HOP och motsvarande officersstuderande i Finland på samövningen Tejo23.

A joint Swedish-Finnish exercise training NATO's staff methods and procedures. Photo: Dan Sjunnesson.

"Northern Europe becomes NATO's new front"

The relationship between Russia and the West is the elephant in the room when researchers at the Swedish Defence University examine how we in Sweden and our northern European neighbours have changed our armed forces in the twenty-first century.

The research project takes as its starting point the period after the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001 and analyzes how the defence policy of the Northern European countries has evolved until the present day. The Putin administration and the incremental aggressiveness of Russian foreign and security policy are an important part of the analysis.

"We also look at NATO, which has generated various strategic concepts and recommendations during this period, creating pressure for change not only on individual members but also on partner countries", says Håkan Edström, Lieutenant Colonel and Associate Professor of Political Science. He is conducting the project in collaboration with Dennis Gyllensporre, Lieutenant General and Associate Professor of Political Science.

In addition to Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany and Poland are included in the analysis.

“By doing this, we can include the entire Baltic Sea region and follow the individual countries”, says Håkan Edström.

Tensions in the great power relations affect NATO

The analysis also includes the changes in defence policy in the EU, including within the framework of the European Defence Agency (EDA), and the internal process within NATO.

After the September 11 attacks, the Alliance's agenda was dominated by peacekeeping operations, counter-terrorism and operations outside its own territory.

“All member states were involved in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, but during the war in Iraq, rifts appeared within NATO, as we have also seen during the Arab Spring. This was partly about who should take the lead and how to act on different issues.”

Tensions in great power relations and the relationship between NATO and the EU have created pressure for change that affects NATO.

“We try to capture this, for example by going back to NATO's charter - the Washington Treaty - and the reasoning behind the Articles contained therein. However, some of the areas relating to NATO's collective defence are protected by secrecy, which makes it difficult to access information on the current state of joint defence planning", says Håkan Edström.

Analysis of defence and security strategies

The research is mainly based on an analysis of the defence and security strategies of the respective countries and how they have evolved over the period.

“We look at the countries' individual measures and how they can be linked to NATO's agenda. For example, in what way do collective endeavours to deter war contribute and what measures do they take in relation to national defence when it comes to restoring security?”

Last year's events with Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine are also included in the analysis, but it has been a challenge to find textual material on which to base the research.

“When it comes to the development of events after the September 11 attacks and Russia's actions in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014, we have plenty of material, but in order to seize the nature of the past year's events, we have collected reports from the respective countries' defense attachés, which lead further to media reports, analyses and what is said in the countries' parliaments, etc.”

What role will Sweden play in NATO?

The research project will result in a book planned to be published in 2024 by Georgetown University Press.

“In addition to presenting the research results, we will also speculate on the future. We argue, with the impending membership of Sweden and Finland, that Northern Europe will no longer be seen as a flank area but will become NATO's new front against Russia”, says Håkan Edström.

He says that we must start thinking about how Russia will react to NATO enlargement in the long term, as this will have consequences for defence planning both within the organization and in the member states.

“It is likely that Finland, with its extensive border with Russia, will, like Norway, become a country that receives military resources from other countries, unlike Denmark, which provides its military capabilities outside its borders. But what role will Sweden play?"

The conditions for defence planning have changed

He also points out that Sweden's latest decision on defence policy dated 2020 is based on assumptions that have completely changed over the past year.

“When starting a defence planning process, it is usually said that the threat consists of three elements: the opponent's political will to use force, the opponent's military capabilities, and geographical factors.”

In 2020, despite the aggression in Georgia and Crimea, the political will of the adversary, i.e. Russia, was assessed as low. Military capabilities were assessed as high and the geographical conditions, Sweden's strategic depth, extended to the middle of the Baltic Sea.

Less than two years later, with the invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that Russia's political will to use force was very high. However, its military capabilities were not at all strong, and with the impending NATO membership of Sweden and Finland, the strategic depth no longer extends to the middle of the Baltic Sea but to Russia's western border.

“Our material and personnel supply plans are based on completely different assumptions than the current situation because the three fundamental aspects have changed completely. Also, before we become NATO members, we do not know how they view our membership and what direction they think our transformation should take in order to contribute to collective defence. These are aspects we need to include in our defence planning.”

Håkan Edström says that we need to link our strategic thinking to the fact that we are no longer a flank area but a front.

“The entire strategic landscape will be different and we must keep up with the change.”

Josefin Svensson

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