Putin’s war moves Finland and Sweden closer to joining NATO
On Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance was now planning a much larger, permanent military presence on its borders with Russia. “Regardless of when, how, the war in Ukraine ends, the war has already had long-term consequences for our security,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. “NATO needs to adapt to that new reality. And that’s exactly what we are doing.”
Indeed, one of the lasting legacies of the Russian invasion may be how the war spurred NATO’s strengthening and expansion. Finland and Sweden, two Nordic countries with deep histories of nonalignment, now appear on the precipice of joining the bloc. A report Monday in the Times of London suggested that both nations could clinch NATO membership in a matter of months.
“I think we will end the discussion before midsummer,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told reporters on Friday, referring to imminent deliberations on NATO membership that would conclude by the June 25 holiday. “We will have very careful discussions, but we will also not take any more time than we have to in this process, because the situation is of course very severe.”
A statement Monday from Sweden’s Social Democrats, who lead a minority government in Stockholm, made clear that the center-left party was reevaluating its traditional opposition to NATO membership. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally,” the party said.
Public opinion in both countries lurched dramatically in favor of joining NATO after the invasion began. For the first time, a majority of Swedes support entry to the bloc, while a poll this weekend found that 68 percent of Finns would back gaining membership and that an even greater number would support the endeavor if it had the public endorsement of the country’s President Sauli Niinisto and Marin’s government. (Consider that, just in 2019, more than half of Finns were opposed to joining NATO.)
The swing in sentiment has prompted parties in and out of power in both countries to announce ongoing reassessments of their policy positions on NATO. Parliamentary processes will play out over the coming months but the conclusion seems clear: No NATO member state — not even Putin-friendly Hungary — is expected to veto the Finnish and Swedish membership bids, whenever they formally materialize.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned the two Nordic countries against joining NATO, an alliance which he said “remains a tool geared towards confrontation.” Given the ongoing Russian campaign in Ukraine, Peskov’s admonishment — as well as a Russian foreign ministry threat in February of “serious military and political consequences” for Finland and Sweden — probably only strengthens the case to enter the alliance.
In one stroke, Finland joining NATO would more than double Russia’s existing land border with the member states of the Western military alliance, fencing in the Kremlin further. “How can this be anything but a massive strategic blunder for Putin?” a senior U.S. official scoffed to the Times.
Five points Finnish @Nato membership:
1. Not a radical shift in our security policy.
2. More Nato compatible than most member states.
3. Overwhealming public support.
4. Finnish Parliament, Government and President decides.
5. We provide value added to the alliance.
— Alexander Stubb (@alexstubb) April 11, 2022
Entry into NATO would be a historic move for both countries. Since the early 19th century, for reasons initially tied up in the geopolitics of the Napoleonic wars, Swedish governments maintained a studied neutrality that lasted through the end of the Cold War. After heroically resisting a Soviet invasion more than eight decades ago, tiny Finland settled for an uneasy status quo next to the Soviet juggernaut: It adopted a careful neutrality, accepted a degree of Soviet influence in its affairs, but avoided the same fate of Soviet domination experienced by countries in Eastern and Central Europe.
This arrangement became known as “Finlandization” — a nation converted into a process of geopolitical submission — and has been repeatedly mooted as a path through which Moscow and Kyiv can find some form of peaceful understanding. More than six weeks into the war, though, it’s hard to imagine Ukrainians accepting any kind of tacit subordination to Russia. Finlandization, meanwhile, has long been viewed as a pejorative term in Finland itself.
In practice, both Finland and Sweden already have close military ties with NATO partners and E.U. neighbors. According to the Economist, some experts even suggest that Finland’s military capabilities are “more ‘NATO interoperable’ — capable of conducting joint operations alongside other allies — than some actual members.”
The political journey toward NATO has taken longer. “It was only when Russia under Putin started to demonstrate that its threshold for using military force was lower than many had hoped — first with the war with Georgia in 2008 and then the invasions of Ukraine beginning in 2014 — that a debate on possible NATO membership started,” wrote former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt in a Washington Post op-ed last month.
After Putin’s war on Ukraine, Bildt added, “there is no way back to a past of illusionary neutrality.”