Conflict has a way of moving people off the fence and into action. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden officially apply to join NATO. In the past, Sweden and Finland have always seen joining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an unnecessary provocation of Moscow and have long pursued a neutral stance. But with the invasion of Ukraine, public opinion has shifted massively and led to both countries applying to join NATO in May 2022. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has threatened to react with unspecified “military-technical measures” should the Nordic states commit “the grave mistake” of joining NATO. And the proof of support from the U.S. for the application to join NATO is now being seen in the port of Stockholm. The U.S.S. Kearsarge showed up two weeks after Sweden and Finland announced their plans to seek membership in NATO.
Impact of USS Kearsarge in Stockholm Port
“No one can miss that there is a big American ship here in our city,” said Michael Byden, the supreme commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, standing on the amphibious assault ship’s deck in the shadow of an MV-22 Osprey. He also added, “There are more capabilities on this ship than I could gather in a garrison.”
The U.S.S. Kearsarge is an enormous warship, holding 26 warplanes and 2,400 Marines and sailors. It was involved in a PASSEX training with the Finnish and Swedish navies in the northern Baltic Sea on May 13. From May 17 to 23, it took part in the NATO vigilance activity Neptune Shield 2022. It docked in Tallinn, Estonia, and arrived in Stockholm’s port on June 2 in anticipation of an exercise called Baltops with 14 NATO states plus Finland and Sweden.
Gen Mark Milley, the most senior U.S. military commander, said the visit of the warship to Stockholm was in part designed to answer questions about the gray period both Finland and Sweden are in as NATO works to move forward with their membership request.
Milley said, “I think the Kearsarge being here is a pretty strong statement. We are committed to a rules-based international order…and the idea that strong, powerful countries cannot just arbitrarily attack smaller weaker countries as we have seen in Ukraine.”
He went on to also say, “The Russians have their Baltic fleet.” But with Finland and Sweden joining NATO they would have their own group of countries wrapped around the Baltic Sea. “From a Russian perspective, that would be very problematic for them, military speaking.”
NATO Response in Baltic Sea
Both Finland and Sweden want security assurances from the U.S. and NATO while they work through this interim period while working through negotiations with Turkey. And while the U.S. has pledged support, American officials have yet to say specifically what form of help that would be.
The refusal of all NATO countries to send in actual troops to Ukraine shows that the promise of support and what support would be provided are to still be determined. But the moves to involve both Finland and Sweden in the various exercises that have happened along with future exercises shows the commitment the U.S. and other NATO countries are making. The Baltops exercise is the exact kind of military operation that Russia did not manage to pull off in their invasion of Ukraine. It is a big part of why they have not managed to take the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa.
But including Sweden and Finland in NATO exercises is not just an assurance to these countries as they move closer to full membership. NATO also gains by extending its western border with Russia, giving military strategists more flexibility. In the past, NATO had to make compromises about where to concentrate troops, headquarters, and command and control. With Sweden and Finland added to NATO, it could change everything.