Finland and Sweden offer NATO an advantage as rivalry intensifies in the north

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first surprise for Finnish recruits and officers participating in a NATO-organized military exercise in the Arctic this spring: the sudden roar of a U.S. Navy helicopter assault force landing. in a field right next to the Finns’ well-hidden command post.

The second surprise: Coming out of their field headquarters, Finnish Signal Corps communications workers and others inside defeated the US Marines, the Finns’ designated adversary in the NATO exercise, and members of America’s premier professional expeditionary force, in the simulated firefight that followed. .

Finnish camouflage for arctic snow, brush and scree likely prevented the Americans from realizing the command post was there when they landed, the Finnish commander, Lt. Col. Mikko Kuoka, suspected. “For those who will doubt it a few years from now,” Kuoka, modestly surprised by the outcome of the random skirmish, wrote in an infantry-focused blog recording the outcome of an episode that he later confirmed to The Associated Press. “That really happened.”

As the exercise made clear, the addition of Finland and Sweden by NATO… what President Joe Biden calls “our allies from the high north” —would bring military and territorial advantages to the Western defense alliance. That is especially so as the rapid arctic melting of climate change sparks strategic rivalries at the top of the world.

In contrast to NATO’s expansion of former Soviet states that needed big boosts in the decades after the Cold War, the alliance would bring two sophisticated armies and, in the case of Finland, a country with a remarkable tradition of national defense. Both Finland and Sweden are in a region on one of Europe’s front lines and meeting places with Russia.

Fending off invasion by Soviet Russia on the eve of World War II, Finland relied on snowshoe and ski fighters, snow and forest camouflage experts, and weapon-carrying reindeer.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin in late February, coupled with his scathing reminder of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal and his repeated invocation of sweeping territorial claims stemming from the days of the Russian Empire, have prompted current NATO nations to strengthen their collective defenses and bring new members on board.

Finland, until 1917 a grand duchy in that empire, and Sweden abandoned the old national policies of military non-alignment. They asked to come under NATO’s conventional and nuclear umbrella and join what are now 30 other member states in a powerful mutual defense pact, stipulating that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Putin justified his invasion of Western-looking Ukraine as a pushback against NATO and the West, as, he said, they were increasingly encroaching on Russia. A NATO that includes Finland and Sweden would come as a final rebuke to Putin’s war, strengthening the defensive alliance in a strategically important region, encircling Russia in the Baltic Sea and Arctic Ocean, and piling NATO against the western border. from Russia for more than 800 additional kilometers. miles (1,300 kilometers).

“I spent four years, my term, trying to persuade Sweden and Finland to join NATO,” former NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said this summer. “Vladimir Putin did it in four weeks.”

Biden has been part of the US and international bipartisan cheerleading for the two countries’ candidacies. The reservations expressed by Turkey and Hungary prevent NATO’s approval from being a blockade.

In recent years, Russia has been “rearming in the north, with advanced nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles and multiple bases,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this month. ‘The threats from Russia and Russia’s military build-up mean that NATO is strengthening its presence in the north.’

Finland and Sweden would add a lot to that mix. But they are not without flaws.

Both countries reduced the size of their armies, cut defense funding and closed bases after the collapse of the Soviet Union calmed Cold War-era fears. Only five years ago, Sweden’s entire tiny national defense force could fit into one of Stockholm’s football stadiumsnoted one reviewer.

But as Putin grew more confrontational, Sweden reinstated conscription and moved to rebuild its army. Sweden has a capable navy and a high-tech air force. Like Finland, Sweden has a valuable local defense industry; Sweden is one of the smallest countries in the world to build its own fighter jets.

Meanwhile, Finland’s defense force is the stuff of legend.

In 1939 and 1940, Finland’s tiny, poorly equipped forces fought alone in what became known as the Winter War, making the nation one of the few to survive an all-out attack by the Soviet Union with the intact independence. Over the course of an exceptionally cold winter, Finnish fighters, sometimes wrapped in white sheets for camouflage and moving normally on foot, snowshoes and skis, lost some territory to Russia but drove the invaders back.

The Finns were responsible for up to 200,000 deaths among the invading forces against an estimated loss of 25,000 Finns, Iskander Rehman toldFellow of the Johns Hopkins Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Issues.

It helped fuel a Finnish national creed of “sisu” or determination. Veterans of the Finnish Winter War were recruited for the US Army’s winter warfare training, Rehman noted.

Finland’s constitution makes joining the national defense an obligation for all citizens. Finland says it can muster a 280,000-strong fighting force, based on almost universal male recruitment and a large, well-trained reserve equipped with modern artillery, fighter jets and tanks, much of it American.

The US and NATO are likely to increase their presence in the Baltic and Arctic with the accession of the two Scandinavian countries.

“Just looking at the map, if you add Finland and Sweden, you essentially turn the entire Baltic Sea into a NATO lake,” with only two smaller parts of Russia lining it up, said Zachary Selden, a former head of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly. defense and security committee who is now a national security expert from the University of Florida.

Russia will also become the only non-NATO member among countries with claims to Arctic territory, and the only non-NATO member of the Atlantic Council, an eight-member international forum created for Arctic-related issues.

Selden predicts a larger NATO presence in the Baltic as a result, perhaps with a new NATO regional command, along with US military rotations, though probably not a permanent base.

Russia sees its military presence in the Arctic as vital to its European strategy, including ballistic missile submarines that give it second-strike capability in any conflict with NATO, analysts say.

The Arctic is warming much faster due to climate change than the Earth as a whole, opening up competition for resources and access to the Arctic as Arctic ice disappears.

Russia has been building up its fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, with the goal of escorting expected commercial shipping traffic through the melting Arctic, “as a way to create this toll road for transit,” said Sherri Goodman, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, now at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and the Center for Climate and Security.

Goodman points to future threats NATO will need to be able to deal with as the melting Arctic opens up, such as the kind of shadowy, unofficial forces Russia has used in Crimea, in Africa and elsewhere, and the increased risk of a difficult conflict to control. -Handling Russian nuclear maritime accident.

NATO’s strategy will increasingly incorporate the strategic advantage that Finland and Sweden would bring to such scenarios, the analysts said.

Kuoka’s U.S. counterpart at NATO’s Arctic exercise this spring, Navy Lt. Col. Ryan Gordinier, wrote in an email provided through Navy spokesmen that he and his Marines were “impressed” by the Finnish infantry’s ability to reach positions otherwise unreachable on foot, snowshoe and skiing. , and move undetected on the snow.

“It made us stop,” and probably would any real adversary, Gordinier wrote.


Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.