The Danish Defence Minister on the Expansion of NATO in Northern Europe

By Aaron Mehta

In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the NATO membership request from Sweden and Finland, the Nordic nations are looking to deepen their cooperation, with a focus on both the Baltic Sea and Arctic regions, according to Denmark’s defense minister.

The two new NATO members, in particular, “will, so to say, move NATO to the north,” Morten Bødskov said Wednesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “What the Nordic countries in common are looking into is a stronger Nordic voice within NATO and also within the European Union.

“Denmark will be in the center of this, with tensions with Russia in the Baltic Sea area, but also the High North, the Arctic will be an area of more tensions in the future. So Denmark is at the center of that. The Nordic cooperation is also at the center of that,” he continued.

For decades Sweden and Finland avoided joining NATO, but were both members of the European Union. Norway has been part of NATO since its inception in 1949 but has not joined the EU. And Denmark, while in both camps, has historically had restrictions that would restrain it from taking part in any EU defense activities.

But in June, a Danish referendum showed almost two-thirds of Danish voters supported removing those restrictions, paving the way for Copenhagen to take part in EU defense policy, as well as potentially investing in defense activities like the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) defense investment program. Bødskov noted that will make it easier for Denmark to hit its NATO spending targets while potentially increasing the ability for cross-Nordic industrial programs.

That referendum, combined with Sweden and Finland entering the alliance — as of today, 24 of the 30 NATO nations have ratified their membership requests — opens the way for a rethinking about how the Nordic nations can operate together.

“We have for generations discussed how should we develop a Nordic defense policy,” Bødskov said. “Now we will have a chance within NATO, and with most of the countries within now also the European Union and especially after we got out of the Danish [restrictions], Denmark is also participating fully now in the European defense policy. So the Nordic countries get more places to play, to develop a defense policy.”

Bødskov, who became defense minister just weeks before Russia’s invasion began in February, is in Washington for a meeting today with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Afterwards, he will head out to the Swedish island of Gotland, for meetings with his Nordic counterparts on future defense issues.

The choice of Gotland for the meeting is no coincidence. Located in the heart of the Baltic Sea, it serves as a half-way point between the Nordic nations and their Baltic cousins of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and, is located about 1,000 kilometers from Russia’s military stronghold of Kaliningrad. The island is viewed as a key strategic defensive point against Russian action in the region.

“I think it’s natural — we will discuss that on Friday — how can we strengthen cooperation even further on the Baltic Sea area? What about the Arctic, can we do more there? We must not forget the most important ally is the United States and there is no alternative for that, but we can strengthen our cooperation, and we will do that when it comes to the Baltic Sea area, but also when it comes to the High North,” he said.

More broadly, Bødskov predicted that “we’re looking at a long war” in Ukraine, despite his belief that Putin “miscalculated” with the invasion plan. The minister also warned against complacency, saying “there’s no time to be naïve when you’re dealing with” Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“For years to come, I’m sorry, I think we will see more activity towards the east, because what we are facing with Putin — there is only one answer to him, and that is unity, strong unity, and the willingness to support Ukraine and a willingness to stand by the Baltic sea countries” should Russia turn its eyes towards them, he said.

This article was published on Breaking Defense on September 2, 2022.