In Search of Enhanced Defence Cooperation in Europe

On April 9, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland agreed on closer defense ties and increased solidarity with the Baltic states, in a move designed to enhance regional security through deterrence. In a joint declaration, the defense ministers of four Nordic states and the foreign minister of Iceland insisted that, given Russia’s growing assertiveness, Northern Europe must prepare for possible crises or incidents. As they put it, “Russia’s conduct represents the gravest challenge to European security.” The joint declaration depicts closer Nordic cooperation and solidarity with the Baltic states as a recipe for increased regional security by lifting the threshold for military events and lowering the risk of military incidents.

The scope for military cooperation among these countries, including shared tasks and procurement, was discussed when defense ministers from the Nordic and Baltic states met in Oslo for two days of talks in November 2014. Under the broadened collaboration agreement, projects being run within the framework of the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO)—the primary pan-Nordic defense cooperation vehicle—would be opened to the three Baltic-NATO states. Norway, Denmark and Iceland (which does not have a standing army) are NATO members; Finland and Sweden are non-aligned, but in recent years have increased their cooperation with the alliance.

Above and beyond any immediate tangible impact, however, the new agreement is significant as a reflection of a broader move to strengthen—and in some instances rethink—security arrangements in an increasingly tense Europe.

The move towards enhanced defence cooperation comes against the background of heightened tensions in Europe since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine a year ago. The Nordic countries have reported a rise in Russian military activity over the past year, including several airspace violations and incidents of war planes allegedly flying without their identifying transponders. Furthermore, with large Russian minorities living in the Baltics, and in a situation in which Moscow has unilaterally declared that it has a right to defend Russian-speaking compatriots, concerns have grown in the region about the risk of further Russian interventions.

Officials from the signatory states—especially those hailing from the Baltics—have greeted the new agreement with enthusiasm, portraying it as a significant  leap ahead in the enhancement of regional cooperation. The notion involved here is that the ability of the Baltic states to join concrete NORDEFCO projects will allow them to cut costs and generate new capacity-building capabilities more efficiently.  For its part, Russia has sharply criticized the new agreement, accusing the governments of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden of “confrontational approaches” to regional defense and security issues.

Beyond all these statements, however, it is unclear how far the new agreement will modify the Nordic security landscape. After all, even before the April 9 declaration, Nordic countries were involved in efforts to increase their defense capacity through cooperation (for instance, via joint exercises and joint participation in international operations, as well as in areas such as joint procurement). At the same time, there continue to be some significant differences in the ways in which these countries approach security. Despite closer cooperation with NATO in recent years, Finland and Sweden have been reluctant to abandon their traditional neutrality. As NATO members, Norway and Denmark prioritize the security guarantee provided by the alliance.

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It is also important to note that the new agreement is rather vague on the topic of new mutual obligations. The Norwegian Defence Minister has clearly indicated that the cooperation envisaged in the new agreement is flexible, and represents a supplement, not an alternative, to each nation’s membership in NATO and the EU.

Above and beyond any immediate tangible impact, however, the new agreement is significant as a reflection of a broader move to strengthen—and in some instances rethink—security arrangements in an increasingly tense Europe. For instance, in the aftermath of Russia’s military intervention in Crimea last year, NATO leaders have approved wide-ranging plans to boost the alliance’s defenses in Central/Eastern Europe and create a new ‘spearhead’ rapid reaction force with 5000 soldiers.

Still, these changes have not entirely alleviated the concerns of the NATO allies.  Many of the newer (ex-communist) members of the alliance are particularly concerned about Europe’s declining defence capabilities. There are also worries about the lack of clarity over how NATO might respond to hybrid forms of aggression, such as those carried out by Russia in Ukraine, which combine military and non-military (including cyber) forms of violence, and involve various proxies and special forces disguised as local militias. Allied officials have repeatedly claimed that more subtle forms of conducting warfare—including hybrid warfare—do not undermine the value of Article 5. However, NATO allies located near Russia, and many who were former members of the communist bloc, worry that should a hybrid attack occur on their territory, NATO might lack the instruments and the political will to act decisively to protect them.

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Consequently, several NATO allies have sought supplemental security guarantees—not only via regional cooperation arrangements but also, in some instances, by pursuing closer defense cooperation with the U.S. In principle, these arrangements have the potential to make useful contributions to European security. However, they might also have problematic side-effects: for instance, they might generate tensions between allies who belong to particular regional arrangements and those who do not.

More broadly, such arrangements cannot be a sufficient response to the evolving security environment in Europe. Instead, a more concerted effort will be needed on the part of NATO as a whole to demonstrate its resolve and ability to protect all its members, not only against conventional forms of war but also against hybrid forms of aggression. This will require the development of new capabilities and strategies, including non-conventional partnerships (for instance, with private actors in the area of cyber security).

At the same time, while a return to the 1990s vision of a NATO-Russia partnership does not seem possible in the near future, the allies should continue to explore cooperation with Moscow in areas of common concern ranging from arms control to combating piracy. Despite recent tensions between Moscow and the West, cooperation in those areas remains both feasible and desirable—for symbolic purposes, as well as for practical reasons.

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