Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been one of the most emphatic supporters of Ukraine in Europe, so the announcement of new security pacts with Sweden and Finland, both concerned about a security threat from Moscow, builds on a tough British policy of resistance to Russia aggression.
However, the agreements cross a new line by saying Britain can support the two countries militarily if attacked by Russia, even if they are not members of NATO, the transatlantic military alliance.
Despite warnings from Moscow not to do so, both Sweden and Finland are debating whether or not to apply to NATO, whose members are covered by Article 5’s mutual defense guarantee.
But Mr Johnson’s pact would provide support to the Swedes and Finns through any NATO accession process, when they could be particularly vulnerable to Russian retaliation, or if they decide not to join the club.
Johnson, who visited the two countries on Wednesday, was asked whether the agreement could mean sending British troops to Finland, which has an 800-mile border with Russia.
“In the event of a disaster or in the event of an attack on one of us, yes, then we will come to each other’s aid, including with military aid,” he said. The type of assistance would depend on the request made, he added.
Sweden and Finland have offered mutual guarantees to Britain in return. “We will stand together and support each other in all circumstances, whether in good or bad weather,” said Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, adding that his country’s decision to consider NATO membership was prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Earlier in Stockholm, after posing for a photo in a rowboat with his Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, Mr Johnson said the agreement with Sweden “enshrines the values” dear to both countries.
He added: “As you put it so beautifully, Magdalena, when we were on the lake, we are literally and figuratively in the same boat now.”
Welcome PM @BorisJohnson to Sweden. Important discussions about our broad bilateral relationship and joint efforts to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. Agreed to strengthen 🇸🇪 🇬🇧 cooperation on security and defense through a political declaration of solidarity. pic.twitter.com/ZUjF54jZsS
— Swedish PM (@SwedishPM) May 11, 2022
For Mr Johnson, who has developed a close relationship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the initiative is a useful distraction from his political troubles at home after he was fined by police for breaching the lockdown in Downing Street. When asked on Wednesday whether that might prompt him to resign, Johnson declined, saying he was more focused on the threat from Russia.
Wednesday’s move was also in line with Mr Johnson’s efforts to forge a new foreign policy role for Britain after Brexit. Now outside the European Union and unable to influence its decisions, Britain is trying to make the most of its status, alongside France, as one of the countries in Western Europe most willing and able to provide significant military to put in force.
In February, Britain announced a trilateral security pact with Ukraine and Poland, and British ministers have made several visits to Baltic states that feel particularly vulnerable to Russian aggression.
And Britain has taken a leading role in discussions, not just in NATO, but in a less prominent diplomatic form called the Joint Expeditionary Force, which consists of Britain, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania , the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Some European Union diplomats believe Britain could try to use that influence to divide the bloc of 27 countries. Member States receiving military aid or guarantees from Britain, for example, may be reluctant to take tough action against London in an escalation of the dispute with the European Union over post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
But Downing Street, who was asked on Wednesday whether such connections could be made in talks with Sweden and Finland, said there were no conditions attached to the security guarantee.