Cold War legacies
A few words, an incredible complexity…
Few new members would be more welcome in NATO than Sweden and Finland. Their military hardware is compatible, and in Sweden’s case ultra-modern. They are in the right place. And the timing would be most welcome: a clear rebuff to Russia’s assertive, divide-and-rule, approach to Europe.
Both countries remained neutral during the cold war. But Finns and Swedes were outraged by the Russian-stoked riots in Estonia in April, and by the blockade of Estonia’s embassy in Moscow (the Swedish ambassador’s car was also attacked). Swedes fret about a planned Russian-German gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed, which may be bad for the environment and will be defended, says Russia, by an enlarged Baltic Sea fleet. Since the cold war, both Finland and Sweden have slimmed down their defences.
Sweden’s right-of-centre government is privately sympathetic to closer links with NATO. Its foreign minister, Carl Bildt, has banned the word “neutral”—once the central dogma of Swedish foreign policy. Sweden has begun closer co-operation on airspace surveillance and intelligence with Norway, which is in NATO. In the past, foreign military ties were discreet and centred on Finland. Sweden has also helped the Baltic states, NATO members since 2004, with know-how and equipment. Mr Bildt has stepped up his criticism of Russia’s drift away from democracy, and its behaviour in eastern Europe.
Finland’s armed forces are smaller, worse-equipped and over-stretched; its border with Russia is long and will be more exposed when it gives up landmines, a move reluctantly planned for 2016. Mines are “Finland’s nukes”, says Tomas Ries, the Finnish-born head of a Stockholm think-tank. Yet Finnish political leaders have been quiet. The president, Tarja Halonen, is soft on Russia and chilly towards NATO (she dislikes George Bush). She outraged patriotic Finns by describing Estonia (a close ethnic cousin) and Russia as friends of equal importance. The government is privately more hawkish, but does not want to confront Ms Halonen. Still, the European Union’s divided stance on Russia, says Risto Penttila, who runs a lobby group, has put NATO membership “top of the security-policy agenda”.
Many Finns are reluctant to join NATO. Four chilly decades and a lost war, they argue, show that hard-headed engagement with Russia, not foreign alliances, guarantees safety. “The Swedes are hysterical,” says a Helsinki-based Russia-watcher. “We were not so happy about Russia in the 1990s, and we are not so worried now.” The Swedes retort that they are prudent, not worried. And they are far from certain to join NATO. Russia may brag about rearmament, but no real military threat is in sight. If the proposed pipeline followed a different route, Swedish concerns would abate. Sweden would probably join the alliance only if Russia turns even nastier—or if Finland joins first.
A more sympathetic American president could just make that happen. Even the NATO-phobic Ms Halonen might soften if a President Hillary Clinton asked her nicely. And polls suggest that, if the political leadership recommended joining NATO, the public would support it.