NATO’s Northward Expansion (III)

Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO are reportedly imminent. Russia is reacting to this new strategic imbalance with its own arms buildup.

BERLIN/HELSINKI/STOCKHOLM (Own report) – Finland and Sweden are expected to jointly apply for NATO membership in mid-May, according to reports published yesterday in both countries. Thus, both Helsinki and Stockholm are definitively giving up what is left of their formal neutrality. The Finnish-Swedish rapprochement to NATO – including their participation in NATO wars – had already begun back in the 1990s. Both countries have been so closely linked to the alliance that experts recently remarked that their joining NATO is almost nothing more than a “matter of formalization.” This “formalization” will now take place. It will create a new strategic imbalance in northeastern Europe. Sweden’s island, Gotland, which will soon become part of NATO, can control the sea routes, for example, to St. Petersburg and to Kaliningrad. The approximately 1,340 km long Finnish-Russian border will become NATO’s external border. Moscow has announced it will counter this with arms buildup measures in the High North and possibly deploying nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad.

Rapprochement since the 1990s

Finland and Sweden’s rapprochement to NATO, including their participation in NATO’s military missions – in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan – had already begun back in the 1990s and has continued in the new millennium. Both countries integrated their troops into the NATO Response Force (NRF) – Finland in 2012, and Sweden in 2013. At NATO’s summit in Newport, September 4, 2014, both signed the Host Nation Support (HNS) memorandum, allowing the military alliance’s armed forces to use Finnish or Swedish territory for the purposes of carrying out maneuvers or for troop movements, in the course of a military mission. Both countries’ ministers, and even their heads of states and governments, have begun regularly participating at NATO gatherings including summits. At NATO’s summit in Brussels on June 14, 2021, it was again reiterated that they plan to cooperate even closer in the future. In late 2020, the Swedish parliament resolved to keep open, in principle, the option of joining NATO – a decision hailed in the transatlantic pact as a trendsetting signal that radiates also in the direction of Finland.

“Only a Matter of Formalization”

In early March, Berlin’s German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) published an analysis of Finland and Sweden’s current relationships to NATO, stating “de facto” both countries have “already adapted their defense policies to NATO’s to such an extent” that their “status (...) no longer corresponds to one of neutrality, in the stricter sense of the term.”[1] Should they decide to join the military pact, this would be “almost only a matter of formalization.” One obstacle – although not an insurmountable one – was seen in the fact that the population was nowhere close to a majority favoring alliance membership. This almost immediately changed with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Already on February 28, an opinion poll in Finland showed that 53 percent of the population was in favor of joining NATO and only 28 were still opposed. In January, those in Sweden in favor of joining NATO were still at merely 35 percent while 38 percent were explicitly opposed.[2] The most recent opinion polls show 58 per cent of Swedes in favor of joining, an increase that comes mainly from those, who had previously been undecided, and 21 per cent against.[3]


If Sweden joins NATO, it would mean that an island of high strategic significance would become NATO territory – the Baltic Sea Island of Gotland. From there they can control the Baltic Sea routes, including access to the Gulf of Finland 400 km to the northeast, at the end of which lies St. Petersburg, as well as the sea routes to the Russian exclave Kaliningrad located about 300 km southeastward. It is home to Russia’s Baltic fleet. From Gotland, it is possible to target the air routes from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad, which Russian planes must now use, given the fact that they cannot transit the air space of EU member nations due to sanctions. In 2015, Sweden began to restation troops on Gotland Island, after having fully withdrawn them in 2005. The government announced in 2019 that it intends to comprehensively modernize the island’s air defense system. When the conflict between the West and Russia escalated in January of this year, the Swedish military appreciably expanded its activities on Gotland – a clear signal in Russia’s direction.

Land Border of 1,340 Kilometers

Finland’s accession provides NATO with a new 1,340 km (850 miles) long border with Russia. On the one hand, Moscow must take this into consideration in its defense planning, on the other, as the Carnegie Endowment recently noted, the western military alliance would have to develop and resource a credible plan to defend it against Russia.[4] Of course, this is first of all Finland and Sweden’s task, and then it is that of the European NATO countries, given that the United States is concentrating on its power struggle with China. As the SWP points out, in spite of its population of only 5.5 million, Finland has the capacity to increase the size of its military to 280,000, in times of war, and is highly weaponized. Last year the decision was taken to buy 64 US F-35 stealth jets. Over the past decades Sweden had fallen behind, but has now also begun to massively upgrade, and, among other things, will increase its military personnel from 60,000 to 90,000 by 2025.[5] Its arms budget is set to increase by 40 percent in the period between 2021 and 2025 –reaching a value 85 percent higher than it had been in 2014.

Arms Spiral in the High North

Tensions will not only intensify at the Finnish-Russian border. Last week, Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Schoigu announced that if Finland and Sweden join NATO, Russia would be compelled to deliver “more than 500 advanced weapons systems” to its Northern Fleet. Russia’s Northern Fleet, headquartered in Severomorosk near Murmansk is considered to be well armed. An expert at the Institute for Security Policy in Kiel, calls the fleet “the traditional heart of the Russian navy.”[6] Therefore the spiral in the arms race in the High North takes another round.[7] Earlier, former Prime Minister and currently Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Dmitri Medvedev, declared that Finland’s joining NATO doubles the length of Russia’s direct borders with NATO. Moscow would respond with deployments of nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad to maintain the strategic balance.[8] This applies to the entire Baltic Sea region, which includes Germany.


For more on this theme: NATO's Northern Expansion (II).


[1], [2] Minna Ålander, Michael Paul: Moskau bedroht die Balance im hohen Norden. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 19. Berlin, März 2022.

[3] Richard Milne: Unlike Finland, Sweden inches reluctantly towards Nato. 25.04.2022.

[4] Christopher S. Chivvis: The Dilemma at the Heart of Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO Membership Bids. 14.04.2022.

[5] Minna Ålander, Michael Paul: Moskau bedroht die Balance im hohen Norden. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 19. Berlin, März 2022.

[6] James Jackson: Russia upgrades northern fleet as Finland debates joining Nato. 20.04.2022.

[7] See also Countering Russia in the Far North

[8] Keiran Southern, David Rose: Nuclear-free Baltic deal is off if Finland joins Nato, says Russia. 14.04.2022.