At the NATO Summit in Vilnius, not only did Sweden receive the green light from Turkey to enter the Alliance, but “the most comprehensive defense plans since the end of the Cold War” were adopted. Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership completely remakes the Alliance’s Northeastern flank, significantly contributing to the defense of the Baltic States and Arctic and creating opportunities in implementing the Alliance’s new regional defense plans.

The Nordic region is one of the most integrated in the world – mostly in other “softer” policy fields but increasingly so in security and defense. With a patchwork of bi- and multilateral defense agreements built over decades, Sweden and Finland have sought the closest possible partnership between themselves and with Allies before becoming formal NATO members.

However, just as the final barriers to interoperability between Nordic nations were removed with Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, some are going back up with Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark being split between different Joint Force Commands (JFC) and defense plans. Despite likely being of temporary nature, the results are highly impractical for the Nordic-Baltic region – and ultimately NATO.

Viewed as constituting one common joint operational area, dividing the Nordic countries into separate regional defense plans and commands makes little operational sense. Moreover, by creating a seam running between the Arctic and Baltic, many of the strategic gains offered by Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership risk being reduced.

NATO’s new regional defense plans: Brand new and already outdated?

After its accession to NATO in April 2023, Finland was designated to JFC Brunssum (though Helsinki preferred Norfolk), as Norfolk currently has neither the operational capacity to manage a land force the size of Finland’s nor to take over command of the defense of Northern Europe. This designation is likely only temporary, as NATO will be reforming its command structure. For the Nordics, being united under one command is a priority issue and the Nordic chiefs of defense have initiated discussion on establishing a Northern Command. The Norwegian chief of defense, Eirik Kristoffersen, suggested that the Northern Command would be complementary to Norfolk instead of replacing it and offered Bodø in Northern Norway as a possible location.

Norway, under Norfolk, plays an integral role in maintaining transatlantic supply links and containing Russia’s Northern Fleet’s access to the Atlantic via the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap; Finland, currently under Brunssum, is crucial in defending against any Russian incursions into the Gulf of Finland and the Cap of the North; Denmark, also under Brunssum, is the gatekeeper to the Baltic Sea through the Danish Straits; and Sweden, whose JFC is to be determined, is the connecting link between its three Nordic neighbors and the Baltic states.

Few details of the defense plans are publicly available, but according to published documents and official statements the defense plans adopted in Vilnius separate the Alliance into three regions:

  1. High North and Atlantic, led by Joint Force Command in Norfolk, USA;
  2. the Baltic and Central Europe, covering the Baltic states and territory down to the Alps, led by Brunssum in the Netherlands;
  3. South-East, including the Mediterranean and Black Sea, with command in Naples, Italy.

It is evident that Sweden and Finland were not members of the Alliance during the plans creation and adoption: Before their accession, associating Norway, the sole Ally in the High North, with the Arctic and Atlantic plan, and grouping the Baltics with the neighboring Central European plan, made sense. However, Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO bridges the gap between the High North and Baltic Sea, not only enhancing the security of the Baltic states but creating a single operational area on NATO’s northeastern flank for the first time in the history of the Alliance – at least officially. Already in 1950, a NATO military committee report stated that “the defence of the [Nordic] region must therefore be considered as a whole with the object of achieving one integrated and coordinated plan” despite Sweden and Finland’s position firmly outside of the Alliance at the time.

The new defense plans will be continually adapted to changes in operational needs, but if the current separation of the Arctic and Baltic remains in place, a seam runs right down the middle of this northeastern flank. If Sweden joins JFC Norfolk as rumored, it creates a thoroughly counterintuitive situation: Sweden would then presumably be part of the Arctic defense plan, despite maritime capabilities tailor-made for the Baltic Sea. Finland, under JFC Brunssum, would belong to the Baltic and Central European defense plan, although its proximity to the Russian Arctic makes it irreplaceable in any defense plan for the European Arctic. Even if Finland and Sweden are kept together under Brunssum, they are still separated from Norway and the corresponding High-North/Arctic plans and operational command.

The accession of the two new Allies thus highlights that NATO must develop a wider strategic view of the Nordic-Baltic region, one which runs from the Arctic shores to the southern Baltic Sea, backed by the full force of the transatlantic link. These significant changes in the Alliance’s northeastern flank posture must increase the urgency to reform NATO’s command structure.

Post-2014: Shock and Reassessment

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas made clear that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would be at risk should Russia seek to directly challenge NATO. Sandwiched between mainland Russia, the Suwalki gap, Kaliningrad, and the Baltic Sea, Russia could create a fait accompli scenario: Cutting the three Baltic States off from other NATO Allies and proceed to use nuclear drills as a threat in order to present NATO with an ultimatum. To prevent this scenario, NATO revised its force posture and developed the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) as well as defense plans for the three Baltic States and Poland.

Forged out of compromise between Allies, the eFP was a satisfactory transitional posture for NATO as the Alliance went from seeking a strategic partnership with Russia in the 2010 Strategic Concept to defining Russia as the main threat in 2022.

The Arctic, in its turn, was not an area NATO had much presence in after the Cold War. Keeping the Arctic an area of low tension with limited military activity was in Norway and Canada’s interest. If the Arctic has deliberately been kept out-of-sight out-of-mind, Russia’s decade-long military buildup in the region and proximity to NATO’s new borders makes the Arctic a potential hotspot that Allies can no longer ignore.

February 24th, 2022 made fully clear that NATO needed to transition from a posture of deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial with detailed defense plans fit for the core task of defending “every inch of Allied territory.

Stockholm and Helsinki, for their part, drew the conclusion that there is a significant difference between the closest possible partnership with NATO and full Allied status, and quickly sought accession to the Alliance. Both countries have long been militarily preparing to join NATO, but even after Finland and Sweden’s (coming) membership, the Alliance remains unprepared to harness the new members’ full potential.

Nordic Cooperation Reloaded

Swedish and Finnish post-Cold War cooperation with NATO dates back to 1994 when the two nations joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP). After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Finland and Sweden became NATO’s Enhanced Opportunity Partners and regional defense cooperation among the Nordics further intensified. Since then, Sweden and Finland have been building a de facto northern flank through a series of bi- and multilateral agreements with their Nordic neighbors and NATO partners.

In 2014, the governments of Sweden and Finland tasked their armed forces to enhance cooperation on both defense policy decisions and specific military areas. Sweden’s 2016-2020 defense policy, adopted in 2015, stressed the critical nature of deepening bilateral cooperation with Finland. A 2015 joint statement of the ministries of defense confirmed this commitment to deepened military cooperation. In 2018, a defense cooperation Memorandum of Understanding was signed, creating the conditions for joint operational and tactical planning, followed by a joint military strategic concept signed in 2019. In 2020, Sweden adopted a law that extended the powers to provide and receive operational military assistance within the Swedish-Finnish framework and a bilateral host nation agreement was signed in 2022.

The operational results of these agreements have been manifold. For example, the Nordic neighbors work particularly closely together in the air and sea domains and have established a joint bilateral amphibious unit with the goal to defend both countries’ archipelagos. Under the Cross Border Training framework, the air forces of Finland, Sweden and Norway have been exercising on a near weekly basis since 2009 with access to each other’s airfields, which paved the way to a 2023 air force letter of intent, including also Denmark, that aims to operationally integrate the Nordic fleets. The joint size of the Nordic air forces equals that of Britain and France.

On land, the 2022 Vigilant Knife exercise brought Swedish troops under Finnish command on short notice. Across domains, Aurora 2023, the largest Swedish military exercise in more than thirty years with more than 26,000 soldiers from fourteen countries, demonstrated the efficacy of the Nordic region operating in unison with NATO Allies.

Joint readiness is a result of long-standing Nordic defense cooperation. Formalized under the NORDEFCO framework in 2009, many (at the time secret) structures date back to the Cold War.[1] More flexible than NATO’s unanimous decision making, NORDEFCO has enabled the Nordic nations to build interoperability in different coalitions over the years. The most significant multilateral agreements were signed between Finland, Sweden and Norway in 2020 (updated in 2022), and Sweden, Norway and Denmark 2022, as well as the aforementioned 2023 air force agreement.

With such well-integrated forces, Finland and Sweden joining NATO “hand-in-hand” was not only a political ambition, but a military necessity.

Sweden: Ambitious but realistic

Given northern Europe’s geopolitical, geographic, and operational environment, the Swedish Armed Forces view the Nordic and Baltic Sea region as belonging “to the same operational area and command structure” that “require[s] both common and coordinated defense concepts.” Therefore, in their recommendations to the government, the Armed Forces call for Sweden to “take a special responsibility” in building a “Nordic dimension” within NATO.

Central to Sweden’s defense planning is deterring Russia, which the Swedish Defence Commission calls the “most serious and direct threat to European and Swedish security both in the short and long term.” A priority for Sweden as a NATO Ally is contributing to regional deterrence and defense, and the Armed Forces have no illusions that geography is one of the most substantial contributions Sweden can make to Allied security:

“Sweden is geographically central to the defense of Northern Europe. Through the North Pole’s connection to the Arctic and the North Atlantic, the defense of North America may also be affected…Swedish territory and the Baltic Sea will be of great importance for the Alliance’s defense of Finland and the Baltic States. Sweden’s entry into NATO will also change the conditions for the defense of Norway and the adjacent seas, as well as the control of maritime connections in the North Sea and thus also the Baltic Sea inlets. Similarly, Swedish membership in NATO changes the possibilities for the defense of Allies in the southern Baltic Sea.”

Though facing growing pains in rebuilding its military capacity after decades of budget cuts and disarmament, the Armed Forces call for high levels of ambition by contributing forces to NATO’s capabilities across all domains. This includes airborne incident response, air and missile defense, and maritime forces – Swedish capabilities that are tailor-made for the region, e.g. underwater operations in the shallow Baltic Sea waters. Integrating Sweden, together with Finland, into a coherent regional security framework will require common defense planning with “strengthened command and control capability” based upon existing Nordic staffs and expertise.

However, Sweden’s latest defense planning document was made in 2020. The decision called for a doubling of the Armed Forces’ size by 2035 (to around 120,000). Sweden’s two armored brigades will increase to four. These plans did not take into account the investments and changes needed to enter NATO nor the military equipment sent to Ukraine, which now totals approximately 1.5 billion euros. Balancing the need to grow while supporting Ukraine is a matter of risk calculation. The Swedish Defence Minister admits himself that the weapons deliveries, which include Leopard 2, CV90 IFVs, Archer artillery system, and the IRIS-T air defense system, will impact the Armed Forces’ long-term growth. The 5.000 strong armored brigade reportedly expected by NATO for regional and rapid defense may be ideal, but the two additional brigades will only be ready sometime after 2030. Given the challenges and changes the Swedish Armed Forces face, NATO must be pragmatic in incorporating Sweden.

Finland: Preparedness and foresight

In contrast to Sweden, Finland did not scale down its armed forces after the Cold War and kept a large conscription-based land force. The Finnish Defense Forces’ wartime troop strength is therefore 280,000 with a total reserve count of 870,000. Other key Finnish capabilities are its artillery, one of Europe’s largest with around 1,500 weapons, and a strong air force that is in the process of replacing its 61 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets with 64 F-35s from 2026 onwards. Finland is also continuously investing in and modernizing its long-range fires and air defense systems. Notably, Finland’s defense procurements in the past 10-20 years have included many systems that Ukraine is currently in dire need of, such as JASSM joint air-to-surface missiles and several multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS).

While Sweden’s geography, in the middle of the Nordic-Baltic region, widely defines its future role within the Alliance, the Finnish Defence Forces’ capability profile in itself is decisive: With the intensified Russian threat, Finnish capabilities are sought after. Finland’s 1340 km long border with Russia is not so much a threat but an opportunity for NATO. Russia will be forced to extend its attention and forces along a much longer flank, reducing the Baltic States’ vulnerability as a focal point of potential Russian aggression. Farther north, Russia’s Kola Peninsula and the Northern Fleet military base is only 200km from the Finnish border and connected to resupply by a single line of communication, which can be easily disrupted from Finnish territory.

In terms of geography, Finland’s proximity to both major Russian cities (Helsinki and St. Petersburg are less than 400 km apart) and Russia’s Arctic military assets make the Finnish contribution crucial for both NATO’s Baltic defense plans and Arctic posture. Finland also brings one of the largest live fire exercise ranges in Europe to the Alliance: The 1,070 square km wide range in Rovajärvi, Northern Finland, is in active use for multinational exercises.

Apart from a government report on the changed security environment and a shorter recommendation to apply for NATO membership from 2022, the Finnish government and Defense Forces have yet to publish a detailed analysis of Finland’s role as a NATO Ally. The newly-elected government’s program is rather vague on NATO policy and notes that it will be developed in longer government reports on foreign, security and defense policy. Due to its military strength, Finland has a strong voice in the Alliance as it will bear a significant responsibility for the defense of the wider region, particularly neighboring Norway, Sweden, and Estonia.

Nordic Convergence: Denmark, Norway, and Iceland

The Nordic countries’ threat perceptions have increasingly aligned and focused on Russia since its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. As the Danish government’s 2023 Foreign and Security Policy Strategy proclaims, “the Nordic countries are now more united than ever before in the area of security and defense policy.” Sweden and Finland’s entry into the Alliance is viewed not only as creating new opportunities for Nordic defense cooperation but transforming Denmark and Norway’s role within the Alliance.

The Danish security strategy, much like the Swedish Armed Forces’ analysis, sees Denmark –together with Nordic Allies – as having a “special responsibility” for Baltic Sea security. Copenhagen recognizes that the Baltic states feel the “military and hybrid threat from Russia to a particularly high degree.” With Greenland and Faroe Islands under its jurisdiction, Denmark is concerned with Russia’s increased military presence and activity in the Arctic. Denmark sees Russia as “weakened militarily at the moment as a consequence of the war in Ukraine,” but “the situation also makes Russia a more unpredictable actor – including in the Arctic and North Atlantic.” Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership is thus a welcomed and needed development to address Russia’s destabilizing actions in the Arctic.

The Norwegian Armed Forces recognize that Norway’s geographic importance as a “reception area for Allied reinforcements for the Nordic region” and as a facilitator of Allied presence will increase. Allies will no longer only seek to reinforce Norway but pass through its territory en route to Sweden and Finland. Norway thus identifies the need for greater investment in infrastructure and coordination on ground, air, and maritime logistics as a joint Nordic effort. The Norwegian Armed Forces are a strong advocate for greater integration of Nordic capabilities in terms of procurement and a common total defense concept, among other areas. They also recommend the Nordics to develop joint contributions to NATO’s New Force Model, with capability targets viewed within a Nordic framework rather than as national assignments.

Iceland, with a population of less than 400,000, has no armed forces of its own. However, its geographical location in the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America makes it an important puzzle piece along the GIUK gap, an important supply and reinforcement line for the Nordics.

A Baltic boost to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania

The Baltic States expect Finland and Sweden to help raise the profile of their shared security concerns within NATO. Before February 24, 2022, many of the Baltic States’ warnings about Russia were dismissed by other Allies. Sweden and Finland, sharing a similar threat perception as their Baltic neighbors, gives the Nordic-Baltic region additional weight in the eyes of other Allies.

From an Estonian point of view, Finland’s NATO membership is excellent news. Only 80km separate Tallinn from Helsinki in the Gulf of Finland, leaving just a narrow strip for Russia’s Baltic fleet. Finland’s NATO accession thus largely dilutes Russia’s fait accompli scenario for Estonia by opening up an alternative supply and reinforcement route and by enabling NATO to defend Estonia from Finnish territory. Crossing the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki to Tallinn is a matter of minutes for an F-35 fighter jet.

While Estonians welcome their Finnish neighbors to the Alliance so warmly that its postal office released a special stamp to commemorate Finland’s NATO accession, some challenges in calibrating Finland’s contribution to Estonian security remain. From an Estonian point of view, having Finnish troop contributions to the eFP battlegroups would make little sense, as rotating troops from one frontline country to another does not increase their total number. Therefore, it is vital for Estonia that Finland’s NATO accession does not prompt its eFP battlegroup’s framework nation, the United Kingdom, to reevaluate troop commitments to Estonia.

The same applies for Latvia and Lithuania. Latvia is currently expanding its military bases and training grounds, already the largest in the Baltics, to host more Allied troops. Lithuania is now building the necessary infrastructure to host a permanently stationed German brigade in the coming years.

For Latvia and Lithuania, Sweden’s NATO accession is geographically more decisive than Finland’s. If the Baltic Sea was once a buffer against Russian aggression for Sweden, it is now a vital link in reinforcing and providing strategic depth for the Baltic States during times of crisis or war. Swedish territory will also be vital for prepositioning and transporting Allied troops and material, enhancing the security of supply for Latvia and Lithuania. Sweden and Finland are not a substitute but a boost for the regional engagement of other Allies.

Finally, apart from a small number of surveillance planes and vessels, the Baltics have little to no air and maritime capabilities. Here, Sweden could be a substantial contributor with its fleet of nearly 100 JAS Gripen fighter jets and A26 submarines specialized for the Baltic Sea environment. Sweden’s capable navy is a welcome addition to regional security and for its part contributes to Baltic defense not only from land and air but also from sea. The three Baltic states are also investing in their own defense: joint procurement plans include acquisition of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), an integrated air and missile defence system, development of the joint Maritime Situational Awareness capability, increase of ammunition stockpiles, and strengthening of the Special Operations Forces.

Keep the momentum going

Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession is the most transformative change for the Alliance since the eastern enlargement in the early 2000s. Particularly with NATO’s renewed focus on territorial defense in Europe as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the two new Allies are crucial. Finland and Sweden are clearly capable security contributors – but not only: their accession requires a more fundamental shift in NATO’s view of Baltic Sea and Arctic security.

The main advantage of Sweden and Finland’s membership is not what they can contribute to existing arrangements in the Baltic States, but how they transform the whole strategic outlook by connecting the High North with the Baltic Sea. The Baltics are no longer an exposed outpost but now embedded in the wider region backed by the new Allies.

However, while mere geography already hints at the immense opportunity Finland and Sweden’s accession is for the Alliance, it is not a silver bullet. The new Allies’ full potential can only be unlocked if they are integrated in a meaningful way. This would include building upon the existing bi- and multilateral cooperation structures they bring into the Alliance instead of forcing a counterintuitive remaking of regional security.

To avoid creating unnecessary hurdles for the new – and old – Nordic members, the changed operational environment should be reflected in NATO’s command structure. The division of the Nordic countries under different Joint Force Commands illustrates that the post-Cold War command structure is no longer fit for purpose.

With the return of a massive land war to Europe, NATO needs to adapt – and do so faster than the incremental process since 2014. NATO still often follows a political logic rather than clear military priorities. With an increasing number of members, finding consensus requires ever-more elaborate internal diplomacy. However, a new command structure cannot be the result of an arduous political compromise but has to be functional in practice – were the need to defend an Ally ever to arise.

Eric Adamson works for Atlantic Council Northern Europe Office in Stockholm. Minna Ålander works for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) and is a non-resident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).


[1] For more information on Sweden and Finland’s secret cooperation with NATO during the Cold War, see Holmström, Mikael: Den Dolda Alliansen: Sveriges hemliga NATO-förbindelser, Natur & Kultur, Stockholm, 5th Edition, 2023.