Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have sought protection from NATO and are considering a paradigm shift in their respective security policies: the abdication of neutrality and military independence.
In January, Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin declared in Helsinki that Finland could not be expected to seek NATO membership in the current term. Russia’s invasion, however, has exposed the disadvantages of being a non-member.
While NATO provides Kyiv with a certain amount of aid, it has been reluctant to intervene directly or collectively under Article 5. Like Ukraine, Finland is a direct neighbor of Russia and shares a 1,300 km (600 miles) border.
“It is not surprising that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the key factor in pushing Sweden and Finland closer to applying for full membership of NATO.
Russia’s invasion has dramatically changed the political discourse in Sweden and Finland and also crucial public opinion, ”Alistair Shepherd, associate professor of European security at Aberystwyth University, told Al Jazeera.
There are signs that both Finland and Sweden are heading for a real historical change of course in their respective security policies. During the Cold War, Sweden and Finland were essentially considered neutral states, albeit for different reasons.
“Sweden’s neutrality was much more a part of their national identity, whereas Finland’s neutrality was more pragmatic and practically imposed on them by the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed between Finland and the USSR in 1948,” Shepherd said.
‘Very significant contribution’
Since the end of the Cold War, both have developed an ever closer relationship with NATO, especially after joining its Partnership for Peace Program (PfP) in 1994 and the European Union in 1995.
“PfP was designed to offer non-NATO states a way to develop their individual relations with NATO at a pace and to the extent they choose,” Shepherd said.
Despite joining the EU, and more markedly in terms of defense and military policy, both countries continued to position themselves as military alliance-free. This effectively meant that while they were no longer politically neutral, they formally remained outside any military alliance.
The latter is apparently changing.
Finland is reportedly inclined to take a position on NATO membership within a few weeks. Sweden, meanwhile, is facing an election in the middle of the year, and it has been somewhat more cautious than Finland in terms of its future.
The government wants to avoid impulsive security policy changes that would throw decades-old dogmas overboard, thereby alienating its core electorate. But since Russia’s invasion, public opinion has changed markedly, making NATO membership for Sweden as well as Finland more conceivable than perhaps ever.
“Votes in Finland found 53 percent for NATO membership and 41 percent in Sweden. Recently, it has risen further by over 50 percent now in favor of Sweden. [rising to 62 percent if Finland joins]. In Finland, 68 percent are in favor of joining NATO [rising to 77 per cent if the government recommends it]said Shepherd.
The Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said after a meeting with her Finnish colleague that the new security situation would be investigated extensively and quickly.
In any case, Sweden and Finland are already firmly integrated into NATO structures. Their armies have been cooperating with NATO troops for many years. Finnish and Swedish soldiers participated in the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan, and both have worked closely with the United States on equipment and training since 2015.
“Both countries are what NATO calls ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partners’. They are partners who make very significant contributions to NATO’s operations and goals,” Shepherd noted.
‘Russia will not be satisfied’
Basically, their memberships will further strengthen NATO’s presence and security in the Baltic region. Both Sweden and Finland bring advanced and well-trained military into NATO.
“It can create some long-term challenges because having 32 members can slow down or hamper consensus decision-making. It also indicates how far Russia has isolated itself from the rest of European society,” said Alexander Lanoszka, an assistant professor of international relations. at the University of Waterloo, to Al Jazeera.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has indicated that all gates are wide open, but NATO has not yet officially considered accession. This is only possible once an application has been submitted.
The schedule depends in particular on two factors. First, the respective governments of Stockholm and Helsinki must ratify the plan.
“All national parliaments must ratify their application for membership. It seems that the two governments would rather move fast than slow, but these legislative restrictions could put the brakes on,” Lanoszka noted.
The second obstacle is NATO membership. However, major NATO countries have already made it clear that they would welcome the accession of Finland and Sweden.
Support comes from the US, Germany, France, the UK and Poland. None of the other countries have yet opposed the idea, which is crucial as all 30 members must agree on an application.
“In the context of the war between Russia and Ukraine, it is likely to be approved quickly and membership will be accelerated to show the unity and strength of the alliance in the face of Russian aggression,” Katharine AM Wright, associate professor of international politics at Newcastle University, told Al Jazeera .
“If the applications are made, I therefore expect to see membership granted this year.”
However, the accession of the two Scandinavian countries to the alliance is not seen without concerns.
Russia will not be satisfied, which led Secretary-General Stoltenberg to stress at every opportunity that it is not NATO that is expanding, but that nations have the opportunity to join the alliance.
‘War escalates markedly’
Moscow said that if Finland and Sweden joined NATO, Russia would have to strengthen its defenses in the region, including by relocating nuclear weapons.
For years, the Kremlin has threatened “consequences” if Finland and Sweden were to join NATO. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman recently said Russia would “have to adjust” the balance at the border.
“Russia is trying to influence the decision of Sweden and Finland, for example, with the claim that it will end a nuclear-free Baltic Sea,” Wright said.
“Yet, as the Lithuanian president has pointed out, Russia has long had a nuclear arsenal in Kaliningrad. If anything, such an attitude is likely to strengthen the argument for NATO membership. “
Former Russian President and current Vice-President of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said via telegram that there should be no more status for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Baltic Sea and the Baltic Sea, citing the Kaliningrad exclave between Poland and Lithuania.
Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO would remove the neutrality and non-aligned status of two countries from Europe and move towards the acceptance of a militarized understanding of security as the primary approach for the West.
However, Putin views Finland and Sweden differently from Ukraine because of their different histories.
Ukraine is seen as part of an imagined “Russian world” of Putin. Sweden and Finland are therefore less comparable to Ukraine in addition to their proximity to Russia.
“Any Russian invasion of Finland or Sweden, even before NATO membership, is unlikely as it would escalate the war significantly,” Wright said.