To Join or Not to JoinMay 6, 2016 in Europe
The last year certainly seen an increase of military activity in Eastern Europe. Both Russian military exercises, and joint NATO military exercises have been carried out in different places. On top of exercises, NATO continues to boost its military bases and troop presence in the eastern allies. The latest such addition is a new deployment of four battalions of 4,000 troops in Poland and the three Baltic States. From the Russian perspective the NATO build-up is an aggression in itself, something Moscow officials are not too happy about. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has explained that Russian manoeuvres are only close to NATO borders because NATO has let its border creep closer and closer to Russia. Previously Russia has accused NATO of using the situation in Ukraine as an excuse to move closer to Russian borders. From the US perspective, additional presence will increase US ability to conduct military exercises in the region. The Pentagon has announced plans to quadruple its budget for European defence in 2017. Russian aggression isn’t increasing in Easter Europe alone, but the Baltic Sea has seen a fair share of it as well. Russia’s more direct neighbours, the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland, are concerned about what recent developments mean for their security. This has, among other things, led the Swedish military to revive an old military outpost on the Baltic island of Gotland, where a battlegroup is to be fully set up by the end of 2017. The Baltic Sea tension doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Cold War realities, but it causes a certain nervous atmosphere. Sweden and Finland are not member states of NATO, but debates have been going on in both countries, with Russia behaving in an increasingly aggressive and provocative manner. The Swedish defence minister is concerned with what is unknown. It is one thing to see what the Russians are doing, and quite another to know what it all means. An unprovoked attack on Sweden is certainly unlikely, but Moscow seems increasingly unpredictable. This has prompted a larger defence budget and a shift of focus to regional security after 20 year of focus on international operations. It has also fuelled the debate about NATO membership. According to polls, almost half the population favour a membership, with a slightly smaller number being opposed. The military’s ability to defend Swedish territory has been poor for a long time, but the Swedes have seemingly not cared too much about this, until recently. For Sweden it is a question of whether the long tradition of non-alliance can be set aside, and whether or not the alternative is better. It is the opinion of many that the country has been free-riding for too long, feeling safe because of its close cooperation with NATO, but feeling free without its obligations. If the Swedes are fed up of letting the security of Swedish territory depend on other states’ ability to deter the Russians, perhaps a NATO membership will be realised. Military chiefs are still embarrassed by the 2013 Easter incident, when Russian planes carried out a simulated attack on Stockholm, and the Swedish air force failed to scramble any of its jets, relying on jets from NATO’s quick reaction alert, deployed from Lithuania. In Finland, pressure to join NATO or find other ways of securing the nation’s borders has grown over the past several years, but recent polls show that roughly half the population would be opposed to the country joining NATO, with just 22 percent saying they would support it. Russia has made claims over the waters in the region, and last year they finalised the set-up of a military base in the Arctic. However, Finland has not been attacked by its neighbour since WWII, and both political and trade relations between the two have long been stable and prosperous. NATO has remained open to the idea of Finnish membership, but Helsinki has been reluctant, and has contented itself with close cooperation with the alliance, bearing in mind though that if Sweden was to join it would leave Finland even more exposed. However, the other way around – Finland alone joining, but Sweden staying out – would create an awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial contact with NATO, experts have said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Sweden in an interview with Swedish media, that technical-military measures will be deployed as a reaction, should any military infrastructure draw too close to Russia’s borders. Finland and Sweden must be ready to apply for NATO membership should it be absolutely necessary. For now there is a promise between the two to not surprise one another with a sudden membership. A membership would be a provocation. The question is whether the advantages of a membership could outweigh the negative aspects of such a risk.