Security policy and the threat debate: A comparison of Sweden and Finland

In February’s edition of the Monthly Policy Review, Mundus wrote about Folk and Försvar conference. The security environment has changed and Sweden is now raising defence budgets and increasing military capabilities. Russian aggressions and increased tensions in the Baltic Sea region have changed the attitude towards defence and security. Following the neutrality during the Cold War Sweden has together with the neighbouring Finland remained militarily non-aligned until today while both have taken steps to deepening their cooperation with NATO. However, when it comes to the current debate about threats to the state, Sweden’s debate appears as much more intensive – and at times even alarmist, whereas in Finland tone appears calmer. This article explores underlying reasons behind the different responses.

Debate culture and communication with Russia

The Moscow correspondent for both the Swedish Dagens Nyheter and Helsinki based Hufvudstadsbladet, a Finn, Anna-Lena Laurén, remarked about Swedish and Finnish reactions to developments in Russia: “The Swedes are more worked-up than worried, whereas the Finns are more worried than worked-up about Russia.” But Sweden and Finland’s analysis of developments in Russia are hardly that different when it comes to the matter itself. One explanation to the differing reactions is the difference in the debate culture. Finns tend to de-dramatise, while high-pitched tones are not alien in the Swedish discussion, says René Nyberg, a former senior Finnish diplomat. The differences in the debate climate play a role as political cultures differ. One could argue that Partisan lines are more marked in Sweden than in Finland, and perhaps especially when it comes to security policy. There is traditionally a consensus on foreign and security policy discussion in Finland. The difference in Sweden has perhaps been most visible in the NATO debate in the run up to the election, with the question being strongly party-political.

Although the analysis of developments in the East is similar in Sweden and Finland, the policy towards Moscow is not always the same. Sweden’s political contacts with Russia are considerably fewer than Finland and have not been at the highest political level for several years. At least part of the reason is the loud voice Sweden uses when speaking about Putin’s policy. The Swedes tend to be among the most outspoken critics in the EU along with the Baltic States and Poland when it comes to Russia.

The fact that Finland has a very long border of 1,340 kilometres with Russia and strong economic ties has meant that there is an unavoidable need for dialogue. The connections for discussion have been maintained at all levels, including Presidents Sauli Niinistö and Vladimir Putin, while Finland as an EU country has at the same time been applying EU sanctions against Russia. The position along the border is governed by a stable regime that has been built over a long period and does not seem to have been affected by the political changes in Moscow. Top officials from the Finnish government say the secret for any small country bordering Russia is to find a way to stand up to Russian provocations without provoking it in return, striving to find a balance between practical considerations and value-based positions. Helsinki has faced accusations that such a policy amounts to appeasement, but Finnish officials prefer to say it’s simply good sense. When the Finnish President Sauli Niinisto invited Vladimir Putin to his residence, it prompted bewilderment among the Swedes. Deputy Chairman of the Swedish Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs Karin Enström said that Sweden would not be prepared to host Putin. The Finnish president replied: “The situation might be difficult to explain, nevertheless, I recommend that you imagine that Norway is Russia” – bearing in mind the long, common border.

While a strict tone towards Russia is widely supported by the political class, there are also voices in Sweden that criticise the Government for the lack of communication between Stockholm and Moscow, such as the Former Minister and UN Ambassador, Pierre Schori (S) who asks in Aftonbladet ” why do we not have a continuous serious security policy dialogue with Russia like we had during the Cold War when the Soviet Union occupied half of Europe?” At the same time as there is an increased security threat against Sweden from Vladimir Putin, according to parliamentary protocols and bourgeois editorial pages, the contact between Stockholm and Moscow is minimal. The critics say that Sweden needs to invest in dialogue to prevent misunderstandings and thereby decrease conflict risk, and claim that the current policy is a dangerous. In February last year when presenting the Swedish government’s annual foreign policy statement, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström spoke of the need to maintain a political dialogue with Russia and met her counterpart Lavrov in spring.
Prime Minister Juha Sipilä explains that dialogue has always been key to maintaining stability, even if Russia’s actions cause concern. Therefore, Finland is prepared to communicate with whomever holds the keys to the Kremlin. In Finland, defence and foreign policy are closely intertwined. The President, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister call the shots in this regard, saying that national interests related to Russia do not pertain merely to defence. Hence, Helsinki tends to give short shrift to Moscow’s rhetoric; opting instead to pay heed to actual levels of aggression.

One month ago the Finns re-elected their popular president Sauli Niinistö in the first round with exceptionally high support of 62.7%. Niinistö is credited with maintaining a balanced relationship with Russia at a time of simmering relations between Moscow and the West. ”Niinistö took an active role in meeting Russian leaders and other politicians, which shows that people appreciate this leadership,” Tapio Raunio, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Tampere, told AFP. In foreign policy, the President has a strong position and Finns are used to seeing the President as guarantor of national security and survival. After an overwhelming election victory, Niinistö’s word weighs heavily. His view is that Russia is not a threat to Finland. Niinistö has been careful in his wording and give no definitive message about his NATO ambitions. Currently, Finnish NATO membership is not on the agenda, but this could change should the circumstances change. Should Russia begin to perceive the whole West as an enemy, Finland would also be perceived as an enemy, and in such a situation, Finland might be required to reconsider its policy to military non-alignment and its relationship with NATO. The proportion of Finns who see Russia’s development as a threat to Finland is in the recent poll 39%. This is significantly less than in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea and the war in Ukraine began, when more than half believed that Russia posed a threat to Finland.

Different historical background and doctrine of neutrality

In order to understand the different ways of handling Russia we have to look at the history and political doctrines of the two non-aligned Nordic countries. Their background and strategic situations are very different and they came to draw completely different conclusions from their WWII experiences. Finland concluded that foreign assistance could never be taken for granted. Sweden drew the conclusion that neutrality was possible, but that it required pragmatism. During the Cold War, Finland and Sweden exercised different practices of neutrality. Since the end of the Cold War there has periodically been a lively debate on whether Finland and Sweden should join the defence alliance or not. Some say that during the Cold War, NATO was a taboo subject in Finland. During the Cold War, Swedish politicians talked publicly about neutrality, although a small inner-circle of Swedish officials had made secret arrangements with some NATO countries, most notably the US and UK, in case of military crisis.

  • Idealism and secret security negotiations

The emerging security doctrine in Sweden was non-alignment in peace for the purpose of neutrality in war, and its utility ultimately rested on the respect of the superpowers for Sweden’s non-involvement in the event of conflict, explains Magnus Christiansson, former lecturer at the Defence University in Stockholm. However, as the tension between East and West increased during the Cold War, northern Europe became more interesting as a strategic flank in a potential superpower confrontation, which created strategic pressure for a double policy. While the idea of neutrality was publicly praised as a doctrine, a number of secret military initiatives were taking place under the surface, in contradiction to the official policy of neutrality, as Sweden was looking to guarantee survival in case of Soviet aggression. On a rhetorical level, Sweden could decide for itself what its security policy entailed, whereas the power realities of the Cold War completely ignored this possibility. Following EU membership in 1995, policy was adjusted to military non-alignment. According to Christiansson, the basic components of the double policy have remained, as to this day, in the Swedish debate there is significant difference between military non-alignment and neutrality. An example is, Sweden’s declaration of solidarity with the Nordic countries, a policy built on expectations of mutual help among the countries, which could mean that in practice Sweden supported its neighbours militarily in the event of Russian aggression.

Swedish neutrality is born out of historical developments – a choice of convenience. Part of the doctrine was to exercise an ’independent voice’ in world affairs and with emphasised reliance on the UN, which is still a very dominant organisation both in politics and in the minds of the population at large. Its independent foreign policy is underpinned by two assumptions: that small states may form and influence the international system, and that they can broker deals and find solutions to conflicts in international politics.

It is said that under the current Social Democrat government, there are two ministries with separate agendas. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs exercises the Swedish ”independent voice” in world affairs, the Ministry of Defence represents the realist school developing close cooperation with Western powers that could prove useful in the event of war. The historical background of this double policy is fundamental to understanding Sweden’s current politics. It is challenging to combine these roles. When Sweden recognised Palestine as a state in 2014, Israeli officials refused to meet with Wallström in 2015. Wallström has been critical of Russia on human rights issues. Last Spring, Wallström summoned Russia’s ambassador for the systematic persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya and wrote a letter to Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, together with the Foreign Ministers of Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini did not sign. Furthermore, after Sweden had voted in favour of the nuclear ban treaty, there was clear diplomatic signalling from several NATO countries regarding possible negative consequences for the partnership. After the US Secretary of Defence, John Mattis contacted Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish government quickly beat a retreat, saying that the question would be examined. The opposition argues that nothing can illustrate the paradox in the current security policy more clearly than: ”on the one hand, Sweden does not need to join NATO because we can rely on the United States (Hultqvist) and, on the other hand, that Sweden will not join NATO because the United States is the dominant member (Wallström)”.

  • Neutrality with good relations to its eastern neighbour

The calmer climate for discussion in Finland can be explained by geography and history. Finland has a far more complicated history with Russia (the Soviet Union), and its neutrality is considered a stance forced upon it by history. Finland shares a very long border with Russia, and fought two wars against the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century: the Winter War (1939) and the Continuation War (1941-1944). Finland maintained its independence but the peace agreement imposed limitations on Finland’s room to manoeuvre, including conditions for the number of troops and armaments. As a result of the wars, Finland also paid war reparations and had to give up some of its territory. As a follow-up in 1948, Finland signed the ”Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” with the Soviet Union, which defined the relationship of the countries for decades to come. However, Finland never considered the agreement as a military agreement. The agreement was replaced in 1992 by a treaty with Russia that did not include any mutual assistance condition. During the Cold War, Finland joined the UN in 1955, and adopted a policy of ”neutrality”. Finland’s post-war foreign policy was based on the so-called ”Paasikivi-Kekkonen” doctrine, named after two Finnish presidents acting as heads of state for a combined 35 years. It was based on two ideas: non-alignment/neutrality and good relations with its Eastern neighbour. The neutrality policy of Finland at the time has also been termed ”Finlandisation” meaning that a smaller state carefully keeps up its neutrality in order not to cause trouble with the superpower next door. This concept has since acquired somewhat negative connotations. For the Finns it meant keeping their heads down, accepting a significant measure of Soviet influence on their domestic governance and foreign policy, while taking small and conscious steps towards nurturing its Western relations, not least through the window of Nordic cooperation, which was seen by the Soviets as less suspicious. Despite close diplomatic connections with the leading NATO countries, Finland established official relations with NATO only after the Cold War. The official NATO policy of Finland has been written into government policies and reports on defence and security policies since 1995 onwards, after Finland became a part of the Partnership for Peace. An outline of Finnish security and defence was recently sketched in the government’s reports on foreign and security policy (2016) and in defence policy (2017). Finland’s position is that Finland is non-aligned militarily, but in practice Finland is a partner country of NATO and the ”door is kept open” for the possibility of applying for NATO membership.

Diminishing defence resources vs keeping territorial defence in focus

Following the Cold War, many nations – among them Sweden – believed that Russia would integrate with the West and international crisis management was the only tool needed to guarantee national security. Sweden, was known for its strong, independent defence during the Cold War. The armed forces were the backbone of the Swedish neutrality policy; a further boost to the line was given by the country’s strong arms industry. The Swedish Air Force was one of the world’s strongest. In the 2000s, Sweden changed its direction: the army was drastically downsized, conscription was abandoned, and instead of developing its own defence the focus shifted to international activities, crisis management and training of a slimmer, professional army. With the European security situation changing almost overnight, four years ago, and the wave of increased military strength both from the East and from the West rushing to the Baltic Sea, Sweden realised that realpolitik was back on the agenda. What intensifies Sweden’s defence discussion is that the country understands that it is not possible to restore reliable defence in an instant. The media writes about a near-desperate situation. A large part of Swedish military procurement projects will be completed only after five, eight, or ten years. The crisis management expenditure proved to be larger than expected and the management reform of the Defence Forces was more complex than expected. Sweden has done much recently to reverse the process of downsizing its armed forces, through budget increases and the reintroduction of conscription for both men and women. The aim is to obtain a military deterrent capability as fast as possible.

”Finland has maintained a lot of what has been abolished
in Sweden.”
– Björn von Sydow (S), former Minister for Defence

Due to the country’s inescapable position, Finland is not among those states that felt comfortable enough to abolish mandatory military service. For Finland, territorial defence of the whole country has always been central and preparedness is more than an attitude, it’s also an ability carefully cultivated throughout society. Finland has one of the Europe’s largest reserve of military forces and the current number of continuously trained reservists stands at 280,000. ”Realpolitik” never vanished from Finland’s foreign and security political thinking. ”Finland has maintained a lot of what has been abolished in Sweden,” noted Björn von Sydow (S), former Minister for Defence and Speaker of the Riksdag, when talking about covering food security in crisis situations and as the countries deepen their security cooperation.
Dagens Nyheter’s foreign policy commentator defines Finnish foreign philosophy (toward Russia) by using US President Roosevelt’s formulation: ”Speak softly, carry a big stick and you will go far ”. It is about what Finland’s security policy line has been for decades: a combination of open direct contact with the Kremlin and a real defence force. He says that Sweden has acted the opposite way, ”Speak tough, but leave your stick at home”. In recent years, it has meant that Sweden has frozen contacts with Russia, while in practice the military’s capability for territorial defence has almost disappeared. The Finns have learned the hard way that freedom cannot be taken for granted and must always be defended, with arms in hand if it comes to that. 200 years of continuous peace in Sweden has led to a somewhat different kind of thinking.
There are a whole range of reasons for this difference. Before its independence gained over a century ago Finland was a part of Russia. Since its’ independence, Finland has been forced to fight for its survival and parts of its territory have been annexed. Each time, the threat has come from the East. The historical perspective is absolutely crucial. Sweden, on the other hand, has not fought in a war for centuries. Another difference is geopolitical; Finland is in a completely different situation than Sweden, being sandwiched between East and West. During the Cold War, it provided a slightly larger manoeuvring space for Sweden, and Defence Minister, Torsten Gustafsson (C), 1981 – in connection with submarine violations – could escape statements such as ”Even if we consider ourselves neutral, we know where we belong”, inferring that ”it is good that Finland is in between”.

Concluding remarks

While internationally, Finland and Sweden are often considered as closely related (the so-called Nordic non-NATO twins), their respective security- and defence policies are actually very different. The current debate and assessment of Russia’s threat to the state has manifested itself in its own way in both countries. Sweden, which its traditions of a more ideological or idealistic foreign policy philosophy, turned the focus away from territorial defence and has been inclined to believe in peace. Using its voice boldly in world affairs and tackling global injustices, Sweden has left behind the realpolitik thinking. Today, this philosophy has led, to among other things, a strained relationship with Russia along with desperate efforts to restore the defence forces. In Sweden (security) political discussions have been more intense due to bloc politics, which tend to cause more extreme reactions.
Russia has been identified as the biggest security threat to Finland as well, but relying on historical experience, Finland has continued on a path of continuous dialogue with Moscow, which it has found to be the only way of survival as a small state attached to Russia. Geo-politics and realpolitik has played the main roles in the Finnish defence debate and preparations for a possible threat from the East were never abandoned. Furthermore, it can be argued that, in Finland, there has been a political consensus of a higher level than in Sweden with regard to security and defence policies. Freedom has never been taken for granted and cautiousness has always existed. Pragmatism, a strong military as a deterrent, continuous dialogue with Russia as well as a calmer political debate are among the factors that make the recent Finnish debate about the threat from Russia differ from that of Sweden’s.