Analysis | Seven to one: The impact of Finnish and Swedish NATO membership on Arctic security

Iris Thatcher

Finland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto, Türkiye’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson, and Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ann Linde gather at the NATO Madrid Summit on June 28, 2022, to mark the agreement on Finland and Sweden’s accession to the alliance.
Left to right: Finland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto, Türkiye’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson, and Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ann Linde gather at the NATO Madrid Summit on June 28, 2022, to mark the agreement on Finland and Sweden’s accession to the alliance. (Image: NATO on Flickr)

On June 29, 2022, NATO Heads of State and Government extended a formal invitation for Finland and Sweden to join the alliance. Both countries are undergoing a fast-track process for membership, and by the end of July, two-thirds of all NATO allies already ratified Finland and Sweden’s accession protocols. The two Nordic countries will equip the alliance with greater capabilities to address Chinese and Russian influence in the Arctic and in the Euro-Atlantic. However, once Finland and Sweden join the alliance, Russia will become the only non-NATO member in the Arctic, raising the region’s perception of military and economic vulnerability. In addition, as the Arctic’s natural resources become more accessible due to climate change, countries will likely move to secure their military and economic positions relative to each other. These trends increase the risk of conflict — and, without functional forums for regional cooperation, they threaten to unravel thirty years of peace in the region after the Cold War.

Both Finland and Sweden bring strong military capabilities to the alliance. Finland spends more than two percent of its GDP on defense spending, and Sweden is on track for reaching two percent by 2028. They have been close partners to NATO through the Partnership for Peace program and are active in bolstering Nordic security through Nordic Defence Cooperation as well as bilateral frameworks, especially after the events in Crimea in 2014. Finland and Sweden have secure cellular technologies for 5G enablement and have been successful in combating cybersecurity threats and disinformation — both from Russia and China. Moreover, Finland has a steady flow of ground troops from its mandatory conscription, and Sweden has military assets in the sea and air, including Gripen fighter planes, patrol boats, and submarines.

Further, their membership will help NATO develop a strategy for the Arctic. Until now, NATO has largely avoided engagement in the far north, despite the rise of Russian and Chinese activity. Some reasons that explain this include the sheer diversity of member state interest in executing a coherent NATO strategy for the Arctic and the absence of an explicit military threat within the region. Norway has brought an Arctic dimension to the alliance, hosting a NATO exercise in its Arctic territory from March to April 2022 with 30,000 troops. These exercises are regular, but the one earlier this year brought echoes of the Cold War following Ukraine, suggesting that NATO will shift its focus in the future toward the Arctic.

In addition, Finland is one of the leading producers of icebreakers globally, and the Swedish navy is aptly prepared to navigate the Arctic climate. These capabilities are augmented by their Arctic expertise. Both are aware of how soft policy issues and cross-border collaboration affect the Arctic — whether through their joint participation in the Northern Dimension, a platform for cooperation on environmental, health, transport, and cultural policy; national collaboration with Indigenous populations; startup development; and net-zero ambitions that impact the Arctic ecosystem. Ensuring that human rights, climate, and economic security in this region can be incorporated into contingency planning will be key to offset the threat of Russian and Chinese activities — and likely heightened hostility — in the Arctic.

Effective contingency planning is important because climate change in the Arctic creates new geographic spaces for countries to conduct military exercises and extract natural resources. The Arctic is warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world, causing rapid sea ice and permafrost melt. Compared to the seven other Arctic states — Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Canada, and the United States — Russia’s northern border covers over half of the Arctic coastline. Russia and China have capitalized on climate change by developing the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s northern coastline, constructing new ports for economic and military activities, and extracting liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the Russian Arctic. Further, China has been developing its own icebreakers in the region to execute a “Polar Silk Road” along the Northern Sea Route. Growth in Arctic development has raised red flags for the United States and its like-minded allies. As former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted in 2019, the Arctic is an “arena of global power and competition.”

Finland’s membership, in particular, will also move the alliance’s border further north and closer to the Murmansk military base on the Kola Peninsula, where Russia holds its Northern Fleet, nuclear submarines, and key Arctic military assets. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russia has actively been improving its military capabilities in the Kola Peninsula, the “centerpiece” of its presence in the western Arctic. Keeping this in mind, the expansion of NATO could lead to retaliation from Russia. President Vladimir Putin has threatened that there will be “serious political and military consequences’’ once Finland and Sweden join the alliance. For example, a rise in NATO and Russian activity in the Arctic/sub-Arctic region will likely turn the border between Finland and Russia into a “militarized zone.”

The risk of military and economic conflict rises with the recent suspension of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum in which participating states and groups have worked to advance scientific cooperation in the region since 1996. The council excludes military issues from its mandate, and its decisions are non-binding, allowing for cross-national work on key Arctic issues, such as black carbon, search and rescue, and Indigenous rights. The council represented a stable form of dialogue between Arctic states, and it sustained their mutual engagement even after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, the future of Arctic diplomacy is unclear in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The suspension of Arctic Council activities after the invasion, compounded with Finnish and Swedish application for alliance membership, will create a new security environment, one where Russia is the only non-NATO Arctic country. Russia will consequently be outnumbered seven to one in the council. Prior to their applications, Finland and Sweden played a key role in “mediating compromise” within Arctic affairs. Now, as a result of the council’s suspension, Russia will no longer be able to participate in Arctic dialogues.

Soon, Finland and Sweden will officially join NATO, a groundbreaking transformation that will complement the alliance’s strengths. The geopolitical and geostrategic implications of their accession will alter how Russia and the remaining seven Arctic states approach security, climate, research, and economic activities in the region. Further, the sustained peace, long supported by the Arctic Council, might give way to military conflict in the future. However, all this uncertainty is an opportunity for NATO to unify its approach to the Arctic, protecting a vulnerable region from growing competition.

Iris Thatcher is a graduate of the M.A. in German and European Studies program at Georgetown University. Throughout the past year, she has interned with the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute. Her research focuses on Arctic security, including Finland and Sweden’s present and historical foreign policies as well as the European Union’s role in facilitating cross-border cooperation through the Northern Dimension program.

Read more from ISD on Arctic geopolitics:

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