The sound of gunfire echoed through the Norwegian fjords as a line of Swedish and Finnish soldiers, positioned prone behind snow banks, practiced rifles and rocket launchers on nearby hills, ready for an enemy attack.
The March exercise marked the first time that forces from Finland and Sweden formed a combined brigade in a planned NATO exercise in arctic Norway known as Cold Response. Neither country is a member of the NATO alliance. The exercise was planned for a long time, but Russia’s invasion Ukraine on February 24 increased the intensity of the war game.
“We would be pretty naïve if we didn’t realize there was a threat,” Swedish Major Stefan Nordstrom told Reuters. “The security situation across Europe has changed and we have to accept that and adapt.”
The Indo Daily: Under Siege – How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put Mick Wallace and Clare Daly in the spotlight
This sense of threat means that President Vladimir Putin, who undertook what he calls a “special operation” in Ukraine to partially counteract the expansion of the NATO alliance, may soon have a new NATO neighbor.
Finland shares a 1,300 km border with Russia. In a March 28 phone call, the country’s President Sauli Niinisto asked NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for details on principles and steps for admitting new members, he wrote on Facebook. Finland’s leaders have discussed possible membership with “almost all” 30 NATO members and will submit a review to parliament by mid-April, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told Reuters.
Sweden — home of the Nobel Peace Prize and a country that hasn’t fought in a war since 1814 — is more hesitant. But a recent opinion poll for a major Swedish TV channel found that 59% of Swedes want to join NATO if Finland does.
For some members of the alliance, the two countries sandwiched between Russia and NATO member Norway are already partners. US Gen. David Berger, commander of the US Marines Corps, told reporters at the exercise that — apart from membership politics — they were brothers in arms during the exercise.
“For Marines, on a tactical level … there’s no difference,” Berger said. “I just need to know that the unit over there has my back. You covered for me.”
Stoltenberg announced in early March that NATO was now sharing all information about the war in Ukraine with Sweden and Finland. Both countries regularly take part in NATO meetings. At the exercises in Norway, Stoltenberg said “no other countries in the world” are closer partners.
But he noted an important difference: “The absolute security guarantees that we give to NATO allies apply only to NATO allies.”
As non-members, the combined 16 million inhabitants of Finland and Sweden do not enjoy the protection of NATO’s guarantee that an attack on one ally is an attack on all.
Moscow did not respond to a request for comment on this story. She has repeatedly warned both countries against joining NATO. On March 12, Russia’s foreign ministry said there will be “serious military and political consequences” if they do so, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
Stoltenberg said it would be possible to admit Finland and Sweden “quite quickly”. NATO has not commented on what an accelerated process would be; A US Department of Defense spokesman said any decision would be made by the countries themselves, but their entry would have to be agreed by all 30 allies.
“President Putin wants less NATO on Russia’s borders,” Stoltenberg said in January, also referring to more allied troops in south-eastern Europe, Poland and the Baltic States. “But he gets more Nato.”
More than 1,000 km southeast of the NATO training ground, 80-year-old Markku Kuusela knows the real war. The pensioner, who lives in Imatra, a town on Finland’s border with Russia, was evacuated to Sweden with his brother as a toddler after his father was killed fighting a Russian invasion.
They returned to Finland only after the end of the war.
“I always have that in the back of my mind,” Kuusela said as he visited the cemetery where his father is buried. Tears welled up in his eyes. “What it would have been like to have a father.”
About 96,000 Finns, or 2.5 percent of the population, died fighting the Russian invasion in two wars between 1939 and 1944. A total of 55,000 children lost their fathers and over 400,000 people lost their homes when territories were ceded.
But the Finns, fighting under the cover of the dense forest, repelled the Russians, and since then Finland has had a clear goal: a strong defense and friendly relations with Russia.
The country built up a conscript army – it has about 900,000 men and women in reserve – and one of the largest artillery weapons in Europe, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Finns and Russians have been interacting intensively with each other for years. This year, Imatra planned to celebrate the 250-year history of Finnish tourism since a visit by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, in 1772.
Now the Imatra border post is deserted, its stalls unused. Finland’s security agency, known as Supo, says Russia’s military resources are currently focused on Ukraine and its own domestic operations, but warns the situation could change quickly.
The invasion of Ukraine prompted nearly 3,000 applications from Finns to join local reservist associations, as well as nearly 1,000 applications to women’s emergency preparedness groups, the groups said.
One applicant was Pia Lumme, a 48-year-old coordinator at Finland’s National Agency for Education, who lives near Imatra. She remembered her grandmother’s war memories.
“I think we Finns all share … the will to preserve this country,” said Lumme.
Finland is one of the few European countries that maintains a national emergency supply of fuel, food and medicine. The construction of temporary shelters under every major building has been mandatory since World War II. The country says its 54,000 shelters accommodate 4.4 million of its 5.5 million population.
Finland’s support for NATO membership has risen to record numbers over the past month, with the latest poll by public broadcaster Yle showing 62 percent of respondents are in favor and just 16 percent against.
Security agency Supo said on March 29 Finland must be wary of possible Russian retaliation in Helsinki’s NATO accession discussions or interference in the public debate.
“We don’t need to make quick decisions in our own defense, but a potential membership bid could certainly make us the target of interference or hybrid action,” Haavisto said in an interview with Reuters. “Finland must prepare for this and also listen to how the NATO countries would react.”
Sweden, which has argued that nonalignment has served its people well, has been slower to view Russia as a threat — for example, it allowed post-Cold War defense spending to decline and emergency shelters to decay. But even there the mood is changing.
After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the government accelerated rearmament and increased military strength on the island of Gotland near the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. That year also saw the reintroduction of limited conscription.
Stockholm earlier this month said it would nearly double defense spending to about 2 percent of GDP and was rehabilitating a network of emergency shelters to house up to seven million people. According to this, there are currently around 65,000 emergency shelters, mostly in private households.
According to a March 2 survey by pollster Demoskop for the daily newspaper Aftonbladet, around 71 percent of Swedes are concerned about an increasing military threat from Russia – up from 46 percent in January.
Three retail chains told Reuters that sales of emergency preparedness products have reaccelerated after the surge at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sales of crisis kits, wind-up radios, water filters and water containers – pretty much everything – have gone up,” said Fredrik Stockhaus, founder of Criseq, a Swedish online store. Statistics Sweden does not measure turnover at this level of detail.
If either country seeks NATO membership, Finland is likely to take the first step, diplomats and politicians say. Foreign Minister Haavisto said he had talks with his Swedish counterpart on the subject “almost daily”.
“It wouldn’t be ideal if Finland went alone, because then all the risks in the bid process would lie with Finland,” said Matti Pesu, foreign policy analyst at Finland’s Institute of International Affairs.
In Sweden, the government and opposition are conducting an analysis of security policy, which is expected in May. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stressed on national television on March 30 that it is important to wait and see what conclusions this leads to. The ruling Social Democrats are against accession, but four opposition parties support it.
Even so, Sweden’s non-aligned status is becoming increasingly blurred, said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the think-tank Atlantic Council.
“If you look at it, together we’re preparing to face the opponent and I think there’s no doubt which camp we’re in,” she said. “They can see the warnings from Russia, so there’s no doubt on their side either.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/why-putin-faces-more-nato-in-the-arctic-after-ukraine-invasion-41518630.html Why Putin faces ‘more NATO’ in the Arctic after invading Ukraine