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- Both Finland and Sweden are set to join the NATO alliance this year.
- The two countries, previously neutral, changed their minds after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Finland and Sweden will both have to rejigger their armed forces away from territorial defense and toward helping defend an entire continent.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created an unwanted situation for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and one of the most unexpected effects of his actions is the flipping of former neutral states Finland and Sweden into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Instead of intimidating his Scandinavian neighbors into accommodating his demands, Putin’s invasion has pushed them into the waiting arms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where they will join 30 other countries in the collective defense of Europe.
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 caught almost everyone by surprise. The idea that big power, high intensity warfare was still possible in the 21st century was something most people did not want to contemplate, especially Russia’s neighbors. Two such neighbors, Sweden and Finland, were so shaken by the invasion, they decided to violate long histories of neutrality to join NATO. Their joint application was made formal in May and full membership is expected later this year.
NATO, founded in 1949, is a treaty organization centered around the principle of collective self defense. The pillar of NATO is Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that, “(Member nations) agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”
In other words, any country that goes to war with any member of NATO automatically goes to war with 30 countries. This is meant to protect smaller states, such as the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, with the assurance that if they are invaded, the full might of the alliance is behind them. It also assures all non-nuclear members that they cannot be intimidated by a nuclear power, as the alliance is backed by American, British, and French nuclear weapons.
Ukraine is a large country with a large military, yet Russia invaded anyway, perhaps because Ukraine did not have nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons change the rules by creating an existential risk for invaders: war between two nuclear-armed powers could escalate into nuclear war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine left Finland and Sweden with two choices: join NATO and gain the safety of the American, British, and French nuclear umbrella—or develop nuclear weapons of their own.
Finland’s neutrality was a result of World War II and the need to survive, as it shared an 810-mile border with a vastly larger, more powerful, hostile Soviet Union—now Russia. Finland has 19,250 active duty troops and 238,000 reserve personnel, all trained to a high standard and capable of mobilizing within hours. Finland has 312 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, 107 combat aircraft, and 672 artillery pieces, including self-propelled howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems.
Sweden adopted a position of political neutrality shortly after the Napoleonic wars, a position it held for more than two hundred years. Sweden has a military of just 14,600 active duty, full time personnel and 10,000 reserve personnel. The Swedish Armed Forces, despite their small size are heavily armed, with 531 main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, 96 fighters, and five submarines.
For decades, the primary mission of the Finnish and Swedish armed forces was territorial defense. Both realized that if they came under attack, outside help was possible, but not guaranteed, particularly in Finland’s case, so large numbers of reservists were necessary to bolster a relatively small standing military. (Sweden used to have a large reserve force but made deep cuts in the 2000s.) Neither country was interested in projecting power outside their borders, so both lacked large, long range warships, aerial refueling aircraft, and heavy sea and air lift capabilities.
By contrast, most NATO members organize their armed forces for power projection, particularly those part of the alliance’s 911 force, the soon-to-be 300,000 strong NATO Response Force. Finland and Sweden will likely have to raise the size of their active duty forces and train and organize air and land contingents to contribute to the Response Force. While that will increase the defense spending of both countries, it’s the price of having an alliance with 3.5 million military personnel solidly behind you in a crisis.
For now, most of Finland‘s and Sweden’s contributions to NATO are strategic: in the event of a confrontation with Russia, NATO will now have access to dozens more air and naval bases across Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea. Sweden faces much of the Baltic, and its inclusion in NATO practically links all the nations bordering the Black Sea, in a full ring of alliance. It will also make Russia’s ability to project military power into the region much more difficult. Meanwhile, Finland has hundreds of first-rate artillery pieces that could contribute to the NATO Response force.
Russia’s ill-advised invasion of Ukraine has resulted in many negative effects for Moscow: crippling international sanctions, the immolation of Russia’s military reputation, and the loss of tens of thousands of Russian troops. In a supreme sense of irony, it has strengthened Putin’s arch-nemesis, NATO, by compelling neutral countries to join the alliance.
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