Finland and Sweden’s possible membership in NATO might decisively change the security architecture of Northern Europe and worse relations between these two states and the Russian Federation, elevating the regional geopolitical risk.
Before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine (or ‘special military operation’ according to the Kremlin), the question of NATO membership was barely part of the political debate in Finland and Sweden. Both countries have a long history of military non-alignment. Although they have gradually pursued closer cooperation with the United States and NATO, politicians in both countries have long advocated membership—NATO accession was hardly seen as a pressing issue.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that. Both countries are reassessing their security policies in response to Russian aggression, and seeking NATO membership is rapidly emerging as the most realistic option. Recent polls show that clear and increasing majorities in both countries support joining the alliance. In addition, both countries have delivered substantial amounts of weapons to Ukraine, including 10,000 man-portable antiarmor weapons from Sweden.
Historically non-aligned countries, Sweden and Finland, advanced their ties with NATO with the Partnership for Peace Program (PfP) in 1994. Both countries have participated in NATO joint military exercises to develop interoperability. Their cooperation with NATO increased in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. The same year, the two countries signed an agreement with NATO allowing it to operate on Finnish and Swedish soil in case of a conflict. In late March, joint military exercises of 27 NATO countries and Finland and Sweden took place in Norway, featuring 30,000 troops. Military activities are conducted regularly, and the recent one was planned before the beginning of the Ukraine conflict. However, Lieutenant Colonel Stefan Hedmark of the Swedish Armed Forces highlighted the event’s meaning because of the Ukraine crisis.
The E.U. membership already implied the end of political neutrality, but the countries now expect more in terms of security. In a joint letter to member nations on March 8th, 2022, Finland and Sweden brought up Article 42.7 of the European Union’s founding Lisbon Treaty — which obligates other members to “aid and assist by all the means in their power” any E.U. country that comes under attack. But few observers see that as a security solution. The E.U. clause lacks the force of NATO’s Article 5 — which provides for the alliance’s defence umbrella, and the scope of the clause is unclear.
Like Ukraine, it has provoked Sweden and Finland to rethink their military neutrality and non-alignment policy by remaining outside of NATO and observing NATO’s limited response to the invasion. Sweden announced increasing its defence spending, while Finland plans similar action. With their foundation from earlier training programs, the integration of Finland and Sweden into NATO will not be complex. Furthermore, the U.S. and NATO have given positive signals that their membership request would be accepted quickly if the Scandinavian countries choose to do so. The military alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, said on the 28th of April.
It is also unlikely that the countries would face difficulty fulfilling the unanimous vote requirement to join NATO. In Sweden, it turned out that there was an urgent need for a possible membership application to NATO on April 24th, 2022, when its government decided to present its national security policy assessment, which Prime Minister Andersson described as the “NATO solution.” Finland is expected to decide on NATO membership in May’s first or second week. The President’s Office will ratify a final decision based on a recommendation from Prime Minister Marin; and, more specifically, the Government’s Foreign and Security Policy Committee. The security policy evaluation report, which will involve representatives of all parties in the Swedish Parliament, would initially be ready by May. The new deadline is the 13th of May.
Both countries’ public opinion and politics will favour joining the military alliance. In Finland, the public that had been uninterested in joining NATO now sees its importance. Opinion polls show that more than 60% of Finns favour joining NATO, which had remained at 20-30% before the war in Ukraine. In the upcoming weeks, Finland will come to an official decision and outline its path to joining NATO.
The ruling party in Sweden, the Social Democrats, released a statement:
“when Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally.”
The party’s position favours following Finland’s path in terms of NATO membership. However, the Swedish government will face general elections in September 2022 and may want to avoid voter alienation by making such a drastic change. Therefore, it has been treading a more careful path in the past weeks. On April 20th, 2022, a poll showed that the percentage of Swedes in favour of joining NATO went up from 51% in March to 57%, those opposing fell to 21% from 24%, and undecided votes decreased to 22% from 25%. This shows more concern among people towards the Russian threat.
If Finland and Sweden join NATO, the security architecture of northern Europe will change. Each country brings considerable military capabilities to the alliance: Finland maintains an army with substantial reserves, and Sweden has strong air and naval forces, particularly submarine forces. Integrated control of the entire area will make the defence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania easier since Swedish territory and airspace are essential for such efforts. This will strengthen deterrence and create a conflict there less likely.
Even if Russia does not consider the possible accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO an existential threat, the Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that further expansion of the alliance would not bring more security to Europe. Norway, which has successfully combined strong military integration in NATO with a reassurance policy toward Russia, could serve as a model. As the NATO summit in Madrid approaches, the alliance will consider Finland’s and Sweden’s requests for rapid accession. This should be seen to strengthen the stability of the Nordic and Baltic areas and as an opportunity to enhance the alliance when Russia’s military aggression has made that imperative.
Author: Luca Urciuolo
Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.