Putin's Nordic Miscalculation

04/15/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

HELSINKI - Vladimir Putin is proving to be a tactical genius but a strategic blunderer. Perhaps the most important geostrategic result of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine is occurring 800 miles to the north in Scandinavia, whose sturdy governments, rather than being cowed by unsubtle Russian attempts at intimidation, are instead coordinating their defenses ever more closely. If the Russian President continues his war in Ukraine and violations of sovereignty in the Baltic, he may help to create an enlarged NATO in Europe's north.

On April 9 the defense ministers of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden and the foreign minister of Iceland signed a vigorous security declaration, unimaginable just a few years ago, in an Oslo newspaper. Citing Russian aggression in Ukraine, the huge Russian military modernization program, and the recent infringement of Baltic borders -- which have included submarine incursions, buzzing of civilian aircraft by Russian military jets with their transponders turned off, a simulated attack against Denmark, and menacing snap exercises of tens of thousands of Russian troops near international borders -- they vowed to meet the challenge through increased military, industrial, intelligence, and cyber cooperation and more joint exercises. These measures, the ministers emphasized, are not a substitute for NATO whose Article 5 collective defense guarantee remains the basis for the security of alliance members Denmark, Iceland, and Norway.

The new declaration comes seven months after militarily nonaligned Finland and Sweden, which have participated in many alliance operations including Afghanistan, signed Host Nation Support Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with NATO. The agreements effectively allow NATO troops to train on Finnish and Swedish soil and to provide assistance in the event of accident, crisis, or conflict. To be sure, the MOUs do not allow NATO to deploy troops in the two countries without specific requests, and similarly do not oblige NATO to respond to requests for assistance from Helsinki or Stockholm. Nonetheless, the MOUs were criticized by the Kremlin, which correctly grasped the deeper truth that the momentum is shifting toward eventual NATO membership.

Moving away from military nonalignment would not be easy. Finland and Sweden did abandon political neutrality when they joined the European Union in 1995, but bloc-free security status continues to hold an emotional attachment, even rising to the level of being a component of national identity in segments of both countries' populations.

While some Swedes and Finns drew the obvious conclusion from the unwillingness of NATO to come to the aid of non-members Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014, many persist in viewing themselves as exceptional outposts of Western values, different from corrupt struggling democracies farther east and south, and therefore in a crisis likely to be treated as special cases by NATO. Still others aver that military nonalignment itself would insulate them from Russian hostility, a belief which proponents of NATO membership label naïve. Perhaps most importantly, economists and military specialists assert that without becoming part of the alliance's division of labor, by the 2020s neither Sweden, whose capabilities have already been allowed to atrophy, nor somewhat more robust Finland will be able to afford a credible defense.

Reactions to the Oslo declaration were immediate and predictable. The Russian Foreign Ministry decried the "convergence" of the Nordic nations and NATO. Politicians assured their nervous publics that nothing really had changed. A Helsinki professor castigated the Nordic defense ministers for somehow being provocative by doing their jobs.

And then there was the bizarre modus operandi of governing by a parliamentary coalition that encompasses most of the political spectrum. The Conservative Finnish Prime Minister supported his Defense Minister, who is the leader of Finland's Swedish People's Party. Meanwhile the Finnish Foreign Minister, a Social Democrat, went out of his way to empathize with Russia and criticize NATO enlargement, ignoring several OSCE documents signed by his country, most recently the Astana Declaration of December 2010, which guarantees every European state the inherent right to choose its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance.

Sweden and Finland were united under the Swedish crown for half a millennium and share a variety of cultural traits. Most observers believe that if one opted for NATO membership, the other would follow. Unfortunately for NATO proponents, the two countries seem oddly out of phase with each other. The current Swedish government has pledged not to bring up membership in the alliance, even though public opinion has shown a remarkable shift in that direction. Two of the three most recent polls have registered majority support for Swedish NATO membership, one by an astounding 48 to 35 percent margin.

In Finland the situation is the reverse. The country's most respected figure, former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari, has come out in favor of NATO membership, as have the current prime minister and his immediate predecessor, but the bulk of public opinion still opposes it. Yet the polling numbers may be deceptive. Finland is one of the few remaining democracies whose people trust their politicians (the fact that it perennially ranks as the world's least corrupt country may have something to do with it). When Finns are asked whether they would support NATO membership if the government made the decision to apply for it, majorities suddenly materialize.

The national elections in Finland this Sunday will probably yield a new coalition with a prime minister against NATO membership for the moment but willing to keep options open in the future, and a foreign minister not as stridently opposed to membership as is the incumbent. However, the deeper trends -- the enhanced cooperation with NATO, the economic imperatives, and Russian aggressiveness -- will not go away. Increasingly the move toward alliance membership is looking like "two steps forward, one step back."

The person, of course, who might be able to reverse the Nordic tide slowly flowing toward NATO is Vladimir Putin, not by trying more crude intimidation but by undergoing a democratic conversion. The latter development seems highly unlikely.

Michael Haltzel, former foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He is spending 2015 as Visiting Senior Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.