Finland may have more leverage to push for increased NATO attention to this region. One key issue in the Arctic is the lack of Allied situation awareness. NATO could set up a regional dialogue for the Arctic with Sweden, Finland, and the allied Arctic states to coordinate activities in the region and promote information sharing.

In conclusion, Sweden and Finland's unique history, ties to Europe, and geopolitical position have facilitated their strong partnerships with NATO today. These partnerships are particularly remarkable given their historical neutrality and continued non-alignment. At the onset of the Cold War, both Sweden and Finland had minimal military ties with Europe. The annexation of Crimea reintroduced Russia as a major security threat for the Nordic-Baltic countries; this event heightened the importance of the Baltic Sea in NATO thinking and pushed Sweden and Finland to rethink their defense strategies to provide security in the region.


About the author

Candace Huntington is an intern with the Center for European Policy Analysis in their Transatlantic Defense and Security Program. She recently graduated from Skidmore College with her BA in Political Science. Her interests include transatlantic security and defense, Nordic-Baltic security, Great Power politics, and Russian subversion tactics.



[i] NATO, “Relations with Finland,” NATO, April 7, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49594.htm.

[ii] Evan Andrews, “What was the Winter War?” History, September 3, 2021, https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-winter-war.

[iii] Carl Bergqvist, “Determined by History: Why Sweden and Finland will not be more than NATO partners,” July 13, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/determined-by-history-why-sweden-and-finland-will-not-be-more-than-nato-partners/.

[iv] Jukka Nevakivi, “The Soviet Union and Finland after the war, 1944-53,” Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1996, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-349-25106-3_6.

[v] Jaan Siitonen, “Finland, Sweden & NATO: Did Trump Change Everything?” The European Liberal Forum, 2017, https://bildningsforbundet.fi/Site/Data/2477/Files/Finland%20Sweden%20Nato(2).pdf.

[vi] Matthieu Chillaud, “Territorial Disarmament in Northern Europe: The Epilogue of a Success Story?” Stockholm International Peace Research Institution, August 2006, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/files/PP/SIPRIPP13.pdf.

[vii] NATO, “Relations with Sweden,” NATO, April 6, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_52535.htm.

[viii] Gustav Lindström, “Sweden’s Security Policy: Engagement – The Middle War,” Institute for Security Studies – Western European Union, October 1997, https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/occ002.pdf.

[ix] “EU Countries and the euro,” European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/info/euro-0/eu-countries-and-euro_en.

[x] Mike Blanchfield, “Freeland’s view of global clash of ideologies has Putin, Russia at its heart,” The Canadian Press, April 20, 2018, https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/freeland-s-view-of-global-clash-of-ideologies-has-putin-russia-at-its-heart-1.3894893; Katya Kruk, “The Crimean Factor: How the European Union Reacted to Russia’s Annexation of Crimea,” The Warsaw Institute, May 7, 2019, https://warsawinstitute.org/crimean-factor-european-union-reacted-russias-annexation-crimea/.

[xi] “Government’s Defence Report,” Prime Minister’s Office Publications, Finnish Ministry of Defense, July 2017, https://www.defmin.fi/files/3688/J07_2017_Governments_Defence_Report_Eng_PLM_160217.pdf.

[xii] Grzegorz Kuczynski, “Sweden Faces the Russian Threat in the Baltic Sea,” The Warsaw Institute, October 12, 2019, https://warsawinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Sweden-Faces-The-Russian-Threat-in-The-Baltic-Sea-Warsaw-Institute-report.pdf.

[xiii] Sakari Suoninen, Jussi Rosendahl, “Finnish reasons for joining NATO ‘stronger than ever’: defense minister,” Reuters, June 18, 2014, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-finland-nato-defenceminister/finnish-reasons-for-joining-nato-stronger-than-ever-defense-minister-idUSKBN0ET1V320140618.

[xiv] Matt Ford, “After Crimea, Sweden Flirts With Joining NATO,” Atlantic Council, March 13, 2014, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/after-crimea-sweden-flirts-with-joining-nato/.

[xv] Peter Hultqvist, "The Changing Situation in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea Area," Government Offices of Sweden, September 25, 2015, https://www.government.se/speeches/2015/09/speech-by-minister-for-defence-of-sweden-peter-hultqvist-at-seminar/.

[xvi] Candace Huntington, “Sweden Steps Up,” Center for European Policy Analysis, December 17, 2020, https://cepa.org/sweden-steps-up/.

[xvii] Justyna Gotkowska, Piotr Szymański, “Gotland and Åland on the Baltic chessboard – Swedish and Finnish concerns,” Center for Eastern Studies, October 26, 2016, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2016-10-26/gotland-and-aland-baltic-chessboard-swedish-and-finnish-concerns.

[xviii] Eoin Micheál McNamara, “Securing the Nordic-Baltic Region,” NATO Review, March 17, 2016, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2016/03/17/securing-the-nordic-baltic-region/index.html.

[xix] “Russia rehearsed invasion of Sweden," The Local, June 25, 2015,  https://www.thelocal.se/20150625/russia-rehearsed-military-invasion-of-sweden/.

[xx] “Russia rehearsed invasion of Sweden," The Local, June 25, 2015,  https://www.thelocal.se/20150625/russia-rehearsed-military-invasion-of-sweden/.

[xxi] Sydney J. Freedberg, “Fear of Russia Drives Sweden Closer to NATO,” Breaking Defense, September 13, 2016,  https://breakingdefense.com/2016/09/fear-of-russia-drives-sweden-closer-to-nato/.

[xxii] Anna Wieslander, “What makes an ally? Sweden and Finland as NATO partners,” Atlantic Council, April 1, 2019,  https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/what-makes-an-ally-sweden-and-finland-as-nato-partners/

[xxiii] “The Swedish Armed Forces Participate in Trident Juncture,” SHAPE Public Affairs Office, NATO, 2018,    https://shape.nato.int/news-archive/2018/the-swedish-armed-forces-participate-in-trident-juncture-.

[xxiv] “Trident Juncture 2018,” The Finnish Defense Forces, 2018,  https://puolustusvoimat.fi/en/trident-juncture-20181.

[xxv] Dr. Björn von Sydow, “Resilience: Planning for Sweden’s ‘Total Defence,’” NATO Review, April 4, 2018, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2018/04/04/resilience-planning-for-swedens-total-defence/index.html.

[xxvi] Daniel Darling, “Sweden’s Re-militarization of Gotland is Both Symbolic and Strategic,” RealClear Defense, September 21, 2016,  https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/09/22/swedens_re-militarization_of_gotland_is_both_symbolic_and_strategic_110110.html.

[xxvii] “Security Strategy for Society,” Ministry of Defense Security Committee, 2017, https://turvallisuuskomitea.fi/en/security-strategy-for-society/.

[xxviii] Pauli Järvenpää, “NATO’s Truly Enhanced Partnership,” International Centre for Defence and Security, July 2016,  https://icds.ee/wp-content/uploads/2016/Pauli_Jarvenpaa_-_NATO_s_Truly_Enhanced_Partnership.pdf

[xxix] Charlie Duxbury, “Sweden edges closer to NATO membership,” Politico, December 22, 2020,  https://www.politico.eu/article/sweden-nato-membership-dilemma/

[xxx] Patrick Tucker, “Russian Special Forces Just Practiced Invading an Island Near Finland,” Defense One, July 11, 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2018/07/russian-special-forces-just-practiced-invading-island-near-finland/149629/

[xxxi] Pauli Järvenpää, “Finland and NATO: So Close, Yet So Far,” International Centre for Defence and Security, April 22, 2019,  https://icds.ee/en/finland-and-nato-so-close-yet-so-far/.

[xxxii] Sebastian Sprenger, “Russian military buildup in the Arctic has northern NATO members uneasy,” Defense News, April 12, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/frozen-pathways/2021/04/12/russian-military-buildup-in-the-arctic-has-northern-nato-members-uneasy/.

[xxxiii] Nima Khorrami, “Small and Non-Aligned: Sweden’s Strategic Posture in the Arctic (Part II),” The Arctic Institute, September 4, 2020,  https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/small-non-aligned-sweden-strategic-posture-arctic-part-ii/.

Image: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/special-summit-series-s...


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Tuesday, 1 June, 2021 - 10:45