Russia’s Escalation of Hostile Actions Against Sweden and Finland

The relationship between Sweden and Finland with NATO has also contributed to the changing security environment in the region. In addition, Moscow’s recent behavior in the Baltic and elsewhere in Europe provides tangible evidence that Russia is becoming more of a threat to Sweden and Finland and the independence of their foreign policies.

Both Sweden and Finland have officially acknowledged the worsening security situation in the Baltic Sea region. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven admitted that “the situation in the Baltic region has deteriorated.” In its most recent defense report, The Prime Minister’s Office warns that Finland’s political leaders and armed forces must increase their readiness to defend against crises and military contingencies.

Military activity and military tensions have increased in the Baltic Sea region. The early-warning period for military crises has become shorter and the threshold for using force has lowered…. Finland must prepare for the use of military force, or threat thereof, against it.

-The Prime Minister’s Office of Finland, 2017

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is the most visible cause of the rising tensions in the Baltic Sea region. After his military attack against Georgia in 2008, Vladimir Putin’s second invasion of a neighbor in six years, made all of the countries on Russia’s border more concerned about their security and sovereignty. For example, in March 2014, only 25% of Finns polled said that Russia was a security threat to their country. After Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, that figure had risen to 43%. Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist directly blames Russia for the changes in regional security.

The European security order is no longer in place as we know it because of Russia’s aggressive behavior… Today, Russia occupies 20 % of Georgian territory since the war in 2008. Since 2014 Crimea is annexed by Russia. The Russian proxy war in Eastern Ukraine continues.

-Peter Hultqvist, 2017

But Russia’s aggressive behavior is not limited to just Georgia and Ukraine. Russia’s has also targeted Sweden and Finland with different levels of hostile behavior that are also contributing to the security problem in the Baltic region. This hostile behavior includes public threats from Russian leaders, conventional coercion from the Russian military, cyber attacks from agents working with Russian intelligence agencies, and hybrid interventions organized by the Russian government.

One of the most ominous signs of rising tensions in the Baltic Sea region have been the public threats made by Russian leaders against Sweden and Finland over their potential membership in NATO. In 2012, the Chief of Russia’s General Staff General Nikolai Makarov not only questioned Helsinki’s right to hold military exercises on Finnish territory, he also argued that, “cooperation between Finland and NATO threatens Russia’s security.” In 2015, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, warned that if Sweden joined NATO, “there will be counter measures… Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind.” A few months ago, Putin himself renewed this threatening behavior by sharply condemning the possibility of Sweden joining NATO. “We will interpret that as an additional threat for Russia and we will think about how to eliminate this threat.” Putin also threatened Finland that if it joined NATO, Russia would have to move its military closer to its border. It is no wonder that a report commissioned by Finland’s foreign ministry warned that, “Russia will attempt to thwart any move by Finland or Sweden to join NATO.”

Russia has also used its military directly to try to intimidate Sweden and Finland. The most famous example was the Easter incident of 2013. NATO publicly disclosed that in March of that year, Russian bombers simulated nuclear attacks on Sweden. In addition, Russian military aircraft have violated Finnish airspace on multiple occasions. Russian warplanes have also violated the airspace of Sweden. There have also been maritime violations of the sovereignty of Sweden and Finland. A few months after Russia began it military aggression against Ukraine, the Swedish military spent three days searching for “foreign underwater activity” near Stockholm. This was widely interpreted as a response to a Russian submarine in Sweden’s territorial waters. A few months later, Finland dropped depth charges to chase away a similar unidentified object that had violated its maritime border.

Russia has also been active performing hostile actions against Sweden and Finland in the cyber domain. In just nine months in 2016, Sweden received 60 serious cyber attacks. Perhaps the most notorious example was the 2015 cyber attack on Sweden’s air traffic control system that grounded flights at several airports across the country. According to sources in the Swedish government and NATO, the evidence pointed to Russia as the source of the problem.

Helsinki has also been a hard hit by cyber attacks. Last year, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja admitted that his ministry’s computer network has been infiltrated by foreign hackers. The Finnish press claimed that this cyber breach had been active for four years. Experts say the evidence shows that this cyber intrusion came from a state sponsored group of Russian hackers.

There is also evidence that Russia has been waging hybrid warfare against Sweden and Finland for some time. According to a study by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Russia has made Sweden the target of “a wide array of active measures.” A key element of this hybrid warfare has been a coordinated misinformation campaign against Sweden. After signing a cooperation agreement, the defense ministers of Sweden and Denmark addressed this growing problem. They stated that when nations “cannot clearly distinguish false news and disinformation from what is true, we become increasingly unsafe.” Last year, the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) released a report that detailed the hostile Russian activities being conducted against Sweden. The threat is so significant that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven admitted he could not rule out Russia trying to influence the next Swedish national election in 2018.

Finland has also been a target of Russia’s hybrid campaign. According to the New York Times, Finland “has emerged as a particularly active front” in Russia’s information wars. Helsinki has verified approximately twenty cases of misinformation operations against Finland in the past few years.

The non-alignment policies of the current governments in Finland and Sweden are another source of uncertainty in the Baltic Sea region. This uncertainty from Helsinki and Stockholm contributes to the growing uncertainty across the Baltic Sea region over the behavior of Russia, the US, and NATO in future crises. The combination of uncertainty from the great powers and the non-aligned states is decreasing stability and security in the area.

Since the end of the Cold War, Sweden and Finland have experienced a historic change in their security policies. They have made political and defense commitments to other countries, thus they are no longer neutral and consider themselves to be non-aligned, while at the same time they are unlikely to be uninvolved in regional crises. In 2009, Sweden announced a new unilateral Declaration of Solidarity. “Sweden would not stand passive if a neighbor is threatened or attacked.”

Finland has not taken such a unilateral step. But both Sweden and Finland are members of the EU and through the Lisbon Treaty have committed themselves to assist other EU members through the Article 222 which calls for common action against terrorist attacks and man-made disasters. After the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, France invoked the overlooked article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty which states that EU members have “an obligation of aid and assistance” to other members that are victims of “armed aggression.”

In addition, Sweden and Finland (along with Norway, Denmark, and Iceland) also committed themselves to the Nordic solidarity clause of 2011 which called for joint action in the case of attacks or man-made disasters. “Should a Nordic country be affected, the others will, upon request from that country, assist with relevant means.” Furthermore, Sweden and Finland have also increased their defense cooperation with NATO and bilaterally with NATO members since 2014. It is safe to say that there exists at least a certain level of ambiguity about the role of Sweden and Finland in any future crises in the Baltic Sea region. Their current governments may prefer this uncertainty, but it does come at a cost for their national security and regional stability.

If national defense is a bedrock of both Swedish and Finnish defense policy, the “NATO option” is another key element. Both countries view NATO’s presence in the Baltic Sea region as a positive and stabilizing influence. Sweden and Finland also view NATO membership as option that can be selected at the time and manner of their choosing. But Russia’s heavy-handed actions to impede Montenegro from joining the Alliance, show that Putin is willing to make the “NATO option” much more difficult for prospective members such as Sweden and Finland.

Montenegro has indicted fourteen individuals for planning a coup against the parliament and the assassination of its prime minister in 2015. The objective was to install a pro-Russia government that would stop Montenegro’s almost completed path to joining NATO. Montenegro officials identified Eduard Sismakov and Vladimir Popov as members of the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence agency) and the two leaders that oversaw the planning of the coup. There is ample evidence tying the assassination/coup attempt to Russia, including encrypted Russian phones and a money trail leading back to GRU headquarters in Moscow.

This was unprecedented attack against a prospective NATO member but it may a harbinger of future actions by Putin. Few people believed that Putin would ever attack Georgia. Fewer people believed that Putin would attack Ukraine. Fewer people believed that Putin would intervene militarily in the Middle East. It may not be sufficiently reassuring that few people believe Putin would escalate the hostile actions Russia is currently engaged in against Sweden and Finland to prevent them from joining NATO.

In 2015, the defense ministers of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland issued a joint warning that “The Russian military is challenging us along our borders and there have been several border infringements in the Baltics….Russia’s actions are the biggest challenge to the European security.” It would be irresponsible to underestimate the possibility that Putin will carry out the threats he and other Russian leaders have made to prevent Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. Russian behavior in the Baltic Sea region seems to be escalating in this direction. The governments of Sweden and Finland are relying on a policy of strategic ambiguity that may no longer serve their interests in the face of Russia’s unwillingness to respect their borders, their sovereignty, and the will of their people to choose their alliances. Russia’s willingness to intervene and use violence to disrupt Montenegro’s alliance choice, shows Putin is willing to take greater and greater risks to deny his neighbors the “NATO option”.