Finland, Sweden and NATO: what comes next?

Here’s what you need to know about how the war in Ukraine pushed the two Nordic states closer to the US-backed alliance, and what comes next.

While other Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Denmark and Iceland were originally members of the alliance, Sweden and Finland did not join the pact for historical and geopolitical reasons.

Both Finland, which declared its independence from Russia in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Sweden adopted neutral foreign policies during the Cold War and refused to join the Soviet Union or the United States.

This proved more difficult for Finland, as it shared a huge border with an authoritarian superpower. To keep the peace, the Finns adopted a process some call “Finlandization,” in which leaders agreed to the demands of the Soviet Union from time to time.

The balancing act of both countries effectively ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. They joined the European Union together in 1995, gradually aligning their defense policies with the West, while still avoiding joining NATO.

Each country had different reasons for not signing the NATO pact with the EU.

For Finland it was more geopolitical. The threat to Russia is more tangible thanks to the two countries’ shared 830-mile border.

“Finland is the exposed country and we are the protected country,” former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a joint interview with former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.

Although Sweden is an independent nation, Sweden’s geography places it in the same “strategic environment” as its liberal-democratic neighbors, Bildt said. Finland and Sweden have had a close partnership for decades, with Stockholm viewing its decision not to join NATO as a way to keep the heat out of Helsinki. Now, however, Sweden is likely to follow Finland’s lead.

“We share the idea that close cooperation will benefit both of us,” current Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said at a press conference last month with her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin.

What does NATO membership mean?

The reason most countries join NATO is because of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that all signatories regard an attack on one as an attack on all.

Article 5 has been a cornerstone of the alliance since NATO was founded in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.

The purpose of the treaty, and Article 5 in particular, was to deter the Soviets from attacking liberal democracies that lacked military strength. Article 5 guarantees that the resources of the entire alliance — including the massive US military — can be used to protect a single country, such as smaller countries that would be defenseless without their allies. Iceland, for example, does not have a standing army.

Bildt said he doesn’t see new major military bases built in either country if they join NATO. He said joining the alliance would likely mean more joint military training and planning between Finland, Sweden and the 30 current NATO members. Swedish and Finnish troops could also participate in other NATO operations around the world, such as those in the Baltic States, where several bases have multinational forces.

“Preparations will be made for unforeseen events as part of deterring any adventures the Russians are thinking about,” Bildt said. “The actual change will be quite limited.”

Why does Russia hate NATO?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the alliance as a stronghold targeting Russia, despite having spent much of its post-Soviet years on things like terrorism and peacekeeping.

Before Putin invaded Ukraine, he made it clear that he believed that NATO had come too close to Russia and should be pushed back to its 1990s borders before some countries bordering Russia or were ex-Soviet states joined in. the military alliance.

Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and its status as a NATO partner — seen as a step towards eventual full membership — was one of several grievances Putin cited in an attempt to prevent his neighbor’s invasion of his country. to justify.

The irony is that the war in Ukraine has effectively given NATO a new purpose.

“Article 5 is back in play, and people understand that we need NATO because of a potential Russian threat,” Stubb said in an interview with CNN before the invasion.

Why the war in Ukraine changed everything

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the last straw that prompted Sweden and Finland to pull the trigger for NATO membership.

If the Kremlin was willing to invade Ukraine, a country of 44 million inhabitants, a GDP of about $516 million and a military force of 200,000 active troops, what would stop Putin from invading smaller countries like Finland in Sweden?

“Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine,” Marin said in April. “The mentality of the people in Finland, also in Sweden, has changed and changed a lot.”

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, public support for NATO accession in Finland has risen in some polls from about 30% to almost 80%. The majority of Swedes also approve of their country’s accession to the alliance, according to opinion polls there.

“Our NATO membership was decided at 5 a.m. on February 24, when Putin and Russia attacked Ukraine,” Stubb said. “Finland and Sweden would not have joined without this attack.”

Officials in both Sweden and Finland have also expressed frustration that Russia tried to demand security guarantees from NATO in the run-up to the war in Ukraine that the alliance would stop expanding eastward. However, such a concession would have effectively given Russia the power to dictate the foreign policy of its neighbors by depriving them of the ability to choose their own allies and partners.

Russia, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told CNN, wants “real influence over security choices in Europe”.

“They want to influence the countries nearby. And that is totally unacceptable for Sweden.”

What comes next?

Finland’s leaders announced on Thursday that they want to join NATO. Sweden is expected to follow suit, possibly as early as Monday, Bildt said.

Finland said it hopes to apply for membership “without delay” and complete the steps it needs to take at the national level “in the coming days”. That includes a vote in the Finnish parliament, which ultimately votes on whether or not to join.

NATO diplomats told Reuters that ratification of new members could take up to a year, as the legislature must approve all 30 current members of the legislature. Both countries already meet many of the criteria for membership, including having a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; treating minority populations fairly; work to resolve conflicts peacefully; the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and to promote democratic civil-military relations and institutions.

As two thriving liberal democracies, Sweden and Finland meet the requirements for joining NATO – although Turkey, for example, could complicate the process for the aspiring members. That country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Friday that he is not looking at either country joining NATO “positively”, accusing them of harboring Kurdish “terrorist organizations”.

In the meantime, both countries will have to rely on their current allies and partners for security guarantees, rather than Article 5. Sweden and Finland have been assured of support from the United States and Germany if attacked, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed mutual security agreements with his Finnish and Swedish colleagues this week.

How has Russia reacted?

Russia denounced the decision. The foreign ministry said in a statement that Finland has made a “radical change” in foreign policy that will force Russia to “take retaliatory steps, both military-technical and otherwise”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “NATO expansion will not make the world more stable and secure.” He added that Russia’s response would depend on “how far and how close to our borders the military infrastructure will move”.

Russia currently shares about 755 miles of land border with five NATO members, according to the alliance. Finland’s accession would mean formally bringing a country with which Russia shares an 830-mile border into military alignment with the United States.

Not only would this be bad news for the Kremlin, but the addition of Finland and Sweden would benefit the alliance. Both are serious military powers, despite their small populations.

However, Bildt and Stubb, the former Swedish and Finnish prime ministers, believe that Russia’s response has been relatively moderate so far.

“The Kremlin sees Finnish and Swedish NATO membership as a Scandinavian solution, and in that sense not a radical threat,” Stubb said. “We’re not too concerned.”

Stubb and Bildt said they believe Moscow ultimately sees the two countries as reliable neighbors, despite their decision to join a Washington-backed alliance.

“The fact that Finland and Sweden are part of the West comes as no surprise,” Bildt said.

CNN’s Luke McGee, Nic Robertson and Paul LeBlanc and Reuters contributed to this report

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