Finland and Sweden have finally joined the North Atlantic alliance NATO and have pledged to be loyal, constructive and reliable partners. What both nations sought was full Article 5 security, including protection against nuclear threats, intimidation and coercion. As a nuclear alliance NATO is the provider of such protection. Its nuclear deterrence posture is, however, no static entity but is currently being updated after decades of low priority and neglect. As a reflection of this, a former SACEUR is reported to have said that the best way of ending a meeting in Brussels is to introduce the word nuclear into a discussion.

As NATO members Finland and Sweden will, without political preconditions, participate in the planning and building of the deterrent maintained by the alliance. Given that this takes place amid Russia’s outrageous nuclear rhetoric, the two new Nordic member states can make their contribution to deterrence actively, as “Conventional Support for Nuclear Operations”, or passively through efforts to protect the population against the effects of a possible smaller scale nuclear war. That is a self-evident responsibility for any government. Sweden in particular, but also Finland to some extent, have had a tradition of doing such “skyddsforskning”. It is almost entirely forgotten in the current debate.

The rationale for increased “skyddsforskning” stems from Russia’s controversial escalate-to-win nuclear doctrine. Russian decision makers will not be impressed by western scholars pointing out the flaws and the futility of that doctrine, decisive, concrete steps to improve protection of our populations may provide better results. It would increase the resilience of total defense adopted by our western societies.

The Russian nuclear arsenal includes weapons with a range of different effects. The signal to Russia should be that fear of a small-scale nuclear war will not deter us. Instead of being intimidated we intend to cut Russia’s lowest steps on the escalation ladder. If Russia persists and takes concrete steps towards nuclear war at larger scale, the Kremlin must from the very beginning contemplate the risks to itself. The credibility of threatening mutual and general suicide obviously becomes a key question.

History shows how Soviet-Russian military leaders have been much more cautious about nuclear posturing than their political leaders. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is a good case in point. Soviet defense minister, Marshal Malinovsky gave a categorical order to the Soviet missile commander in Cuba not to transport nuclear warheads to the missile launchers or adapt them on the missiles.

Even Russia’s uncertain ally China, and the other major nuclear weapon states including India, strongly oppose Russia’s current nuclear posturing and stick to the slogan that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. In preparing to use nuclear weapons in combat Russia is alone, perhaps in the company of North Korea.

Is our reasoning about the relevance of protective measures irresponsible folly? Perhaps not. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident on 26 April 1986 was an unanticipated bolt from the blue event that is worth mentioning. The nuclear radiation fallout in Europe was according to IAEA’s assessment in 1996 equivalent to the fallout from 400 Hiroshima bombs.

That was indeed much, but Finland and Sweden handled the crisis and its consequences very well. Their authorities (FOA and the Radiation Protection Institute SSI in Sweden, the Technical Research Centre VTT and Radiation Safety Authority Stuk in Finland), had to begin piecing together a situational picture from scratch. A sufficient cadre of professional nuclear civil servants, physicists, technicians and researchers in both countries and a good domestic radiation detection network made that possible.

The Director Generals of both FOA and VTT developed informal cooperation in the 1970s. Although informal and mostly on ad hoc basis, beginning in the mid-1980s researchers in the nuclear and defence policy field interacted fruitfully for several decades. Unfortunately, funding for technical-scientific nuclear weapons related research at VTT was terminated in 2005 with unavoidable consequences. For Finland to be able to participate actively and constructively in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, a new generation of professional nuclear experts will have to be trained.

Unlike Finland, Sweden and FOI never abandoned serious nuclear research after the end of the Cold War but managed to maintain technical expertise on a very high international level. Sweden was on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons but decided to abandon its weapons program in the 1960s. The technical knowledge and documentation gained was put to good use in strengthening non-proliferation and arms control.

Finland now needs to cooperate closely with Sweden and FOI to again become a serious partner. Physicists, chemists and engineers could be recruited from VTT and Stuk as well as universities. These are national assets that can contribute to fill the void of experts with a background in natural sciences.

Understanding the consequences of limited nuclear use will be essential to prepare a response and to mitigate effects. Finland and Sweden need a cadre of multi-talented experts to analyze and provide advice not only on nuclear policy issues but also to be ready to tackle a host of anticipated future challenges and possible unforeseen, sudden and novel events.

Ian Anthony is doctor and a researcher with the Department for Security Policy at FOI. He is a fellow of RSAWS.
Stefan Forss is professor and a former senior researcher at the Technical Research Centre of Finland, VTT and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is a fellow of RSAWS.
A slightly shorter version of this article was published in Hufvudstadsbladet on 17 May 2024.