Nordic left discuss security policy in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
On 8-9 June 2023 the Brussels Office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (RLS) hosted a workshop in Malmö to facilitate the exchange of experiences and strategies between several left-wing parties grappling with the issue of security policy, particularly in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The event was held face-to-face and invitation-only to guarantee an atmosphere of trust and confidentiality to participants.
The workshop brought together 20 party activists and decision-makers from the political left in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Germany. Participation included current MPs, and members of party leaderships, from Enhedslisten (Denmark), Vänsterpartiet (Sweden), Vasemmistoliitto (Finland), Socialistisk Venstreparti (Norway), Rødt (Norway), and DIE LINKE (Germany).
Participants had the opportunity to exchange views on analysis and strategy, to connect and to learn from each other – gaining useful insights into the experiences of, and debates within, left parties in the Nordic countries and Germany. Through a dynamic mix of inputs and interactive discussions, the workshop concentrated on key questions and challenges for the left in the area of security policy, including the thorny question of left strategies and tactics towards military and security alliances such as NATO.
The workshop was part of an ongoing series of events with a focus on the Nordic countries organised by RLS Brussels.
Ukraine, security and the left
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a rude awakening across the political spectrum, catapulting security and defence onto the political centre stage throughout Europe. While the most widespread response – increased militarism and armament – suits the agenda of the political right, security policy has seldom been the left’s strong point, beyond a dedication to peace and anti-war activism. The new situation therefore remains both complicated and challenging for the left, with a wide array of perspectives on the Ukraine war within the wider left family weakening its ability to present a credible response.
While supporting Ukraine’s right to self-defence and self-determination in general, some on the left continue to blame the US and NATO for Russia’s aggression, feeding criticism of the left as “Russia friendly”. Others, less interested in blame, simply want an end to the brutal war, sometimes with little thought to the practical consequences of an immediate armistice. Others again – including the Nordic left parties – are striving for a security policy that balances their long-standing positions of principle with greater pragmatism on everyday realities, advocating peace, but not at any cost, and supporting the supply of defensive arms to Ukraine.
The Ukraine war is proving to be a watershed moment – with Sweden and Finland abandoning their long-term neutrality, and Germany engaging in an historic re-armament – and through this workshop RLS provided a much-needed forum for left parties in Germany and the Nordic region to share their experiences, concerns, strategies, and ideas about how to best plot a realistic and effective course in security policy.
Sharing experiences and challenges
Participants from each country began the forum by outlining the situation in their countries, including the challenges and state of the debate on security at both a party and a national level. It soon became clear that all participating parties – and the Nordic ones in particular – shared not only many similar concerns and perspectives, but also parallel experiences.
All complained of being regularly mischaracterised as “pro-Russian”, and of struggling to influence the debate as a result. Participants emphasised their support for Ukraine’s self-defence, including – in most cases – the supply of defensive weapons, but also expressed concern that the war was being used to stifle public debate, to conflate support for Ukraine with support for NATO, to diminish safeguards on arms trade to countries with serious human rights abuses, and to strengthen “Fortress Europe” against refugees and migrants.
It was also clear that Russia’s war has driven a paradigm shift, forcing many Nordic left parties to rethink their security policy. All participating parties had recently engaged in internal debate on the issue, seeking to balance internal tensions, strategic visions, and external pressures (including domestic politics, public perception, and realpolitik). Conscious of the left’s shortcomings on the topic, participants were united in their desire to develop a realistic new vision of a Nordic defence cooperation, ultimately outside of NATO and other existing geopolitical blocs, that could strengthen regional security and peace.
Despite this, all participants accepted that – for now – NATO membership was not really open to challenge. Just 5 years ago, NATO seemed an increasingly irrelevant, underfunded, and unloved relic of the Cold War. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revived the alliance dramatically, so much so that both Finland and Sweden have quickly abandoned their historic neutrality in order to join. This sudden change in circumstances has placed the left – traditionally critical of NATO as an instrument of militarism and imperialism – under considerable pressure and has led to several shifts in perspective.
A farewell to neutrality
While support for NATO has grown in both Finland and Sweden since the war, the responses of those countries’ left parties to this change has differed notably. Sweden’s Vänsterpartiet still strongly opposes NATO membership, even if it now accepts that Sweden will join. In Finland, the left party Vasemmistoliitto had made opposition to NATO a condition of supporting the government, but in the new conditions gave its MPs a free vote on the matter, resulting in a 9-6 split. This division is reflected in a growing support for NATO within the party – a situation informed, among other things, by the country’s 1,300 kilometre border with Russia.
While Vänsterpartiet supports spending NATO’s preferred target of 2 percent of GDP on defence – albeit for its own reasons – the party admits to having lacked a strategy for responding to NATO membership and is yet to have an exhaustive internal debate on security, something being rectified before its 2024 party congress. The left in Finland is already setting out a strategy in this regard, replacing outright opposition to NATO with strict conditions for membership, including: no nuclear weapons or foreign troops in Finland, democratising NATO decision-making to include parliamentary involvement, and a stronger commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Learning to live with NATO?
In Denmark and Norway, both long-term NATO members, the changes have been no less noteworthy. Denmark’s Enhedslisten changed its NATO policy in 2022 – further clarified in 2023 – and for the first time declared its support for a territorial defence force. The new – narrowly adopted – position is that the party won’t call for an exit from NATO until an alternative international security architecture is in place. Any hope that this might “park” attacks on the party over Ukraine and security has been slow to materialise, however, with internal disagreements quickly reaching the media.
Norway’s Socialistisk Venstreparti also updated its NATO policy this year, accepting an immediate exit as unrealistic. The invasion of Ukraine caught the party unprepared, and its hesitant support for supplying arms to Ukraine, along with the attempts by some members to rationalise Russia’s actions, exposed the party to criticism in an increasingly hostile political environment. Norway’s other left party, Rødt, was also caught off guard. While its opposition to NATO remains unchanged, the main debate in the party has been over sending weapons to Ukraine. Rødt only gave its limited (defensive weapons only, and no Norwegian arms) support to arms support for Ukraine earlier this year after a difficult internal debate.
Sidestepping the NATO debate
Participants from both Norwegian parties emphasised the need to identify alternative methods to aid Ukraine and for practical steps to rein in NATO’s excesses and the risk of the current conflict escalating, instead of using ineffective and isolating rhetoric. Rødt, for example, is campaigning to increase humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and focusing on seeking out diplomatic actions that might help foster negotiations to bring a just end to the conflict.
Much like Finland’s Vasemmistoliitto, Socialistisk Venstreparti is looking at practical steps to limit NATO: opposing US military bases and militarisation in the Nordic, calling for de-escalation and de-nuclearisation, and trying to broaden the security debate beyond military issues to civil, social, climate and other factors. The Norwegian participants also pointed out that the Ukraine war has forged a new consensus in Norway on the right to self-determination and national sovereignty, which could provide an opening to strengthen the concept of sovereignty against the misuse of force by the big powers elsewhere.
Both parties from Norway outlined their support for a strong national defence, criticising the government for failing to adequately target spending on materiel and defence personnel, many of whom face poor wages and conditions. They also advocated for an end to privatisation in the sector, for greater democratic control, and for a healthy national defence, as a precondition for the goal of developing a credible alternative security policy for the region, forming a third position independent of the big power blocs of NATO and Russia.
Germany’s military: not a ‘normal’ issue
In the words of one German participant, the situation in Die LINKE is “all of your problems only worse”. The party’s programme still views NATO and western powers as the primary source of militarism and threats to peace, and many members view NATO as at least partially responsible for the Ukraine war. The programme also calls for building a new security architecture that includes Russia – perhaps a necessary step in the long run, but out of kilter with current events – and the party has come under sustained criticism from the media and the right for being too “understanding” of Putin and Russia.
Unlike some of its Nordic equivalents, however, there is little chance of big changes in Die LINKE’s approach. At its 2022 conference, the party debated possible security options for eastern Europe, whether the EU should play a role in security, and the UN’s role in promoting peace in a multipolar world. The party has even lent limited support to sanctions against Russia’s military-economic targets, as a means to end the war. However, supporting Ukrainian sovereignty, Die LINKE continues to oppose arms transfers to Ukraine from Germany, and opposes outright Germany’s recently announced 100 billion euro re-armament.
Indeed, as one participant pointed out, “in Germany it is still not normal for the military to be a “normal” issue”, and while Die LINKE supports defence, it maintains a strong anti-militarist tradition that resists attempts to normalise recruitment and spending on the Germany military. Workshop participants also expressed concern about the growing militarisation of the EU, and the possible threat to peace and democracy that an EU army might pose. Die LINKE is currently revising its security perspectives, with a new proposal to be presented to the executive board in coming months.
Supporting Ukraine, today and tomorrow
The workshop alternated between small working groups and plenary sessions to facilitate brainstorming and unpacking of a range of topics and ideas. In addition to how better to support Ukraine in the current conflict, participants also explored how the left could aid in the country’s reconstruction to ensure a more sustainable and socially just Ukraine after the war with Russia. All parties made proposals in this regard, many of them requiring more urgent action now to ensure effectiveness further down the track.
Suggestions included advocating for the cancellation of Ukraine’s public debt, which would otherwise be used to help enforce a neoliberal straight jacket on the country as it rebuilt post-war. Many expressed frustration that the war was being used to prevent criticism of the Zelenskyy government, its corruption and neoliberalism, and that a solution to this impasse needed to be found. Participants also argued for ensuring that aid to Ukraine was additional to existing national aid budgets and did not come at the expense of other international solidarity.
Inspired by a Danish government initiative to sponsor the rebuilding of a Ukrainian city, it was proposed that the left organise similar projects, perhaps at municipal level, while concern was also raised about the need to better support the rights of trade unions and workers’ rights in Ukraine. There was, however, a recognition that the Nordic left needs to better coordinate within itself, as well as with the Ukrainian left and civil society, and other forces on the left in the region such as Poland’s Razem and the left within the Russian opposition. Participants proposed immediately establishing regular contact between their parties on the issue of Ukraine.
Combatting resurgent militarism
While all parties at the workshop indicated their support for Ukraine – and most supported the supply of defensive weapons for Ukraine’s defence – they also expressed concern that the war was driving a resurgence in militarism and armament, and risking an escalation of the Ukrainian conflict that might spread into Europe and elsewhere. Participants raised the question of possible limits to left support for arms supply to Ukraine, and highlighted the need to more actively oppose arms exports to countries with serious human rights violations.
The discussion wasn’t limited to seeking restrictions on the arms trade and militarisation, however. Participants also considered the possible role that increased European arms production – as an alternative to, for example, the US and Israeli arms industries – might play. Would the bolstering of such production make it easier to advocate for nationalising the industry or its profits? Criticising current military spending in the participating countries as inefficient and ineffective, some participants called for a focus on better human resources in the military – including wages and conditions – as an alternative to simply throwing more money after bigger weapons.
The left in NATO
With all participating countries now inside NATO, or soon to be, and with little hope of an immediate exit, the discussion also turned to how the left should best operate within the military alliance, and to what end? Some argued that dropping calls for an immediate NATO exit would take the issue out of the debate, allowing the left to engage in the broader political discussion. It was also acknowledged that NATO was not necessarily a vote winning topic – on the contrary, several parties had lost some members as they changed positions, while the Swedish left party had not seen any drops in support despite its continued opposition to NATO.
Participants expressed pessimism about the chances of changing NATO from within but saw opportunities for the left to successfully engage, including participating in the NATO parliamentary assembly. In this way, they reasoned, the left could get more information, influence NATO’s direction – including trying to prevent ‘out of area operations’ – and be better able to criticise the alliance’s actions. The Nordic parties also saw in joint NATO membership the opportunity for the Nordic countries to work more closely together, laying the groundwork for another long-term goal: a ‘Nordic security alliance’.
A Nordic security alliance?
In fact, the idea of such an alliance was a recurring topic throughout the workshop and has been proposed by the Nordic left parties for many years as an alternative to NATO and other security cooperations in the region (such as the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force). Participants admitted, however, that little practical effort had been made to determine how such an organisation might be built, and what its aims might be. As a result, it became a key theme for the entire workshop, with a number of concrete proposals emerging.
Participants proposed developing a basic set of demands and common policies to lay the groundwork for such an alliance. Several participants suggested drafting a separate Nordic chapter in the NATO agreement, and some argued that NATO’s Article 5 on collective defence is practically dead, so the Nordic countries should seek to replicate it through bilateral agreements. There was also agreement on the need to defend existing demilitarised zones, to push for the creation of new ones, and for greater discussion by parliaments – not just governments – on security issues.
In the longer term, it was argued that a Nordic security alliance must have the military capacity for meaningful defence against possible aggressors, but should also seek a third way to avoid escalation. For this reason, such an alliance would have to be built on joint military exercises and greater cooperation on cyber security, as well as civil matters, such as health and climate disasters, between the Nordic countries. While accepting that no exit from NATO was in sight, participants reasoned that the space for an alternative could be carved out in its shadow, while preventing its worst excesses. As one participant put it, “we want a strong Nordic alliance within a weak NATO”.
Developing common demands
There was also agreement on support for strengthened national defence (among the Nordic countries) and for strengthening the role of the United Nations and of multilateralism in global security matters, but participants reiterated their concern about EU militarisation and the aggressive posturing by some members of the bloc. In this regard, suggestions that a Nordic security alliance might also include the Baltic states were rejected, not simply because of their aggressive military stance, but also because the shared geographical and cultural history of the Nordic countries made such an alliance – as a possible third force – more likely to succeed.
Inevitably the discussion turned to the question of nuclear weapons, with German participants warning that while they have long been present in Germany – despite decades of public protests – it may now only be a matter of time before they are also stationed in the Nordic region. All parties were united in their rejection of what they considered a massive and dangerous escalation, and agreed the Nordic region should be declared a nuclear-free zone. In this regard, it was noted, there is already a great deal of common ground in the Nordic Council, and it should not be too difficult to have this adopted in national parliaments.
Participants also expressed particular concern about the militarisation of the Arctic region, which is rapidly becoming a potential flashpoint as the sea ice melts and the rush for seabed minerals intensifies. The parties agreed that not only should the Arctic be kept free of NATO bases, nuclear weapons and militarisation in general, but that the Left must promote the involvement of indigenous peoples in security discussions about the region, centred on demilitarisation. In short, the proposal was “nothing about the Arctic should be decided without the involvement of the people from the Arctic”.
Overall, participants repeatedly expressed a desire for greater coordination among the Nordic (or “Nordic plus”, including Germany) left, to share arguments, experiences and ideas on security matters, and to focus on concrete practical matters that can appeal to members and the public, and begin to work out what to do next. It was also hoped that such close collaboration would make the left both more confident and more credible on security matters, undoing the marginalisation and misrepresentation it has faced on the issue in the mainstream.
During final reflections, participants therefore decided to begin such closer collaboration immediately, and to agree a handful of concrete points for joint action to take from the workshop. These action points included: establishing regular contact between the parties on security matters; ensuring the defence of human rights in foreign policy; agreeing a joint stance on nuclear disarmament and opposition to nuclear weapons and foreign troops in the Nordic region; and coordinating measures to support Ukraine (such as debt relief, arms, rebuilding, and workers’ rights).
Taking their own call for concrete steps to heart, immediately after the workshop concluded the Nordic parties held an impromptu first meeting of their network to draft a brief statement of solidarity and support for Ukraine, with the input of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organisation Sotsialnyi rukh.
 The workshop was held under Chatham House Rules. We therefore do not attribute statements to individual participants.