Opinion & Analysis

How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rewrote Nordic defence policies

In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership, while Denmark ended its opt out from the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. Drawing on a new study, Marta Migliorati explains how long-term trends combined with an immediate crisis to produce these abrupt policy changes.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was a deep shock to the Euro-Atlantic security order. In the aftermath of the attack, Nordic countries took some pathbreaking decisions in their defence policies: Sweden and Finland gave up their historical non-alignment to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Denmark ended its 30-year self-exclusion from the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

What was the story behind these sudden moves? Clearly, they were part of a reaction to a tangible security threat given the geographical proximity of the Nordics, especially Finland, to Russia. However, this answer does not capture several nuances in the relationship between the Nordics and the two institutional cornerstones of European security.

Making sense of the Nordics

Since the end of the Cold War, Nordic EU member states have developed a rather atypical relationship with NATO and the CSDP. Sweden and Finland joined the EU in 1995 but chose to avoid NATO membership due to their historical neutrality, while Denmark opted out of the CSDP in 1992 following a negative referendum. Despite these official stances, all three countries engaged in informal cooperation with both organisations.

The Nordics’ developing approach towards European security is better understood if we distinguish between different logics underlying national affiliations to international institutions. Pragmatically, institutions serve governments’ priorities in relation to security and power, while symbolically, institutions are understood as a collection and reflection of shared norms guiding states’ actions. Although not mutually exclusive, these two dimensions are not always identical.

A country’s government may find benefits in cooperating with international institutions, but such pragmatic priorities might not fit deep-rooted societal norms backed by public opinion. When this mismatch occurs, national political elites can engage in informal cooperation without seemingly breaching any societal values. While this mechanism – named “organised hypocrisy” by the renowned political scientist Stephen Krasner – can unfold over large time spans, crisis situations can reshape the balance between norms and practices, and eventually set the end of this duplicity. Let’s look at the three cases in a bit more detail.

Sweden and Finland

For a variety of geopolitical and historical reasons, in Finland and Sweden neutrality goes back several decades, and by the end of the Cold War it was deeply engrained in both societies. The accession of the two Nordic states to the European Union in 1995 did not modify their official positioning on this principle, apart from relabelling it with the “nebulous” term “non-alignment”.

Alongside EU accession, Finland and Sweden gradually started to cooperate with NATO and by 2010 they had vastly broadened their interpretation of non-alignment. They participated in military exercises, courses and seminars and military operations (in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, the latter only by Sweden). They also joined the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), established diplomatic missions to NATO, and joined the NATO-managed Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC).

The 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia further tightened their cooperation, as both countries became NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partners, increasing their involvement in military exercises, information exchange and high-level meetings. Yet despite this increasingly pragmatic approach towards NATO, Swedish and Finnish public opinion remained firmly sceptical towards breaking non-alignment.

This changed abruptly with the 2022 Russian invasion. At that point, for Finland the choice appeared to be a “done deal”, according to former Prime Minister (and now President of Finland) Alexander Stubb. Its geopolitical position is extremely delicate and NATO membership thus represents a further security reassurance for the government, as well as for a Finnish society that feels increasingly vulnerable (as shown in opinion polls).

For Sweden, the decision appeared more controversial. While Prime Minister Sanna Marin in Finland promptly committed to a comprehensive debate among party leaders over whether Finland should join NATO, Sweden’s leadership was initially divided. However, faced with a dramatic shift in public opinion (in February 2022, 51% of Swedish people supported NATO membership) and Finland’s changing attitude, the country subsequently applied for membership.


The story of Denmark, a founding NATO member that joined the EU in 1973, is different, but shares similar mechanisms. The failed ratification of the Maastricht Treaty via referendum in 1992 led Danish political elites to negotiate with the other member states an opt-out from EU activities with defence implications. Many saw this self-exclusion as paradoxical, given the intensive engagement of Denmark in international military actions under alternative organisational arrangements, such as, quite obviously, NATO.

Despite this exclusion from the CSDP, Danish policymakers acted with a permissive understanding of the defence opt-out. Danish officials regularly attended discussions in the Council of Ministers on matters with possible implications for defence and were expected to engage actively in EU security and defence discussions. The country has also participated in all civilian missions organised by the EU since 2003 and benefited from other initiatives such as the European Defence Fund.

This pragmatic approach, blending legal exemptions with practical integration in selected aspects of common defence, has been explained as a response to the hostile domestic politicisation on sovereignty-sensitive issues, paired with an interest (but not need) for Denmark to cooperate as much as possible in the CSDP.

At a practical level, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 increased the costs of exclusion from the CSDP for Denmark. The EU agreed to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, to commit up to 5,000 troops to a new rapid reaction force and to engage in live exercises on land and sea in the framework of the “strategic compass”.

At the level of domestic politics, the scenario also changed. Shortly after the invasion, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen seized the window of opportunity and announced a CSDP referendum, securing the support of major political parties in the Danish parliament and stating that “historic times call for historic decisions”.

In the aftermath of the announcement, Danish public opinion changed rapidly. While support for the “no” option remained stable between March and May 2023, the yes option moved from 34% to 44% in only two months, with 19% remaining undecided. The result, eventually, was an overwhelming “yes”. Against this background, the end of the Danish opt-out is indeed historic, as it breaks the long-lasting path of divergence between elites and public opinion about European integration in a sovereignty-sensitive domain.

Long-standing trends

Overall, the three cases display a steady process of decoupling between principles of neutrality/non-alignment and cooperation with NATO (Sweden and Finland) and between alleged protection of national sovereignty and collaboration with the CSDP (Denmark). Decoupling ended in the aftermath the Russian offensive, as the simultaneous heating of the international environment, combined with a surge in pro-NATO (and CSDP) public opinion, led to a realignment between symbolic commitments and policy actions.

Yet while these changes were indeed sudden, they were not entirely new as they represented the continuation of a long-standing trend of integration into common defence structures. The practice of “organised hypocrisy” has allowed for a great deal of flexibility, enabling informal integration into NATO and the CSDP, while minimising public backlash. Recent changes, in turn, highlight the important role of crises as a catalyst for both the pragmatic and symbolic dimension of politics.

About the Author

Marta Migliorati is a Lecturer at the Institute for European Studies.

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