Sweden and Finland are eyeing NATO
Last week, a significant event occurred, which could have the potential of changing the course of NATO expansion in the European region. On Wednesday, April 13th, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, held a joint conference in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, in which they opened the floor for debating whether or not to join the transatlantic military alliance.
The two Nordic countries, which are militarily nonaligned to NATO and whose political, economic and social stability (and success) has also been due to a self-imposed degree of neutrality and reservation, might break off a decades-long precedent of staying out of the more politically heated debates within Europe.
With a national identity espoused by neutrality and the two countries being each other’s closest defence partners, the Ukraine invasion has changed the political discourse of the two countries, when it comes to the Western military alliance.
Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, has spectacularly survived the Cold War era as an unoccupied democracy by hewing to its neutrality, a signature feat, a course of action which had also been suggested for Ukraine.
Now, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in its seventh week and has entered a new phase, sanctions are continuing to pour in, further damaging Russia’s economy, as accounts of atrocities against Ukrainian civilians are reminiscent of the Second World War. Even though Russian troops have migrated eastwards, towards Donbass, rockets have hit Lviv on Monday, a city in western Ukraine, close to the Polish border, which had been a safe haven until now.
Despite the huge and unexpected losses which Russia has suffered during this war, including the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea last week, the outcome is still uncertain.
By waging this war, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had hoped to undermine the power of the NATO alliance. Yet, the opposite has happened. Not only this, but the war has spearheaded a pro-Western course of action: Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia have formally applied for EU membership as a result of the Russian invasion.
And now, an increased willingness to join NATO might be next.
As a result of this war, the transatlantic military alliance has been granted a renewed importance as a result of the invasion. NATO countries close to Ukraine have been ensured that every inch of territory that is part of the Alliance will be protected, backed by the military might of the US Army.
“Unsurprisingly, 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 crucially public opinion,” Alistair Shepherd, senior lecturer for European security at Aberystwyth University, told Al Jazeera.
President Putin threatened even before Russia invaded Ukraine that there would be “serious political and military consequences”, if the countries attempt to join the military alliance.
But, instead of crushing Ukrainian nationalism, the Russian leader not only enhanced it, but it united transnational and international bodies in condemning the invasion and reacting against Russia like never before – whether it be EU sanctions, UN condemnation, or NATO strategy.
“For the first time, most Finns want to join NATO. Across the Baltic Sea, Swedes are becoming more favourable towards membership as well. Sparked by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this might lead to a major foreign-policy shift for the militarily non-aligned Nordic states. But it is not easy to take out insurance when the house is already on fire”, states an analysis by the Atlantic Council.
Following the joint statement of the two Nordic leaders, NATO’s reaction has been a discrete and diplomatic one, saying only that the alliance has an open-door policy and any country that wishes to join can ask for an invitation.
“After a meeting of alliance foreign ministers last week, the secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, was coy, but said: ‘There are no other countries that are closer to NATO’”, says the New York Times. During the statement, the Finnish leader, Sanna Marin, said a decision on whether to apply for membership would be made “within weeks” as her government submitted a document to inform parliamentary debate on the issue.
“As many as 53 percent of Finns are now in favor of joining NATO, according to polling conducted from February 23-25 (the Russian invasion began on February 24). That’s a dramatic change: In 2017, the same poll showed only 19 percent of Finns wanting to join NATO, and the figure had remained rather stable over time. Polls in favor of joining NATO were up in Sweden as well, with 41 percent supportive in a poll released February 25, compared to 37 percent in January.
Public endorsement for membership in Sweden has hovered around 35 percent since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014”, the Atlantic Council piece continues.
Even if the process to join NATO were to begin now, this would still last at least a year, and NATO officials are thinking what security guarantees they could provide to Sweden and Finland in the meantime, so as to try to ensure that Russia or any other adversary did not take advantage of the interim before the two countries were part of the alliance.
“While Finland’s security doctrine includes an option to join NATO if circumstances change, that has not been the case for Sweden. It has a minority government led by the Social Democrats, whose formal position of military nonalignment was confirmed at their party congress in November”, the NYT piece continues.
Responding to Russian threats of “military consequences” if Finland and Sweden joined NATO, Marin, the Finnish prime minister, stated: “We have shown that we have learnt from the past. We will not let go of our room for manoeuvre.”
“However complicated NATO membership looks for Sweden politically, it would be dangerous to be left outside the alliance if Finland joins, since the two countries are each other’s closest defence partners and plan for war together”, writes Anna Wieslander, a Swede who is also Atlantic Council’s director for Northern Europe, in an interview for the US publication.
Photo source: Getty Images