An international Corps of Marines from Sweden, Finland, and the U.K. conduct amphibious assaults on a beachhead in Ravlunda, Sweden, during NATO's BALTOPS exercise in 2015.

An international Corps of Marines from Sweden, Finland, and the U.K. conduct amphibious assaults on a beachhead in Ravlunda, Sweden, during NATO's BALTOPS exercise in 2015. US Marine Corps / Sgt. Tatum Vayavananda

Stop Making a Big Deal of NATO’s Next Members

Moscow wants to pretend that admitting Sweden and Finland would represent a far larger military change than it actually is.

Sweden and Finland’s prospective NATO accession is politically big news – but militarily less so. After years of cohabitation with the alliance, these two Nordic countries are, one might say, finally putting a ring on the relationship. Labeling it a monumental change aids Moscow’s narrative that it’s under threat from the alliance.

Back in 2016, the Finnish government report concluded that “Finland, like Sweden, stands as close to the Atlantic treaty association as is possible for a country that is not a member and is thus reaching a plateau. On a military and diplomatic level, this convergence has in turn led to a considerable degree of interoperability between Finland and NATO. The practical problems that would still need to be solved if Finland becomes a member of NATO are rather limited.” 

Seven years later, there’s practically nothing left to integrate short of becoming a full-fledged members. “Finland has been integrating with NATO for basically 30 years,” Finland’s ambassador, Mikko Hautala, told Fox News this week.

Both countries have for years been adjusting their military equipment to that of NATO—perhaps never so dramatically as in February, when Finland chose to upgrade its fighter-jet fleet by ordering 64 Lockheed Martin F-35s. The acquisition puts Finland in the company of not just the US military but of other friends as well, Britain, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Poland among them.

Swedish and Finnish officials and officers regularly participate in NATO meetings and receive intelligence (on an as-needed basis), and their armed forces join NATO exercises such as Cold Response 2022, which took place in Norway earlier this year. The two countries also have extraordinarily close cooperation with individual NATO member states. Earlier this month, for example, the UK-Joint Expeditionary Force, to which they both belong, conducted an exercise in Finland. 

“Sweden and Finland are already NATO’s closest partners,” said Pål Jonson, the chairman of the Swedish Parliament’s defense committee. “Our armed forces exercise regularly with NATO and we have participated in most of NATO’s recent international missions. Some even argue that we are even more interoperable with NATO than some of the alliance’s existing members.” And, Jonson noted, “we have also Enhanced Opportunity Partnership status and coordinate some defense planning within the framework of NATO’s Modalities for Strengthened Interaction (MSI).” This partnership is NATO’s tailor-made interoperability program for especially close partners. Apart from Finland and Sweden, it only has four members: Australia, Georgia, Jordan, and Ukraine.

All this has been no secret to Moscow. Indeed, given the enormous transparency with which Sweden, Finland, and NATO operate, it has been no secret to anyone with even the slightest interest in national security. It has also been a convenient way for the governments of Sweden and Finland to enhance their countries’ national security without the need for a divisive NATO debate and the risk of antagonizing Russia. 

But by merely cohabiting with NATO, Sweden and Finland have also put themselves in the untenable position of having publicly cast their lot while enjoying no guarantees. That, of course, increased their vulnerability to Russian aggression. Now they’ve all but decided it’s time to put a ring on the relationship. This will bring the two countries under NATO’s nuclear umbrella, but even this isn’t a major change, given their current position on the alliance’s doorstep. 

True to form, though, Moscow is labelling the prospective accession a threat to its existence. On May 12, as Finland’s president and prime minister had just announced they supported NATO membership for Finland, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared Finland's bid “hostile move” and a threat to Russia’s security.

Unfortunately, Russian officials have countless unwitting helpers among the Western commentariat. Excited about the prospect of Sweden and Finland as members of NATO, they outdo themselves in highlighting the astonishing/revolutionary/extraordinary/radical nature of the two countries’ change of mind. That, of course, helps the Kremlin portray the Nordic siblings’ accession-to-be as a radical step, when in reality it’s simply the final step on a long relationship journey. 

Boring as it sounds, militarily speaking Sweden and Finland joining NATO is not a big deal. Russia, ever in search of more victimization tales, is eager to present it as such. Let’s not help it spin such a tale.