Reshaping Security: The Evolution of the Nordic Countries’ Role within Europe’s Security Framework

By Viktoriia Vitsenko

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Key Takeaways

  • Varied Importance of Nordic Cooperation: While Sweden and Finland prioritize the Northern Dimension in their security policies, Norway and Iceland are more restrained, and Denmark considers it a lesser priority. 
  • Evolution of NORDEFCO and Regional Agreements: Post-2014, after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, NORDEFCO has seen a revival with increased collaboration and joint projects. Significant agreements were signed among the Nordic countries to enhance military cooperation and strategic planning in peacetime and times of crisis or war, reflecting foresight in strengthening regional protection.
  • Russia’s Constant Influence and Threat: Russia has always been a significant concern for the security of the Nordic countries, especially Finland, Sweden, and Norway. The geographical and historical context, along with the geopolitical tensions in the Arctic and the struggle for resources, has kept Russia’s presence as a central focus of defense policies in the region.
  • Transformation of Security Policy in the Face of the War in Ukraine: Significant initiatives were taken to make the region sustainable and integrated by 2030, with an emphasis on NATO and EU cooperation. The region’s approach to security has shifted in response to increasing tensions and a need for stronger alliances.
  • Security Implications of NATO Membership for Finland and Sweden: Their inclusion strengthens NATO’s strategic position and impacts regional defense, especially concerning key locations like Sweden’s Gotland Island.

Despite the Northern European countries’ proximity, shared history, and cultural links, as well as their similarities in many other areas like politics and business, there have traditionally been substantial variations between them when it comes to their guiding principles for security policy. Within the cooperation in this field of these countries, two dimensions should be outlined: regional (the five Nordic countries) and international (within wider organizations). The most defining indicator has always been the different membership models of these states in such regional organizations as NATO and the EU. 

Diverse initial choices of institutional affiliation and security policy in Nordic countries were determined by numerous different factors scoping from historical identity, political culture, and specific small nations’ politics. In this way, the countries chose their own security paths, which remained unchanged for a long time, even during the Cold War.

In this article, the origins of the security architecture in northern Europe and the effect of its fragmentation on the state of security in the region will be considered. In addition, the evolution of the security architecture and its ability to eliminate potential threats primarily related to Russia will be analyzed.

Regional Cooperation in the Nordic Countries: Defense Strategies and Security Concerns

Historically, there was a different degree of importance that these countries attach to Nordic cooperation. Sweden and Finland have always emphasized the importance and priority of the Northern Dimension in their security policies. At the same time, Norway and Iceland were much more restrained in this regard. As for Denmark, it generally considers the Northern Dimension to be a third-order priority. Important regional organizations are the Nordic Council of Ministers (established in 1971) and the five-country parliamentary body, the Nordic Council (1952). Undoubtedly the most crucial organization is the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) established in 2009, whose goal was to strengthen the defense capabilities of member countries by identifying areas of cooperation and promoting effective solutions.
Cooperation within the framework of NORDEFCO can be divided into two periods: before and after 2014. Until the time of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the organization’s activity was quite sluggish and, in general, it was often characterized as money-saving. Interestingly, even Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 did not have the proper effect, and “relations as usual” with the aggressor country were restored quite quickly. It was after 2014 that NORDEFCO experienced a kind of revival because the change in the geopolitical climate redefined the goals of this organization’s cooperation. Collaboration in various joint projects has significantly increased, so some of the most significant events of this time period should be singled out. In 2016, five countries signed the Easy Access Agreement that allowed their armed forces to use each other’s air, sea, and land areas in peacetime. In 2018, Sweden and Finland signed a memorandum on military cooperation, which allows the two countries to jointly carry out operational planning in the event of a crisis or war. In 2020, the defense ministers of Finland, Sweden, and Norway signed a “Declaration of Intent for Enhanced Operational Cooperation”, which aims at operational synergy and joint planning in times of crisis or war. Taking into account the further situation around Russia and Ukraine, at that moment the Nordic countries indeed showed foresight by developing such a strategic tool to strengthen the protection of their territories.

Regional security cooperation was mostly overshadowed by the one within NATO and was mostly deemed to be a complementary element to it. Denmark and Norway were among the countries that relied on North Atlantic Alliance the most, in particular emphasizing bilateral connections with the USA. As for Iceland, since 1951, the USA, at the request of NATO, has provided the defense of this country. However, a serious obstacle at that time was the remaining of Sweden and Finland outside NATO. In general, regional cooperation did not play an important role during a long period primarily because of the political fragmentation of this region, which in turn was significantly provoked by the great differences in options of membership in such organizations as NATO and the EU. Moreover, it was due to the absence of any momentum from the outside that would clearly demonstrate the need for closer interaction.

Russia’s Presence as a Constant Threat to the Nordic Region

The threat posed by Russia to the security of Northern European countries reached its peak only after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, though in fact, the Russian factor has always been, to a greater or lesser extent, very alarming and has always been the main security challenge for the neighboring Scandinavian countries. 
Above all, it has traditionally had a particularly strong influence on Finland. Firstly, this is explained by the country’s geographical position, since it shares its longest land border of 1,309 km with Russia. The second reason is related to historical events, namely the occupation of Finland by the USSR in the previous century, and therefore the presence in this Scandinavian country of the feeling of a further constant threat from the Russian side. Finally, the most important reason is geopolitical, which in a certain way combines the first two and includes the current political tension in the Arctic, the division of zones of influence there, and the struggle for resources.

Thus, the defense policy of Finland has always been tightly related to Russia. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, an important element of Finland’s defense policy was non-contractual defense cooperation, primarily with such countries as Sweden, Norway, the USA, Great Britain, and Estonia. It is interesting that this partly served as a substitute for NATO membership. Although to a lesser extent, due to geopolitical and geographical reasons as the countries share a maritime border, Russia has also always caused similar serious concern for Sweden related to military tension in the north.

As for Norway (it shares with Russia a 196 km border that stretches almost to the North Pole), after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the country stopped military cooperation with Russia. Moreover, political contacts were largely limited or canceled altogether. For example, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited Russia and met with the Russian president only five years later, in 2019. One of the most vulnerable points for Norway has always been Spitsbergen. Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is one of Russia’s four strategic fleets, is a stone’s throw from the Norwegian border and occupies a central place in Russia’s military strategy. Nevertheless, realizing the need soon after that, Norway, like most European countries, sought to normalize relations with Russia. The new government led by Jonas Gar Støre, which came to power in 2021, stated on its platform that it would “further develop bilateral cooperation with Russia in the north”.

Nordic Countries’ Diverse Cooperation with NATO: Historical Perspectives

Reviewing the period from the foundation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the events of 2022, it should be noted that the relations of each of these countries with the Alliance were unique. Three of the five Nordic countries, namely Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, have been members of NATO since 1949, i.e., they were among the twelve founding states of the Alliance. 
The countries of Sweden and Finland, which declared themselves neutral and non-aligned and for a long time held a position of non-adherence to NATO, were radically different. The authorities of Sweden, a country that has not been a party to conflicts since 1814, at all declared that the war was a thing of the past. It is noteworthy that the Swedish army was reduced by almost 90% and the air force and navy by approximately 70%. Even the regiment responsible for the defense of the strategically exposed island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea was withdrawn in 2004.

At the same time, Finland and Sweden have always closely cooperated with NATO. In the 1990s, both of these countries decided to officially change their defense policies from neutral to militarily nonaligned. Soon after, both of them joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. It was Finland’s accession to the Partnership for Peace in 1994 and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997 that initiated cooperation between the countries and the alliance. As a result of the NATO Summit in Wales in 2014, Finland and Sweden, along with three other countries, became Enhanced Opportunity Partners (EOP) and participated in a number of NATO arrangements, including the NATO Response Force. Finland has become a partner with enhanced capabilities. Being one of the most active partners of NATO, Finland participated in various operations and missions led by the Alliance (in particular, in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan). In 2017, Finland signed the Political Framework Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Cyber Defense with NATO. Considering the fact that hybrid activity gradually became a constant challenge for European security, it is important that in the same year, Finland created the Helsinki European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. Supported by NATO and the EU, this center is a real incentive for cooperation between these organizations and is open to the member countries of the Alliance. Official Stockholm continued to pursue a very pragmatic security policy, moving as close as possible to NATO without talking about membership. In 2020, exercises took place between the special forces of the Swedish army and the American unit.

Compared to other Nordic countries, Norway’s historical experience was significantly different. During the Second World War, Norway took a neutral position, which in no way protected the state and did not become an obstacle to the German occupation of the country. In view of this, nowadays, the country resolutely rejects the policy of neutrality and considers the North Atlantic Alliance the most important aspect of its security policy.

Thanks to the different positions of all the Nordic countries, until the 1990s the so-called Scandinavian balance was consciously or unconsciously maintained. Important for establishing this equilibrium was the warning of Norway and Denmark that, despite their membership in NATO, it was not allowed to deploy foreign military forces of the Alliance partners on their territories in peacetime, let alone nuclear weapons. It is also worth noting that the armed forces of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland made a significant contribution to the UN peacekeeping missions, meeting quite often outside the European continent.

The Background of Nordic Countries’ Engagement with the EU: The Defense Dimension

All Nordic countries except Norway and Iceland are members of the European Union. In 1973 Denmark was the first of these countries to join the EU. After the change in the official description of the defense policy, Sweden (1991) and Finland (1992) applied for membership in the association. They both joined the union together as a result of the 1995 northern enlargement of the EU. However, each of these three countries has some features or exceptions that set them apart from most other EU members. 

Talking about the security sphere Denmark was standing out among its Nordic colleagues as during the 30 years from 1992 to 2022 the state ignored the military dimension of integration by not participating in one of the three pillars of the EU – the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

A map showing membership of countries
in the EU and NATO.
Purple: both, blue: EU only,
orange: NATO only.

It was caused because of the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by a very small majority of the population (50.7%), in the 1992 referendum. Therefore in 1993, this country received various EU opt-outs from the EU cooperation that were enshrined in the Edinburgh Treaty. This agreement announced that Denmark will not participate in the development and implementation of EU decisions and actions that have a defense purpose. However, at the same time, it was emphasized that Denmark will not prevent the development of closer cooperation between other member states in this area. Taking this into account, a rather paradoxical situation persisted because Denmark was actually the only one of the Northern European countries that was both a member of the EU and NATO, the only doubly integrated one, and it was the least involved in the EU of all the Nordic countries.

On the contrary, statements made in 2009 by Sweden were very unusual for this state. The Swedish White Paper adopted that year emphasized the government’s support for the so-called Declaration of Solidarity presented by the Defense Committee. According to this declaration, it was announced that Sweden would not remain passive if another EU member state or a Scandinavian country (i.e., Norway or Iceland) were to suffer an attack. It was emphasized that Sweden would expect the same action from these countries if this country was in a similar situation. In fact, this declaration was very consistent with the Lisbon Treaty of the EU. According to Article 42.7, if a member state is a victim of armed aggression on its territory, other member states undertake to provide it with assistance by all means.

The feature of Sweden’s policy was that the governments that came to power emphasized, to varying degrees, either the EU or the UN as a predominant subject of the general security order. For example, from 2006 to 2014, during the rule of the center-right government, the country sought a leading role in the EU’s Eastern Partnership and, in general, to increase its role in the EU. 

The new left-wing government in 2014 significantly reduced the importance of the EU, and the balance tilted in favor of the UN. During 2017–2018, Sweden received a seat on the UN Security Council, which it had longed for. Finally, the new right-wing government of 2022, paying more attention to the role of a core member of the EU, signaled a turn in foreign policy.

Norway and Iceland are members of the European Economic Area. They cooperate with the EU in various spheres, in particular in security. Norway signed an agreement with The European Defense Agency in 2006, thus becoming the first country with which, such an agreement was signed. Nevertheless, for Norway, NATO has always remained the best guarantor of security, and the emphasis was placed on the USA and Great Britain.

The different approaches of these countries to the EU can be explained as arising either mainly from security or economic factors. For example, while the main reasons for Finland’s accession to the EU were primarily related to security, Sweden followed its economic interests, as it had a positive experience of neutrality and non-alignment. From this point of view, the situation in Norway was quite special. The main arguments against the full integration of this country into the EU were economic factors. At the same time, the active involvement of the country in the CSDP was caused by security considerations.

Transformation of Nordic Countries’ Security Policy in the Face of the War in Ukraine

The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, which caused the outbreak of the largest war on the European continent since the Second World War, has finally changed, is changing, and will continue to change the security policy of the vast majority of European countries. 

One of the most striking examples is the countries of Northern Europe, some decisions of which have truly become historic. Dubbed in Germany as Zeitenwende, this time is actually a great fit for the Nordic countries.

During the Nordic Council of Ministers held in the Norwegian capital on August 15, 2022, five member countries agreed on a rather ambitious decision: to make the Nordic region the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030. The Nordic countries announced that they share the goal of maintaining stability and strengthening security in the region. To achieve this, the importance of enhancing multilateral cooperation in all possible formats was emphasized: at the regional level (primarily within the framework of NORDEFCO), and at the European and Euro-Atlantic levels (NATO and the EU).

In the past, Nordic cooperation was often criticized for not having the necessary means to deal with growing geopolitical tensions in the region. After all, it was believed that this cooperation has neither the necessary tools nor sufficient institutional structures nor the political will to develop a common Northern security and defense policy. However, recently, we have been observing significant changes on this path. In particular, in August 2022, the prime ministers of the Nordic countries emphasized the importance of achieving synergy in the coordination of national defense plans and NATO plans. In November, the defense ministers of Finland, Sweden, and Norway signed a joint statement on deepening the defense cooperation of the Nordic countries.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s actions constantly contribute to increasing tension in the Northern region. For example, in the fall of 2022, satellite images were published indicating that Russia had deployed strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons near the border with Norway. In May 2023, Russia transferred the maximum number (from February 24, 2022) of such bombers to the border with Norway and Finland. In addition, in February 2023, according to Norwegian intelligence, for the first time in 30 years, Russia introduced ships with nuclear weapons into the Baltic Sea. At the same time, it is necessary for both Norway and Denmark to continue negotiations with Russia regarding territorial claims at the North Pole and cooperation in the Barents Sea.

Soldiers from Gotland’s regiment patrol Visby harbour.
The deployment came amid rising jitters in Nordic
and Baltic countries about Russia’s intentions on
its border with Ukraine © via REUTERS

Drastic and important changes have happened in Denmark’s position regarding the EU CSDP. In 2022, the country’s ruling parties adopted the “National Compromise on Denmark’s Security Policy”, which emphasized that changes in Denmark’s existing security and defense architecture were necessary in view of the strengthening geopolitical context. During the referendum on July 1, 2022, 66.9% of the population voted to join The Common Security and Defense Policy. After the referendum, the Danish parliament in mid-June adopted a law that opened the way for Denmark’s participation in the CSDP. It gave the country a chance to participate in the EU’s military missions and operations. The opportunity to join the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Agency has paramount importance and was approved during the vote on March 23, 2023. Thus, Denmark will be able to participate in joint EU military operations and, importantly, cooperate on the development and acquisition of military potential within the framework of the association.

There is another factor affecting the country’s attitude to security, which was indirectly shaped by Russia’s actions. Denmark’s political decisions regarding security were also driven by fear of being left behind in ambitious actions relating to the defense of its neighbors, especially Germany. Therefore, given the general awakening of Europe, in case of neglecting the security policy, Denmark just may not get a very positive reputation as a NATO member state. Therefore, the country decided to reach 2% by 2033. On the one hand, it seems like insufficient steps, as the deadline is extremely distant. However, at the same time, even this is a great achievement for Denmark because traditionally the strategy of this country has always been aimed at preserving US security guarantees while at the same time not spending significant funds on defense (Denmark has never reached the requirement of 2%).

NATO Membership of Finland and Sweden: Implications for the Security Architecture

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine radically changed the foreign policy approaches of Sweden and Finland. Both countries drastically reassessed their security policies and, as a result, realized that the most realistic and reliable way to ensure security would be a quick accession to NATO.
If earlier Russia was the main reason to stay out of the North Atlantic Alliance, then in 2022 Russia became the main reason for countries’ desire to join it. Neutrality, instead of ensuring security, makes the country vulnerable to Russian aggression. This thesis was confirmed, in particular, by the results of surveys among the Swedish population. In 2022 Swedish citizens consider Russia to be the most important security challenge among the nine proposed threats (21% of respondents expressed this opinion). This indicator is higher than the average value of those who perceive Russia as the greatest threat among all other countries.

In May 2022, both countries jointly submitted official letters of application for membership in the Alliance. The cancellation of the stage of providing the MAP was an unprecedented decision, which became possible due to the proximity of the countries to the Alliance, in particular, membership in the EU, as well as strong democratic institutions, transparency of the authorities, and, of course, the interoperability of the armed forces and their compliance with NATO standards. After the NATO summit in Madrid, on July 4, 2022, Sweden and Finland completed their accession negotiations. On July 5, all member states signed the Protocols on their accession to NATO. After the Protocol was ratified by all 30 members of the Alliance on April 4, 2023, Finland became the 31st full member of NATO.

The Finnish foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, left, hands over Finland’s accession document to the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, right, as Jens Stoltenberg looks on. Photograph: Johanna Geron/AP

The path to NATO Membership was more difficult for Sweden though due to the veto of Hungary and Turkey. Only during the NATO summit in Vilnius did Turkish President Erdoğan announce that he agreed to unblock Sweden’s accession to NATO.

It is worth noting that, NATO’s protection is geographically much wider than it might seem at first glance; for example, Sweden owns territories that are very important in strategic terms. Especially crucial is the island of Gotland, regarding which there is even a common expression that whoever controls this island controls the Baltic Sea. This makes it very important for the defense of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Thus, after the accession of Sweden, the North Atlantic Alliance will fully cover the entire region of Northern Europe. Undoubtedly, after the accession of the entire Northern region to NATO, the alliance will become much stronger. Full entry would bring the alliance a strategic advantage on a global scale.

It is imperative to acknowledge the prominence of Gothenburg, located along Sweden’s western coastline. Addressing maritime security, it not only stands as a vital port for Sweden but also assumes significance for Norway and Finland. Rooted in historical tradition, Norway’s pivotal role within NATO lends substantial weight to its influence in the North. The overarching national commitment entails a sustained presence in the Far North. The forthcoming inclusion of Finland and Sweden into the Alliance augments this endeavor significantly.

The recent military engagements between Finland, Sweden, and NATO signal an unprecedented alignment with the Alliance’s strategies and standards. This synergy is developing more rapidly than what is typical for potential members. A notable feature is the significant contribution these countries have made to regional security without yet formally joining the Alliance. Since April 2022, NATO forces have been stationed in Finland almost continuously, conducting collective defense exercises that ensure a greater presence of the Alliance in the region. In November 2022, Finland, Sweden, and Norway took a step further by updating their tripartite statement of intent to strengthen operational planning, particularly in their northern territories. This alignment reached a new peak in March 2023 when Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden announced a major agreement to use approximately 250 of their fighters as joint operational units. Such collaborations reflect a deepening relationship and a commitment to the region’s security that transcends formal membership.

Nordic Nations’ Stance on the War in Ukraine: Military Aid, Financial Support, and Diplomatic Engagement

Like the entire collective West, the countries of Northern Europe immediately strongly condemned Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine. They remain unwavering in their commitment to the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders. All Nordic countries provide Ukraine with versatile political, military, financial, and humanitarian assistance. They also supported tough sanctions against Russia, in particular against the country’s energy sector. According to Kiel University data for the period from February 2022 to May 2023, in terms of some indicators of the total volume of bilateral aid to Ukraine, calculated both in billions of euros and as a percentage of GDP, the countries of Northern Europe are in the top ten aid providers of Ukraine.

It is characteristic that the main aid of these countries falls on military support. The largest contributor in this area is Denmark, whose aid for 2022–2023 has only gradually increased. 

For instance, in May 2023, the country sent the largest package of military aid in the amount of 250 million dollars, which was intended to help the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces. Speaking about the long-term perspective, it is important that the country has increased the fund of military aid to Ukraine calculated for the period 2023–2028 to 3.2 billion dollars. Also, Denmark has created a fund to support Ukraine in the amount of one billion euros that aims mainly at the reconstruction of Ukraine. The support of Sweden and Finland, which are militarily the most powerful of all the Nordic countries, is also crucial. They transfer a wide range of weapons to Ukraine: anti-tank weapons, demining equipment, light anti-tank systems, infantry fighting vehicles, tanks and artillery, air defense equipment, etc.

Norway is one of the major contributors to NATO’s Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine. The country also plays an important role thanks to the creation of the Nansen Support Program for Ukraine. As part of this multi-year support program for Ukraine, Norway will provide more than 75 billion kroner over the five years 2023–2027. It is worth noting that Norway was one of the first countries to announce a similar support program for Ukraine. Above all, this includes military support, humanitarian aid, funding to support civilian infrastructure and essential public functions. According to the statement of Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, it is assumed that in 2023, half of the aid will be in the form of military support. In addition, during the Vilnius summit, the country’s prime minister announced an increase in the military aid fund this year by 2.5 billion kroner, i.e., in 2023, military support will amount to 10 billion kroner.

Iceland, being a small country with a population of approximately 357,000 people that does not have significant defense capabilities, also provides Ukraine with primarily political, financial, and humanitarian aid in the war with Russia. Assistance in the restoration and modernization of Ukraine’s energy sector is also important. This country provided Kyiv with the equipment needed to restore the damaged power system for 1.5 billion euros. In terms of financial aid as a percentage of GDP, Iceland ranks 11th. Iceland’s presidency of the Council of Europe (November 2022–May 2023) focused on strengthening the main principles of the Council—human rights, democracy, and the rule of law—which were seriously threatened by the Russian war against Ukraine. After the end of this presidency, on May 16–17, 2023, a summit of heads of state and government of the Council of Europe was held in Reykjavik, during which the international register of damages caused to Ukraine during the war was presented.


In the article, the evolution of the Nordic countries’ role within Europe’s security framework was considered. Summing up, the Russian invasion of Ukraine became a powerful impulse for the countries of Northern Europe to significantly deepen cooperation in the field of security policy; this applied both at the regional level and within the Euro-Atlantic organization NATO. 

Sweden and Finland have ultimately carved out their unique positions within the extensive security architecture of Europe. This observation is somewhat applicable to Denmark as well, especially in light of the European Union’s growing desire to stake a more prominent claim in the domains of security and military prowess.

With regard to NATO, the cases of Finland and Sweden have underscored the supreme significance of alliance membership in security and defense for nations with moderate influence. Simultaneously, it raises substantial questions regarding the efficacy of maintaining a neutral stance. Consequently, an unprecedented unity has emerged among all five Nordic nations, overcoming the previously pronounced divergence that had characterized their relationships.

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