Dangerous Neighborhood

09.28.15 5:00 AM ET

Russia’s Driving the Nordics Into NATO

Putin’s aggressive behavior toward the Baltics is forcing Swedish and Finnish skeptics to rethink membership in the Western alliance.

Russian intimidation of its Baltic sea neighbors is accelerating their cooperation. Sweden is now considering taking part in NATO’s joint expeditionary force. This would deploy in response to any Russian provocation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the alliance’s most vulnerable members. Sweden has just increased its bilateral military ties with Poland, the region’s military heavyweight. Sweden’s small but influential Centre Party has just dumped its anti-NATO position. Another traditionally NATO-skeptical party, the Christian Democrats, are likely to follow suit at their party conference on October 11. 

The reaction is hardly surprising. Russian warplanes fire flares at the Swedish fighter aircraft that intercept them; Sweden’s security police states openly that Russia is the country’s biggest intelligence threat.

Yet Russia is fuming. “Swedish membership in NATO would have politico-military and foreign policy consequences, and would require retaliatory measures from Russia,” the foreign ministry said. Sweden—run by a red-green coalition government which does not actually want to join NATO—complained sharply.

In Finland, the other non-NATO country in the region, people are looking on with interest mixed with concern. They do not want to be caught by surprise, as they were in 1990 when Sweden suddenly declared that it wanted to join the European Union.

The NATO debate is moving faster in Sweden than in Finland. Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto recently downplayed the idea that his country could defend its Baltic neighbors, arguing: ”Finland is not in a position where it could offer others security guarantees which we ourselves don't even have.”

Strictly speaking, this is not true. Finland is an EU member, and therefore benefits from the “solidarity clause” of the Lisbon Treaty, which states:

“If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter on self-defense.”

This means that if Finland is attacked, other EU countries are obliged to come to its aid. It also means that if the Baltic states are attacked, Finland has the same duty towards them.

Mr Niinisto’s remarks were taken as a snub to the pro-NATO lobby. But they could be interpreted another way: he is warning Finns that they are in a dangerous neighborhood and that staying out of regional security has disadvantages; implicitly, he is also saying that joining in has benefits.

As I recently argued at an Atlantic Council event in Helsinki, the debate about NATO is secondary and even self-indulgent right now. The twists and turns of diplomatic process and political procedure will not solve the immediate and urgent problems the region faces. Almost every day, Russian warplanes fly dangerously through civilian air-traffic corridors, with their transponders switched off. On several occasions we have been just a few seconds away from catastrophe.

An interesting proposal on this by the European Leadership Network, a think-tank in London, deserves the full support of all the countries in the region. It advocates a special regime for air safety, applying conventions developed during the cold war, and for the airspace off the coast of China. Regardless of their stance on NATO, Finland and Sweden have every interest in securing the airspace over the Baltic Sea. And if Russia does not cooperate, they have every interest in applying collective pressure to make sure it does.

The scope for such practical collaboration is huge (intelligence sharing, joint procurement of military equipment, exercises, tackling organized crime, etc). The stronger regional security cooperation becomes, the less danger the region will face from Russia. That would make NATO membership less controversial, and perhaps even less necessary.

Edward Lucas writes for the Economist. He is director of the Baltic Sea security program at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank in Warsaw and Washington, DC