HELSINKI — The hurdles facing Sweden’s accession to NATO have delayed talks to elevate Nordic defense cooperation to something of a self-enclosed cluster of nations within the alliance.
Nordic governments, working on the basis that Finland and Sweden would have both secured membership approval ahead of NATO’s summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11, now face the possibility that the political landscape in Turkey might continue to thwart Sweden’s accession ambitions.
Following the reelection of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in late May, U.S. leaders have increased the pressure on Ankara to lift its blockade against Stockholm’s accession.
“We’ll be better off when the process is finalized,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Sweden, The Washington Post reported on May 31. “And so we urge both [Turkey] and Hungary, who also has not yet ratified, to ratify their accession as quickly as possible.”
U.S. President Joe Biden has made the issue a priority ahead of the NATO summit next month, telling reporters additional discussions between him and Erdoğan were to follow in early June.
Leading Nordic politicians, including former Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist, have raised concerns that approval of Sweden’s entry to NATO could be postponed until April 2024 when the United States hosts the 75th anniversary of the alliance in Washington.
Finland, which had initially vowed to join NATO at the same time as Sweden, became a member in April.
Hultqvist’s Social Democratic Party has criticized Sweden’s center-right government for lacking a fallback position should Sweden fail in its mission to join in July.
“What is needed as a plan B is broader Nordic cooperation to ensure Sweden’s security going forward if entry to NATO is delayed. If this is to be a joint project for Sweden, the government must sit down and engage with parties. It must talk plainly about what they are doing to ensure accession to NATO,” Hultqvist said.
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s administration has so far declined to present an alternative course of action.
Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to block Sweden’s accession to NATO, accusing the Nordic state of refusing to extradite suspected Kurdish militants to Turkey. Erdoğan also labeled Sweden a “country soft on dealing with terrorism.”
The worst-case scenario for Sweden was a victory for Erdoğan that leads to Turkey digging in its heels.
Nordic governments had hoped to convene separate meetings between national defense ministers and military chiefs in the wake of the Vilnius summit. The proposed gatherings would carry the historic importance of being the first between four Nordic NATO states, serving as platforms to build a more unified defense bridge previously impossible given Finland’s and Sweden’s neutral status.
A Nordic region in NATO has serious implications for cross-border, collaborative military organizations like Nordic Defence Cooperation, or NORDEFCO.
Hultqvist views that forum as having the capability to quickly expand its role, especially if Sweden is left waiting.
“The basis for strong Nordic cooperation already exists within the framework of NORDEFCO where there are different agreements between the countries,” he said. “This level of cooperation can be developed and deepened considerably.”
By contrast, Finland’s placement within NATO is expected to take shape in the coming months. The government anticipates it will fall under the Allied Joint Force Command’s headquarters in Brunssum, Netherlands. The command is responsible for NATO’s defense in Europe north of the Alps, an operational region that also covers the NATO-policed Baltic states and Baltic Sea area.
“It may take some time before final answers are found on the issue of placement,” Finnish Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen said. “Long-term solutions are still open. Finland has so far done business with Brunssum, as we have expected all along. Norfolk is not yet fully operational. Longer-term solutions will fall into place in due course.”
Norfolk, Virginia, houses a sizable NATO headquarters contingent, including the alliance’s Allied Command Transformation, a clearinghouse for next-generation technologies and warfare concepts to which all members contribute staff. An operational element, Joint Force Command Norfolk, also opened there in 2020.
Future talks to deepen defense collaboration in the High North may depend on the collective long-term desire by Nordic governments to fall under the latter structure, as opposed to the Europe-based command.
Norway and Denmark have indicated their preference to be part of Joint Force Command Norfolk, while Finland and Sweden concur, viewing a unified Nordic approach as fundamental to building a robust defense capability that maximizes the pooling of Nordic air, land and naval resources.
The potential for asset pooling is greatest in the area of air defense. Collectively, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have 200-280 modern fighters — existing and on order — including Saab JAS 39 Gripens and F-35 aircraft types.
A solid Nordic defense capability offers a powerful deterrent to hostile forces in the High North, said Knut Storberget, chair of the Norwegian Defence Commission. That organization delivered a report critical of Norway’s defense spending and capabilities to the Defence Ministry on May 3.
The report advocated the establishment of a “united Nordic region in NATO” to counter potential future aggression by Russia. The panel recommended a dramatic and immediate one-off payment of $6.4 billion to top up the Norwegian defense budget for 2023.
Norway will spend 1.43% of its gross domestic product on defense in 2023, short of NATO’s 2% target. The government is committed to meeting the 2% target by 2026.
Russia regards NATO expansion to Sweden and Finland as a regional threat, said Storberget, who described the relationship between Nordic states and Moscow as having “changed forever” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“The new tensions has consequences for Norway and all nations in the High North,” Storberget said. “We are in a new security policy situation where defense capabilities do not correspond to the security situation we find ourselves in, and far less to the challenge picture that is being developed. Greater long-termism, predictability and unifying political solutions are needed.”
Gerard O'Dwyer is the Scandinavian affairs correspondent for Defense News.