Sweden and Finland may be getting closer to joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as Russia continues its aggressive posturing in the Baltic Sea.
Last week, after 200 years of Swedish neutrality, the country's Center Party switched its position and, for the first time, came out in support of Sweden's membership in NATO, joining a small, but growing pro-membership faction in the country.
Citizens and politicians have called Sweden's centuries-old position of military neutrality into question over the past two years as Russian air and naval forces have been raising their profile in the Baltic Sea.
Though Sweden has increased its cooperation with NATO forces, as evident in the recent BALTOPS 2015 exercises, the country is not a member of the alliance, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's continued saber-rattling has both residents and politicians worried.
"We lack the ability to defend ourselves for a longer period of time,"
wrote Center Party leader Annie Lööf, on behalf of herself and others in the party, in an opinion piece for the Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish newspaper. "At the same time NATO is very clear about the fact that Sweden cannot expect military support if we are not full members of the organization. We can no longer close our eyes to that."
Especially vulnerable is the large Swedish island, Gotland, strategically located near the center of the Baltic Sea. If Russia were to take the island, it would be a game-changer. Not only would Sweden suddenly be facing Russian forces based just off the coast,, but Finland would find itself flanked by the Russians in almost all directions and be at a severe strategic disadvantage.
But if losing Gotland to Putin would be bad for Sweden, it would be a nightmare for some NATO members.
Because Sweden is not a member of NATO, the alliance would not be obligated to defend the Swedish island just to keep the locals happy. But NATO would have a strong interest in defending the island anyway, because nearly every other country in the region is part of the NATO alliance, and if Gotland turns into an unsinkable Russian base in the middle of the Baltic Sea, NATO will have a very hard time defending its Baltic members.
In this case, the politics are like real estate: all about location, location, location.
The coasts of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all NATO members, are within 200 miles of Gotland, meaning that the island would squeeze those countries between forces on the island and land forces coming directly from Russia.
Their situation on land is no better. The border between the Baltic states and their nearest NATO neighbor, Poland, is a scant 65 miles long, which leaves them vulnerable in the event of a land war. Once Russians shored up their outpost at Kaliningrad, it would be especially difficult for NATO forces reinforce or supply forces fighting in the Baltic states.
Related: Watch VICE News' The Russians Are Coming: NATO's Frontier
But if Sweden and Finland join NATO, it would drastically change the equation. Instead of having forces trek across the narrow Polish border, or risk sailing in hostile Russian-controlled waters, it would be fairly easy, and almost safe, to reach the Baltic states before things got out of control.
And it would complete the Baltic game of Monopoly.
Experts, such as the Brookings Institution's Steven Pifer, tend to agree that when it comes to possible NATO membership, Finland and Sweden would move in tandem, but that such a move is by no means imminent.
However, should those two nations join up with NATO, it would mean everyone bordering the Baltic Sea, except for Russia, would be part of that military alliance. That would change the entire strategic geography of the region, forcing Russia to shift its national strategy, according to Pifer.
With Sweden and Finland as NATO members, the alliance would not only control the Baltic Sea completely, but it would also isolate both St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, Russia's only two ports with easy (or at least ice-free) access to the Atlantic. As Russia's primary warm-water ports, Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg are crucial not only to Russia's naval power, but their trade, as well, since those ports are operable year-round without the use of icebreakers. Isolating those ports would massively piss off the Russians.
"There is a fairly widespread sense, even among many of the politicians who feel Finland should have joined NATO, that right now is the wrong moment," Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a senior research fellow at Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told VICE News from Helsinki.
"If Finland joins NATO, relationships between Russia and Finland will be severely damaged," said Salonius-Pasternak, who explains that this scares a lot of Finns because it breaks with the nation's historic strategy. "During the Cold War, the sense was that as a small country next to a big country, the best guarantor of us remaining independent is having good relationships with our big neighbor."
Salonius-Pasternak said that Finns have no problem being simultaneously friendly with the Russians on trade while being vigilantly prepared to defend against the military threat posed by the former Soviet Union. "The same person who is selling furs to Russian couples in eastern Finland during the week would have no problem then going and doing reservist training during the weekend," he said.
After all, Finland has more land bordering Russia than all the NATO member nations combined.
In recent months, the threatening rhetoric coming out of Moscow has picked up. In June, Russian Ambassador to Sweden Viktor Tatarintsev told a newspaper that he strongly recommended that Sweden not join NATO.
"[If] it happens there will be counter measures," Tatarintsev told the local paper. "Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles. The country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to."
And in the wake of Crimea and Ukraine — and concern about hybrid warfare among NATO's current Baltic members — those threats are hitting close to home.
"If Putin's actions over the past year were designed to intimidate countries like Sweden and Finland, the recent surge in Swedish support for joining NATO demonstrates he's miscalculating once again," former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told VICE News.
"While enlargement of NATO membership has been increasingly controversial, I have no doubt that if Sweden, or Finland for that matter, applied to join the Alliance, all NATO members would support that wholeheartedly," said Daalder.
An all-out Russian attack in the Baltic Sea isn't likely, but it is something that NATO should be thinking about, said Pifer, the director of the Brookings Institution's Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative. And if it did happen, he thinks it would start in Latvia or Estonia, followed by a NATO response and a spreading through the Baltic Sea, inevitably dragging Sweden and Finland into the melee.
"My sense is that the Russians understand that the NATO line is a real red line and that they cross that at huge risk," Pifer said. "But if you look at Putin's public statements about NATO over the last couple of years, this guy has a huge chip on his shoulder against NATO."
Follow Ezra Kaplan on Twitter: @KaplanEzra