by Austin Bay
July 11, 2018
Russia's heinous 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea continues to spur military responses in Free Europe.
This week, Finland's and Sweden's defense ministers signed a defense agreement covering operations in war time as well as peace time training and crisis preparation.
Since Moscow's Crimean caper, closer defense cooperation to the point of military alliance has been the trend in Europe's Nordic region.
In early May, Finland and Sweden signed a non-binding trilateral agreement with the U.S. The three agreed to increase security coordination, to conduct more joint military exercises and to coordinate "strategic communications" among the countries. Finland agreed to host a major exercise in 2021for Finnish, Swedish and American forces. Was that designed to get Russia's attention? Absolutely.
Though Finland and Sweden already have individual bilateral defense agreements with the U.S., the non-binding May 2018 agreement riled loud and vituperative neutralists in both nations. Somehow the open, three-way, non-binding arrangement among three democracies violates Swedish and Finnish sovereignty.
I think even a few members of the American left now agree Russia encourages and colludes with angry political actors in democracies to undermine their wills to defend themselves.
That noted, Russia's evident blood-spilling aggression in Ukraine has led more than a few habitually neutral Swedes to voice an interest in joining NATO. The Baltic Times reported a recent poll indicated 43 percent of Sweden's population favor joining NATO, 37 percent oppose the move and 20 percent haven't decided. Sweden's September 2019 elections and Finland's April 2019 vote should give us a very accurate poll.
In November 2017, a senior Norwegian defense official, Commodore Hans Helseth, told NATO's Berlin Security Conference that Finnish and Swedish military ties with NATO have lowered "the threshold of an armed aggression against the two countries...for moral reasons and other reasons (NATO has) to come to the two countries' assistance." In Helseth's opinion, Moscow's annexation of Crimea, its "support of violence" in eastern Ukraine and "unfriendly" cyber attacks have fundamentally changed European military relationships.
Helseth can document his point. In 2017 Moscow told Finland that it would bolster its forces on the Finnish border if Finland joined NATO.
NATO members Denmark, Norway and Iceland already cooperate with Finland and Sweden. In December 2009, the five nations established the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) group in order to share defense training and procurement expenses.
As Russian aggression escalated, NORDEFCO hardened. Its members now share "air surveillance information" and permit cross-border air defense training in peacetime -- a small step from air defense operations. Collaboration in a "crisis" comes next.
NORDEFCO's public stance actually recognizes tacit understandings (my word) among the Nordics. For years Denmark has provided Finland and Sweden with air defense data. Denmark and Sweden have coordinated Baltic air interception operations.
Russia's 2015 feigned air attack on the Danish island of Bornholm shows why. Located in the eastern Baltic Sea south of Sweden, Bornholm served as a major electronic intelligence outpost during the Cold War. The Bornholm faux-attack reprised Soviet Cold War "tests" of Danish defenses and is but one of a score of serious Kremlin military probes since 2008.
Americans may wonder if Nordic neutrals have the will to fight. Finland's 1940 Winter War and World War 2 battle against Stalinist Russia is a strong indication that the Finns are fierce. And the Finns are modernizing their forces.
In early June 2018, Sweden held a nationwide, unannounced mobilization of its Home Guard -- the first big drill since 1975. The scenario: a Russian surprise attack on the Swedish island of Gotland. Around 19,000 regular and reserve soldiers also participated in the test. According to StrategyPage.com, the Swedish Home Guard "consists of reservists...whose job is local defense and maintenance of order in a national or local emergency." The mobilization gave the defense ministry a close look at Home Guard capabilities.
The exercise sent this political message to Moscow and for that matter, Washington: we are preparing to fight.