Russia's annexation of Crimea and what appears to be its provocation in eastern Ukraine has left many former members of the Soviet Union nervous. But the nerves aren't limited to the traditional countries in Russia's "near abroad," many of whom have large Russian-speaking minorities that give them reason for concern. Now even Sweden and Finland seem afraid.
On Monday, for example, Wilhelm Unge, the chief counter-intelligence analyst with Swedish intelligence agency Säpo, warned reporters that "Russia is the biggest intelligence agent in Sweden."
"They are interested in really everything -- political, economic, technical and military information," Unge said, according to Sveriges Radio. "It is one of the few countries that has the very broad intelligence interest in Sweden." The analyst also pointed to training missions the Russian fight planes practiced just outside the Swedish border last year, which happened at least twice in 2013: Missions that appeared to be designed to remind Sweden that Russia had the ability to attack its neighbors, if not the will.
"You don't carry out these kinds of things unless you can actually conceive carrying out an attack in the future," Unge reportedly explained.
For Finland there's also reason to be concerned. At the tail-end of March, Andrej Illarionov, a former adviser to Vladimir Putin, told a Swedish newspaper that the Russian president had designs on Finland, which had been a part of the Russian Empire for more than 100 years. "Putin has said several times that the Bolsheviks and Communists made big mistakes," Illarionov said, in a translation from the Independent. "He could well say that the Bolsheviks in 1917 committed treason against Russian national interests by granting Finland's independence.” One Finnish Web site reported that Helsinki was nervous due to news that Russian troops had been conducting military exercises on the Finnish border, though there are now some credible signs that report could be a Russian disinformation campaign.
These stories have obviously caught a lot of attention, and for good reason: A Russian military attack on Finland or Sweden would be extraordinary. Thankfully, few people seem to think that idea is credible. For example, Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution told me that the stories seemed a bit "overblown," while Mark Galeotti of New York University said he found the idea of military incursions into Sweden and Finland "wholly implausible."
Why is Russian military action in Finland and Sweden seen as so unlikely? To put it simply, because it'd be stupid. Russia's actions in Ukraine and Crimea may have been brazen, but they were also opportunistic. It's hard to imagine now is really a great time to suddenly enter into another unnecessary conflict.
That said, even if military conflict seems unlikely, the stories from Sweden and Finland do seem to represent something else: How non-alignment appears to be becoming an increasingly difficult position.
Sweden and Finland have histories of conflict with Russia, and both are located in strategically important important places for Moscow– Finland shares a 833 mile border with the country, while the Swedish island of Gotland is just 155 miles from Kaliningrad, Russia's European enclave. However, both have followed a committed policy of non-alignment in more recent years: Finland in particular became noted in the 20th century for attempts to appease Russia (which gave birth to the phrase "Finlandization"), and even today its economy is largely dependent on its larger neighbor.
This policy of non-alignment is one of reason that the two countries are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Putin's aggression, however, appears to be making the two countries reconsidering their position. Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Jan Björklun recently suggested that the country should rethink its military strategy in the wake of the Crimea situation, while Finland's potential membership has seen renewed interest in the Finnish press. The pair are also reported to be eyeing a non-NATO defense partnership.
Given the lack of public support NATO membership enjoys in both countries, not to mention the concerns about antagonizing Russia, it seems unlikely that either country is going to be joining the organization immediately. But its increasing possibility, not to mention what appears to be an uptick in Russian intimidation and surveillance in the two countries, seems to show how the situation has changed. As Galeotti elegantly put it in a recent blog post, the current relationship between Russia and its opponents is beginning to look like less like the relatively stable Cold War, but a redo of the "Great Game" of the 19th century: A confusing, often covert conflict where increased intelligence activity and political pressure make non-alignment even more difficult.
Update: The border length between Russia and Finland has been corrected to 833 miles.