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By: Jens Bolstad
What would you do if someone with a potentially hostile character started hanging out in your neighbor’s yard every day and publicly stated they disliked your behavior? This scenario could represent the Russian view of US and NATO involvement in the Nordic countries over the last few years. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the US and NATO expanded their military presence and increased their military investments in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Russia most likely perceives the increased cooperation amongst the US, NATO, and the Nordic countries as an increasing western bias of balancing powers in Northern Europe. Further, the potential enlargement of NATO is viewed as a threat to Russia because it diminishes the current buffer zone between Russia and the NATO countries and attempts to downsize the Russian presence in its traditional sphere of influence. Overall, the increased tension between Russia and the Nordic countries has the potential to deteriorate regional security and stability.
The US is focusing on the Nordic countries through the presence of forces and military investments due to increased tensions with Russia in Northern Europe. In 2016, Norway agreed to host a small contingent of 330 US Marines (USMC) at Vaernes military base in the middle region of Norway. This decision was controversial due to Norway’s peacetime policy implemented in 1949, which prohibits the posting of foreign troops in Norway unless under attack or threat of an attack. However, the Norwegian government argued the USMC unit would change personnel every six months, therefore it was not permanent basing. Russia reacted promptly by saying this presence of foreign forces “makes Norway unpredictable, can increase excitement, push an arms race and lead to destabilization of the situation in Europe.” Russia further stated they regarded the act as “clearly unfriendly” and warned, “will not remain without consequences.”
In Sweden, 1,300 US troops participated alongside Swedish and NATO troops in Exercise Aurora in 2017. Since Sweden is not a part of NATO and is considered a neutral nation, the involvement of US and NATO forces in the exercise was a statement of deterrence against Russia. Furthermore, Sweden has participated in several US-led exercises and operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East and is a member of the Heavy Airlift Wing, a multinational military airlift capability initially led by the US to provide strategic airlift for NATO. Sweden also recently purchased the Patriot Missile Defense System for a little over $1 billion from Raytheon, a US company. Together with Sweden, Finland is bonding with the western alliance. In 2017, both nations signed a treaty to participate in the British led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a NATO force that can react to any hostile threat within a short timeframe. In the same year, President Trump met with the Finnish President, Sauli Niinistö, where Trump made clear the importance of protecting the Baltic Region against Russia. Russia, on the other hand, has made it clear through various sources that they disapprove of the collaboration between the Nordic countries and the US together with NATO.
Could the increasing ties between the US and NATO with Finland and Sweden eventually lead to a full NATO membership for the two countries? A NATO expansion to include Finland and Sweden, tied with a permanent presence of US troops in Norway, would be an ominous sign for Russia. Upon hearing about Sweden potentially becoming a NATO member, President Putin stated, “If Sweden joins NATO, it obviously will adversely affect our bilateral relations. For us, NATO means extending beyond our borders also from Swedish territory. We will have to consider what a suitable response would be, as it is another threat to Russia.” Furthermore, Putin explained in a meeting with the Finnish Prime minister in 2016 that he would respect Finland’s membership in NATO, but would take proper countermeasures by putting Russia’s forces closer to the Finnish border. The buffer zone between the East and the West has gradually diminished over the years. In 2004, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia became members of NATO, leaving only Sweden and Finland left as neutral countries in the North. As a result, Northern European countries’ relationships with Russia is becoming more unstable and contentious due to Russia feeling more threatened and both sides increased ability to wage war.
The growing insecurity between Russia and the Nordic countries has aggravated the relationship between the nations. Historically, the dialogue between Russia and Norway has been good. However, since 2014, little official business has taken place between Russia and Norway on a political level even though there are several bilateral agreements in effect. Furthermore, there are several reports of increased Russian activity on Norwegian soil. State officials have been refused entry to Russia, and currently, an alleged Norwegian spy is in custody in Russia. In Sweden, there have been several reports of unidentified submarines along the Swedish coastline, a vast number of cyber-attacks have been executed of unknown origin, and Russian military planes have conducted numerous violations of Swedish airspace. Finland has experienced similar scenarios. The following statement by the Prime minister`s Office of Finland describes the deteriorating situation: “Military activity and military tensions have increased in the Baltic Sea region. The early-warning period for military crises has become shorter, and the threshold for using force has lowered. Finland must prepare for the use of military force, or threat thereof, against it.” Both Norway and Finland shares miles of border with Russia, on land and at sea, meaning a healthy relationship and transparent political dialogue is essential to maintain a stable region.
Currently, it looks like the Nordic and Russian relationship is on a downward spiral with no apparent end state. Before the Russian annexation of Crimea, the relationship between the Nordic countries and Russia was stable and transparent. Since then, the US and NATO influence on the Nordic countries has grown steadily with the presence of Allied forces, bi-lateral agreements, and several joint operations. Russian officials have explicitly opposed this growing interaction and western influence with numerous threats and an increasing number of hostile acts. If the Nordic countries’ relationship and cooperation with NATO and the West continues, how will Russia respond? Sweden’s former Secretary of State and Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, stated that “it is likely that both Sweden and Finland are NATO members in ten years.” There is a saying that if you force a badger into a corner, eventually it will bite. In this case, let’s hope Russia is not the badger.
Major Jens Bolstad is a student at the United States Air Force Air Command and Staff College, He has previously worked as a C-130J pilot in The Royal Norwegian Air Force; Program Manager in the Norwegian Defense Materiel Agency; several tours at the Inspectorate of Air Operations; and as an instructor in the Saab Safari training Aircraft. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the U.S. Government, the Norwegian Air Force, or the Norwegian Government.