Tromsø, Northern Norway: Sweden and Finland have made great efforts to fulfill the agreement with Turkey and continue their joint path into NATO, says the Swedish MFA. He also points to the risk of unintentional military escalation in the Arctic – and believes that there is a stabilizing effect in Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.
"Russia's aggression against Ukraine has again made the Arctic strategically important. For instance, there are Russian nuclear weapon capabilities at the Kola Peninsula near us. The tension does not stem from the Arctic itself, but there is an increased risk of an arms race in the region, as we see it. In connection, there is a risk of incidents escalating out of our control," says Sweden's Minister of Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström (the Moderate Party) and continues:
"This is the reason I believe that Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO is so important at this time. When we become members, seven of eight Arctic states will be part of the alliance – and that will do a lot of good for the security in the Euro-Atlantic area, including the High North," he adds.
On Tuesday, Billström attended the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, where he met his minister colleagues from Norway and Iceland, as well as high-standing officials from the US and Finland, for a panel discussion.
The Swedish MFA elaborates on his views to High North News:
"Through many years, we have seen an increased militarization of the Arctic region – something Sweden, among others, observes with unease. This unease has become stronger in the wake of Russia's warfare in Ukraine. We believe that Swedish and Finnish NATO memberships will weigh up for this development and be a substantial contribution to creating more security and safety in this part of the world."
Billström presumably referred especially to the military build-up in the Russian Arctic, but the arms race remark also alludes to American militarization.
"The ball is in Turkey's court"
Speaking of Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO: A scenario in which Finland steps into the alliance – while Sweden must wait for a change in the Turkish camp – was recently actualized by both the Finnish and Turkish sides.
Will Sweden be able to consent to such a solution?
"We have not observed any discussions about this at all. I am in almost daily contact with my Finnish minister colleague Pekka Haavisto and we are only experiencing that the Finns are interested in continuing the process which started when Sweden and Finland submitted their NATO applications in unity. We have joint military security which also affects cooperating in NATO's defense planning as a team. This is very important to remember," replies Billström.
"We will continue together and the ball is now in Turkey's court. We feel that we have done a lot to fulfill our trilateral memorandum which we signed at the NATO summit in Madrid last summer and that we are close to a stage in which the Turkish parliament should ratify our applications. So the ball is in Turkey's court, not Sweden's," he emphasizes.
"Needs stronger deterrence"
More joint military efforts among the western Arctic states in the face of Russia are being called for by the American side.
"We need to cooperate more on security. We confronted the Russian militarization of the Arctic before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But it has become even more important that we now provide strong deterrence. We have seen that Russia is willing to use force against sovereign nations," says Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in the US Department of State.
"If we are to have a peaceful Arctic, we need stronger deterrence. We can do this both through NATO and bilaterally," states Jones.
In the time ahead, we can thus perhaps expect more displays of western military power in the High North, such as the demonstration of a new weapon system at Andøya, Northern Norway, this fall.
"We are trying to deter Russian agressions –expansionist behavior – by showing enhanced capabilities of the allies," said Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Melnicoff of the SOCEUR, to Stars and Stripes, back then.
Stable situation in the north
Norwegian MFA Anniken Huitfeldt (Labor) agrees that a stronger military presence is needed in the North, but also emphasizes the importance of openness and predictability when striving for low tension.
"The Russian regime is becoming more totalitarian and unpredictable. However, we cannot change our geography. Russia is Norway's neighbor. We need to maintain some contact to minimise the risk of misunderstandings and unintentional escalation in the Arctic," says Huitfeldt and goes on:
"The situation in the North is currently stable. We see a large degree of continuity in Russia's activities in the North. But things can change fast. We are monitoring military activity closely. We are increasing our defense presence and coordinating with allies. We must be transparent and predictable."
The Norwegian MFA also supports Billström's view on what effect a Swedish and Finnish accession would have.
"Finland and Sweden joining NATO will benefit the alliance and make our region more stable. I am convinced that it will lead to further Nordic cooperation here in the North."
To HNN, Huitfeldt firmly rejects the possibility of excluding Turkey from the alliance if the country keeps blocking Swedish membership.
The possibility of making such a choice was pointed out by two Norwegian academics, Iver B. Neumann, Director at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, and Einar Wigen, Professor at the University of Oslo, in an Aftenposten op-ed. They point to how Turkey is practically forcing the alliance to choose between them or the Swedes, and that Sweden emerges as the most reliable and natural partner in the NATO community.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.