There is something rotten in the seas of Sweden. An unidentified swimming object was confirmed mid-November, nearly a month after Swedish military forces fervently searched their waters for the invading culprit. For a week in October, the Swedish military was gripped by the possibility that a Russian submarine was lurking in the murky and mysterious Stockholm archipelago, whose 30,000 islands and countless straits could easily conceal a foreign vessel in its depths. Some 10 days before, Finland had accused the Russian Navy of interfering with a Baltic Sea research vessel — the latest in a series of minor transgressions that included violating Finnish airspace three times in the space of a single week in August. The confirmed presence of a foreign U-boat, along with a string of other small incidents, has invited observers to connect the dots in a region famous for its steadfast neutrality. Many claim that these incursions are directly linked to the fact that neither country can claim the protective umbrella of NATO membership against Russian incursion. Although both Sweden and Finland would do well to keep neutrality close at hand, with the shadow of Ukraine hanging heavy over Europe, the pattern of subtle Russian bellicosity is a chilling one for those outside Europe’s most powerful alliance.
“Fucked up.” The words belong to Sverker Göranson, Sweden’s top military commander, describing the possibility that a Russian submarine had entered the Stockholm archipelago. Eventually the submarine hunt was called off, and it took Sweden a month to present an anticlimactic confirmation from its manic efforts. Though Göranson may have treated the incursion with the utmost seriousness, the media circus that erupted around the search for the sub received derision from some quarters of the state. The line between legitimate fear and outlandish farce grew dangerously blurry when a grainy image of a man dressed in black emerging out of the waters of the Swedish coastline appeared. But the picture was a dead lead: The man in the photograph turned out to be “a pensioner called Ove who was doing a ‘spot of angling,’” as per the Guardian.
Though Sweden eventually confirmed the presence of the submarine, the tale of Ove and the corresponding media madness imply a certain absurdity to the whole affair. This, after all, is not the first submarine intrusion into Swedish waters. The height of the Cold War saw repeated incidents in the Baltic; perhaps the most famous one involved a Russian diesel W-137 submarine getting stuck between some underwater rocks near Swedish shores in 1981. The incident was resolved after a 10-day standoff and substantial negotiations between the two nations. The following years saw a series of submarine hunts, and though there was the occasional hint of something sinister, the softening of Soviet policy under President Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War eventually brought the searches to a standstill.
While Swedish forces spent the ’80s scouring the Baltic for misplaced Russian subs, Finland followed a strict policy of noninterference so unique as to elicit the inception of the term “Finlandization.” A CIA brief noted, “The concept would imply not mere neutrality, but a relationship in which the Soviets possessed a large measure of hegemony.” True to its informal Russian ties, Finland did not participate in the Marshall Plan and stayed out of NATO. As in Sweden, Gorbachev’s rise to power and the decline of the Soviet Union provoked a change in this mentality, and criticism of the USSR finally surfaced in Finland. Anti-Russian art was uncensored, but the 20 years following the fall of the Berlin Wall passed more or less without incident, until the Russian bear began to growl once again under President Vladimir Putin’s reign.
These tremors have put neutrality on trial and made NATO membership the elephant in the room for both Sweden and Finland. A poll taken in Sweden in the aftermath of Submarinegate showed that, for the first time, more Swedes were in favor of joining NATO than were opposed. But at 37 percent to 36 percent, the difference between pro- and anti-NATO factions was a hair’s breadth and certainly within the margin of error. Even if a shift away from Swedish stoicism would hold, not all forces point to greater NATO integration. This year saw the election of a new government, led by the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which has previously expressed opposition to NATO membership — a stance it has reiterated since ascending to office.
The situation in Finland is equally complicated. The Finnish public is squarely against the idea of NATO membership — polls generally put those in favor at 20 percent and those against at 60 percent, though a decade or so ago the naysayers stood at 80 percent. However, the current Finnish government is a coalition led by the conservative National Coalition Party, which has articulated support for NATO membership on numerous occasions. Jyrki Katainen, who prematurely finished his term as prime minister in June to pursue a position in European government, was a staunch advocate of joining the transatlantic defense group and even once remarked that strong public opposition might be an “insufficient reason” to stay out of NATO.
It is certainly true that Russia has become more aggressive in recent years, given the war with Georgia, the conflict in Ukraine and the aforementioned border and sea disputes with Sweden and Finland. And Finland only seceded from Russia in 1909. If it is true that Putin’s belligerent fancies are revisionist — hence his interference in the affairs of former Soviet territories Ukraine and Georgia — then Finns ought to be frightened. But conflict with Finland would not necessarily be militaristic. Russia represents about 10 percent of Finland’s export market, and the small Nordic country is already dealing with economic toxicity from an anemic eurozone market. Additionally, Russian hackers in 2007 crippled the websites of key Estonian institutions, including the government, banks and media, after the Estonian government relocated a Soviet-era statue. The bear doesn’t need much poking to get angry. As such, it is only too sensible to think that Finland might consider enlisting the help of larger, friendlier forces.
Then again, joining NATO would represent exactly the kind of provocation that Finland has steered clear of. The only concrete reason for Finland to join NATO would be if the country firmly believed that Russia had designs on its land. Yet it’s hard to imagine what pretext Putin and his cohorts could fabricate for such an incursion. While Russians or Russian speakers are a sizable minority in Ukraine, they represent a paltry 0.5 percent of Finland’s population — hardly pretext for the kind of faux-protective action that took place in Crimea and Georgia. And Finland is a stable democracy insulated from the kinds of constitutional crises that gripped Ukraine and Georgia. In the former, a Russia-friendly president was ousted amidst popular upheaval, while the latter struggled with civil war on the back of ethnic tensions.
Many of the same arguments apply to Sweden, albeit to a lesser extent. Sweden, unlike Finland, has the luxury of not sharing an 833-mile border with Russia, and the lack of such exposure means that the stakes are undoubtedly lower. For the kind of historical precedent that Putin is apparently fond of consulting to justify his plans for world domination, one has to go all the way back to the Viking era and the Kingdom of Rus, Russia’s national forbearer. The idea of tanks rolling into Finland, though implausible, is somewhat less ludicrous than that of a Russian flag hoisted over the Riksdag in Stockholm. That small — but crucial — Baltic buffer may be decisive in determining how Sweden reacts to the shifting Northern European landscape and may be a reason why Sweden doesn’t need the military protection of full NATO membership.
Though NATO membership may or may not be on the table for both countries, neither has shied away from taking action in response to Russia’s recent aggressiveness. Since 1994, Sweden has been a participant in the NATO-led Partnership for Peace, and the government is planning to increase its defense budget. Meanwhile in Finland, broad political support for increased defense spending has also emerged. And the two Nordic countries recently signed both a military pact that pledged to pool resources between their armed forces and a Memorandum of Understanding with NATO to allow assistance from and sustain the presence of NATO troops in the two countries in case of “disasters, disruptions and threats to security.” These actions show a third way for Sweden and Finland — one in which they don’t have to abandon their neutrality in order to preserve their regional autonomy.
The world outside the Nordic pair is split along familiar lines. The recent memorandum suggests that NATO members would welcome Sweden and Finland with open arms. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are among NATO’s most devoted members — unsurprisingly, considering their proximity to Russia and their not-so-distant history of nonconsensual union with the USSR. The three countries would be very keen to see their Nordic neighbors join NATO’s forces. Rhetorically, the addition of Sweden and Finland would bolster NATO’s international position, especially because of the Nordic nations’ history of neutrality. When even mild-mannered Finland considers angering the Kremlin, it is clear that Russia has been up to no good.
The recent spate of international politicking includes maneuvers that have all leaned away from Russia and towards insurance policies, both between Finland and Sweden and with external Western allies. Even public support for NATO membership — low, but still increasing — is unlikely to motivate either country to go so far as to entertain full membership in the defense organization. And both states would be well advised to refrain from doing so. Neither country is truly in a position to be the victim of Putin’s domineering foreign policy. Swedes and Finns would do best to embrace the shivers Putin’s Russia gives them and let their cool heads prevail.
Art by Soraya Ferdman.