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Rush of new defense deals with US shows Europe’s growing concern over Russia

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Northern European countries are rushing to shelter under Washington’s security umbrella.

A surge of new defense agreements between the U.S. and allies in Northern Europe allow for the fast-track deployment of American troops, marking the latest response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

New multi-year pacts with Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania signed this month signal a major shift that has occurred within NATO over the past two years as member countries race to restock arsenals after sending weapons to Ukraine and steel themselves for a new era of confrontation with Moscow.

At the heart of all six defense security cooperation deals are guidelines for allowing U.S. troops to operate in the country for training missions and easing red tape for personnel and their equipment to deploy quickly in case of emergency.

“This allows the U.S. to say: This entire region is one defense region. How can we work together, both in planning, exercises, deterrence operations? Now you can do it all in a rational way, rather than having to say — we can’t refuel in Sweden,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

In the wake of the initial Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, Sweden and Finland began to exercise and train more closely with NATO and individual nations, providing a de facto alliance presence in the High North that had not previously existed. The countries, along with their Baltic neighbors to the south, are located on the front line, anxiously watching their Baltic coasts for Russian activity, and will welcome the increased U.S. presence.

“The key driver for all of these agreements is Russia’s invasion, concerns about European security and needing to have more U.S. forces eastward, particularly the Finland case,” said Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The U.S. signed the most recent pact with Finland on Monday. Moscow was quick to respond and summoned the Finnish ambassador to Russia to complain . Finland’s entry into NATO in April was a particularly bitter pill for Moscow, which preferred the country’s non-aligned status. Now, Finland owns NATO’s longest border with Russia, stretching 800 miles from the Baltic Sea to the Arctic.

Helsinki says Moscow has weaponized migration along the Russian-Finnish border by encouraging migrants from other countries to attempt to cross into Finland, prompting a raft of crossing point closures on Finland’s side. This has added a sense of urgency for signing a security agreement with the United States.

During his visit to Washington to sign the defense agreement, Finnish Defense Minister Antti Häkkänen called the move a “hybrid operation” by Moscow to destabilize Finland. “Russia is using every tool they can.”

Just days ago, Vladimir Putin announced Russia will resurrect the Leningrad Military District, a long defunct Russian military group that borders Finland, and will stand up new military units there. The moves provided fresh impetus for stationing American troops on Finnish soil.

Helsinki’s traditional balancing act between Moscow and the West came to a full stop when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, leading Finland to jump into the NATO alliance along with Sweden, which is still waiting for Turkey’s and Hungary’s vote on its membership.

Washington already signed agreements with Iceland and Norway in previous years — meaning the U.S. now has legal frameworks to station troops in all countries of Europe’s northern region. Nordic countries also have deep defense ties among each other — they’re all part of the Nordic Defence Cooperation agreement, alongside Iceland and Norway, a pact that removes barriers to defense cooperation between the countries.

The changes in Europe since 2022 have been historic. Not only have Finland and Sweden overturned decades of neutrality, but this year Denmark ended three decades of opting out of European Union defense cooperation, joining the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation agreement — the framework for defense cooperation between countries — as well as the European Defence Agency.

But nothing underscored the renewed focus on deterrence and defense in Europe as an event at the Pentagon last Friday that saw Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all update existing agreements with Washington to reflect new NATO military deployment plans, Ukrainian troop training and cyber cooperation projects.

Tuuli Duneton, undersecretary of defense policy for the Estonian Defense Ministry, said after the signing that the updated agreement, which runs through 2028, addresses the “U.S. military presence in Estonia, contribution to developing the division, cyber defense cooperation and joint Baltic defense.”

The broader focus on troop deployments was underscored on Monday when Germany and Lithuania signed a historic pact to station 5,000 German troops permanently in the Baltic nation, a move all but unthinkable just two years ago.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen described her country’s own new 10-year deal with the U.S. signed on Tuesday as a “breakthrough in Danish defense.” Indeed, the country’s policy since 1953 was to have “no bases, no nuclear warheads and no allied military activity” on its soil.

Once Danish lawmakers formally approve the U.S. agreement, it will open the door to U.S. military presence in air bases in Karup, Skrydstrup and Aalborg.

Hanging over these new deals is a renewed political uncertainty in Washington, where former President Donald Trump is leading Biden in some polls, and no one is quite sure what the 2024 election will bring.

Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, said that taken together, the fresh defense agreements that stretch the length of the Baltic Sea will create a region that has a heavier U.S. presence “when it comes to reacting in an early [manner], having intelligence and surveillance to act early and be in place to deter.”

“Allies including the U.S. will want to move across borders and Nordics will want to operate together both in air, land and sea,” she added. “This is what we’re preparing for.”

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