Regional Dynamics in NATO's Northern Enlargement

03.01.2023

Finland and Sweden joined the European Union in 1995 and gradually deepened their defense cooperation with NATO, which are already NATO’s closest partners. They contribute to Alliance operations and airspace security. Most importantly, they already meet NATO’s criteria for membership, with functioning democracies, good neighborly relations, clear borders, and developing armed forces in harmony with allies. So much so that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg summed up the situation by saying, “In the past, Finnish and Swedish troops have exercised with NATO so frequently that they can practically work together.”

So, what is the importance of the two northernmost countries in Europe in terms of ensuring and establishing transatlantic basic security?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look at what is happening across NATO’s extended alliance border with Russia.

Murmansk Oblast (Federal Territory) is a region built on the Kola Peninsula, bordered by NATO members Norway and Finland, almost entirely within the Arctic Circle, and surrounded by the Barents Sea to the north and the White Sea to the east and southeast.

The Kola Peninsula is a “strategic fortress” that Moscow sees as the key to Russia’s national security. This peninsula is also the home of Russia’s Northern Army, which consists of land, air and naval assets that make up the bulk of Russia’s enhanced conventional capacity, advanced arsenal and second-strike capabilities for defensive and potentially offensive purposes.

Ship and submarine bases are located here in deep coves (fjords). Also, the western region of the Kola Peninsula houses the densest collections of nuclear weapons on the planet.

Nuclear presence is the most important feature of this region. In addition to land-based launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) are also included in the collection in the region. The ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), although their primary purpose is defense, also function as a power projection tool beyond the Kola Peninsula. It constitutes about two-thirds of Russia’s nuclear second-strike capacity at sea, which serves as a deterrent to potential enemies, forming the backbone of the sea-based component of Russia’s nuclear triad of air, land and sea elements.

In particular, the Dolgorukiy class (two of the five submarines in service are in this region and the other three are in the pacific fleet), the latest version of the nuclear submarines (SSBN) with increased SLBM carrying capacity and enhanced stealth capabilities, contributes to Russia’s “defense in depth” on the Kola Peninsula. Submarines with high stealth capabilities such as these, increase the regime’s survivability, and can challenge NATO’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities and maritime communication lines in the North Atlantic.

The Kola Peninsula is at the center of Russia’s military presence in west of the Arctic. Air and naval capabilities are crucial for Arctic domination and global power projection capabilities as well as homeland defense. The number and density of various elements, from SLBMs to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and various electronic warfare elements deployed on and around the peninsula, underline the strategic value of the Arctic for Russian national interests. The largest air bases of the Russian Air Force, where medium and long-range strategic bombers are deployed, are also located along a corridor on the Kola Peninsula.

The entire Kola Peninsula is connected to the rest of Russia by a highway and a railway. Continuing through the Republic of Karelia (part of Russian Federation), this road stretches for 700 km without any divisions. This strategic strait has a great risk potential for Russia. Currently, this route might seem relatively safe if Russia were to go to war with NATO, since the only way for NATO to access this strait is the 200km Norwegian border, and the reaching geo this border is pretty narrow (down to 30km) and restricted. However, if Finland joins NATO, the increased border length moves along this strait and an attack can take place from any point of the 700 km route mentioned. Moreover, there would be no need for Finland to occupy this region. A single specialized troop could disappear in this dense pine forest region, quickly after destroying the road, rail and power line connecting Murmansk to Russia. While the region is currently protected by two divisions of soldiers, even 1 million Russian soldiers may not be able to secure the region in Finland’s possible NATO membership.

Because of these strategic features, NATO wants to make meaningful evaluate of its presence in the region.

The biennial Cold Response Exercise in Norway, both to test and increase NATO’s capabilities in harsh climatic conditions together with its partners Sweden and Finland, and to ensure that Norway has the ability to handle NATO deployments, It took place in March 2022 just before Sweden and Finland’s membership debate.

Although NATO says this exercise is routine and planned, this was the biggest maneuver that Norway has hosted since the end of the Cold War, with attendance of 30,000 soldiers from 27 countries (including 3 thousand US Marines) and air, naval and land forces elements. Russia was traditionally invited to this exercise as an observer, based on the OSCE 2011 Vienna Document, but the Moscow administration turned down the invitation. Also, Russia has warned that the build-up of a NATO military capability near its borders will not help strengthen security in the region. Although this warning was made on the basis of the exercise, it also gave an idea about NATO expansion in the region.

 

This text is taken from a section of the article “What will happen if Sweden and Finland join NATO?” which published in Turkish on the FikirTuru website on June 6, 2022.

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