Ukraine war: Sweden and Finland eye the Nato option, but it’s a security dilemma for the west

The Kremlin has issued an ominous warning to Nato about the consequences for the Baltic if it allows Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, as has been widely reported.

Dmitry Medvedev, a former president and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, said: “There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored. Until today, Russia has not taken such measures and was not going to.”

Sweden and Finland have both recently indicated their interest in joining Nato as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, said her country, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, would decide whether to join in “weeks not months”.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is resetting the security environment in Europe. Both Sweden and Finland remained non-aligned during the near half-century of the cold war. But within the space of less than a month, their radical policy shifts on security issues reflect similar changes across Europe – including the massive increase in defence spending proposed by Germany. This pivot to the west by the two neutral powers, along with the renewed appetite in Germany to cast aside its traditional military caution, signals a new era.

But the move to join Nato carries risks for both states, which have maintained a delicate balance of sitting with the west while not antagonising their powerful neighbour. Indeed, the two Scandinavian countries joining Nato provides more of a security dilemma than it does a security solution.

The idea of a “security dilemma” was identified by American cold war scholar John Herz in 1951. When weaker states seek to increase their power to balance a stronger state, as the Scandinavians are planning to by joining Nato, the stronger state (Russia in this case) will likely consider this a threat and then respond accordingly.

It is little wonder, then, that the Kremlin has reacted the way it has. In addition to Medvedev’s warning, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, recently described Nato as “a tool geared towards confrontation”, cautioning that Finland and Sweden joining “will not bring stability to the European continent”.

In terms of power politics theory, this dilemma gives Russia two choices. It can seek to increase its own power through an arms race, or reduce the threat via its military – including the possibility of launching a pre-emptive strike on Nato.

During the cold war, the peace was kept by the two sides’ nuclear arsenals which were a sufficient deterrent to prevent direct confrontation. The result was an arms race – particularly in nuclear weapons – between two broadly matched alliances, neither of which allowed the other a significant advantage, and included each side placing missiles closer to the other’s territory, before taking corrective action. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962, which brought the two sides to the brink of a nuclear confrontation, demonstrated the importance of avoiding any significant disruption of this balance.


For the full piece dr Professor Caroline Kennedy-Pipe and Dr Afzal Ashraf, visit the Conversation.


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