As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine extends Moscow’s military power to the borders of several NATO members, NATO partners Finland and Sweden can be part of an intensified exchange of information and NATO’s strategic communication.
“Sweden and Finland may, if they so wish on a case-by-case basis, participate in enhanced contacts with NATO, enhanced information exchange and coordination, information on operations and strategic communications,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö confirmed to reporters after a virtual NATO summit on Friday (26 February).
NATO partners Finland, Sweden and the EU were also invited to participate.
“It is not in itself something revolutionary, but it should be noted that all countries see this as the right arrangement,” Niinistö said, adding this would not equal the possibility of Finland joining NATO.
In practice, this means that the two countries could participate in enhanced intelligence-sharing and strategic communications on a case-by-case basis.
Based on the arrangement, Finland could, for example, request confidential information from NATO or vice versa, while the respective holder of the information would decide whether to provide the information.
According to diplomatic sources, NATO leaders on Friday discussed the special role of both since “they need to be fully informed because of their strategic position for Russia”.
Finland and Sweden are two of six countries known as ‘enhanced partners’, largely due to their contributions to NATO operations. As such, they have options when it comes to cooperation.
In recent months, NATO has stepped up cooperation focusing on security in the Baltic Sea region, which includes political consultations, exchanges of information on hybrid warfare, and joint exercises.
EURACTIV also understands that NATO in general is exploring different mechanisms to share information with its partners that are not members of the alliance.
Over the past years, Finland and Sweden have both complained of incidents involving Russian submarines and aircraft breaching airspace in the Baltic Sea region. They have responded by tightening bilateral military cooperation and fostering more ties with NATO.
Finland, which has more than 1,300 kilometres of border with Russia, but also Sweden, are aware any move to join the alliance would create backlash in Moscow.
After deciding to remain militarily neutral in the 1990s, both eventually abandoned their political neutrality when they joined the EU in 1995.
Finland and Sweden’s policies of military non-alignment have persisted to the present, although renewed threats of Russian aggression are prompting conversations of potential NATO membership.
Russia not amused
Moscow says moves by Helsinki and Stockholm towards closer ties with NATO are of “special concern” to Russia, which has vehemently opposed NATO’s eastward expansion.
Earlier on Friday (26 February), as NATO leaders were meeting in Brussels, Russia accused NATO and the US of trying to lure Finland and Sweden into the alliance.
“It is obvious that the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO, which is primarily (…) a military bloc, would have serious military and political consequences that would require retaliatory steps by our country,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a weekly press briefing in Moscow, quoted by Russian news agencies.
“We regard the Finnish government’s commitment to a military non-alignment policy as an important factor in ensuring security and stability in Northern Europe. Finland’s accession to NATO would have serious military and political repercussions,” Zakharova added. The spokeswoman has recently been added to the EU’s sanctions list over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sweden received a similar warning.
Support for NATO membership in both countries has been on the rise over the past few months, mostly driven by events in and around Ukraine, recent surveys show.
Together with Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Malta, Finland and Sweden are the only EU states that are not members of NATO.
Asked to comment on Moscow’s warning to the two EU members, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell declined, but affirmed, “We consider that all states are free to choose their foreign policy and their policy of alliances.”
[Edited by Alice Taylor]