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

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

WASHINGTON (AP) – The first surprise for Finnish conscripts and officers taking part in a NATO-hosted military exercise in the Arctic this spring: the sudden roar of a U.S. Navy attack helicopter force descending on a field just adjacent to the landed The well-hidden command post of the Finns.

The second surprise: Finnish Signal Corps communications staff and others inside poured out of their field headquarters and smashed the US Marines – the Finns’ designated adversaries to the NATO exercise and members of America’s professional and world-class expeditionary force – in the ensuing mock firefight Escape .

The Finnish camouflage for the arctic snow, brush and debris probably kept the Americans from even noticing that the command post was there when they landed, Finnish commander Lt. Col. Mikko Kuoka suggested. “For those who will doubt it years from now,” Kuoka, mildly stunned by the outcome of the random skirmish, wrote in an infantry-focused blog chronicling the outcome of an episode he later confirmed for The Associated Press. “It actually happened.”

As the exercise made clear, NATO’s admission of Finland and Sweden – what President Joe Biden calls “our allies of the far north” – would bring military and territorial advantages to the western defense alliance. This is especially true as the rapid melting of the Arctic caused by climate change is fueling strategic rivalries at the top of the world.

Unlike the former Soviet Union’s NATO expansion, which needed major impetus in the post-Cold War decades, the alliance would bring in two sophisticated militaries and, in the case of Finland, a country with a remarkable national defense tradition. Both Finland and Sweden are in a region on one of Europe’s front lines and meeting points with Russia.

Finland, defending itself against Soviet invasion on the eve of World War II, relied on fighters on snowshoes and skis, expert snow and forest camouflage, and reindeer to carry weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, coupled with his stark reminder of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal and his repeated invocation of sweeping territorial claims dating back to the days of Russian empire, have prompted current NATO allies to focus on their collective defence to strengthen and bring new members on board.

Finland — a grand duchy within that empire until 1917 — and Sweden abandoned long-standing national policies of military non-alignment. They applied to come under NATO’s nuclear and conventional umbrella and join the now 30 other member states in a powerful mutual defense pact that stipulated that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Putin justified his incursion into western-leaning Ukraine by pushing back NATO and the West, which he said were drawing ever closer to Russia. A NATO that includes Finland and Sweden would be an ultimate rebuke for Putin’s war, strengthening the defensive alliance in a strategically important region, surrounding Russia in the Baltic Sea and Arctic Ocean, and pushing NATO to Russia’s western border for more than 800 additional miles ( 1,300 kilometers).

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

Biden was part of the bipartisan US and international cheerleading for the two countries’ nominations. Turkey and Hungary reservations prevent NATO approval from remaining a ban.

Russia has “armed the north with advanced nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles and multiple bases” in recent years, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this month. “Russia’s threats and Russia’s military build-up mean NATO is increasing its presence in the north.”

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

Both countries downsized their militaries, slashed defense resources and closed bases after the collapse of the Soviet Union lulled Cold War-era fears. Just five years ago, Sweden’s entire tiny national defense force could have fit in one of Stockholm’s football stadiums, one critic remarked.

However, as Putin became more confrontational, Sweden reinstated conscription and sought elsewhere to rebuild its military. Sweden has a powerful navy and a high-tech air force. Like Finland, Sweden has a valued indigenous defense industry; Sweden is one of the smallest countries in the world to build its own fighter jets.

Finland’s defense forces, on the other hand, are legendary.

In 1939 and 1940, Finland’s tiny, ill-equipped armed forces fought alone in the so-called Winter War, making the nation one of the few to survive an all-out Soviet attack with its independence intact. Over the course of an exceptionally cold winter, Finnish fighters, sometimes clad in white bed sheets for camouflage and usually moving unseen on foot, snowshoes and skis, lost some territory to Russia but pushed out the invaders.

The Finns were responsible for up to 200,000 casualties in the invading forces, against an estimated 25,000 Finns lost, said Iskander Rehman, a fellow at Johns Hopkins’ Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs.

It helped fuel a Finnish national creed of “sisu” or grit. Finnish winter war veterans were recruited for US Army winter war training, Rehman noted.

Finland’s constitution obliges every citizen to defend the country. Finland says it can muster a 280,000-strong military force built on near-universal male conscription and a large, well-trained reserve equipped with modern artillery, fighter jets and tanks, much of it US-made

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

“If you just look at the map and add Finland and Sweden, you basically turn the entire Baltic Sea into a NATO lake,” said Zachary Selden, a former director of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, with just two smaller parts of Russia’s defense and defense systems Safety Board, who is now a national safety expert at the University of Florida.

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

Selden predicts a larger NATO presence in the Baltics as a result, possibly with a new NATO regional command, along with US military rotations, although likely not on a permanent basis.

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

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

Russia has been building its fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers to escort expected future commercial shipping through the melting Arctic “to create that tollway for transit,” said Sherri Goodman, a former first deputy US secretary of defense, now at the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center and at the Center for Climate & Security.

Goodman points to future threats NATO will need to deal with as the melting Arctic opens up, such as the kind of shadowy, unofficial forces Russia has deployed in Crimea and Africa and elsewhere, and the increased risk of one Hard Attack Handling of the Russian Nuclear Maritime Casualty.

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

Kuoka’s US colleague at NATO’s Arctic exercise this spring, Marine Lt. Col. Ryan Gordinier, in an email provided by Navy spokesmen, wrote that he and his Marines were “impressed” by the ability of the Finnish infantry to reach otherwise unreachable positions on foot, snowshoe, ski, and themselves move undetected across snow.

It “stopped us” — and probably every real opponent, too, Gordinier wrote.

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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