Despite Russian Warnings, Finland and Sweden Draw Closer to NATO

BRUSSELS — In a swift response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in light of Moscow’s warnings to NATO to block expansion, Finland and Sweden are seriously debating applications for alliance membership and are widely expected to join.

The accession of both countries would be another example of the counterproductive results thus far of the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Instead of destroying Ukrainian nationalism, he has strengthened it. Rather than weaken the transatlantic alliance, he has strengthened it. Instead of dividing NATO and blocking its growth, he has united it.

Now, if the invasion has succeeded in anything, it is to drive previously unaligned countries into NATO’s arms, as Russian threats and aggression heighten their security concerns and force them to take sides.

In Helsinki, Finland on Wednesday released a formal “white paper” on “fundamental changes in the security environment”, intended to inform parliamentary debate on the issue. Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland said a decision would be made “within weeks”.

Her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, stood next to her at a press conference in Stockholm and said: “There are, of course, pros and cons to NATO membership, just as there are pros and cons to other security choices.” But she added, “I see no point in delaying this analysis or trial” as to whether or not to join.

NATO officials are publicly discreet, saying only that the alliance has an open door policy and that any country wishing to join can ask for an invitation. After a meeting of the alliance’s foreign ministers last week, the secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, was hesitant, but said: “There are no other countries closer to NATO.”

But even a quick application process could take a year, raising fears that the two countries would be vulnerable to Russia in the meantime if Mr Putin saw NATO membership as a provocation to them — just as he did Ukraine.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russia warned the two Nordic countries of “serious military and political consequences” and “retaliation” if they were to join NATO.

So there is already a serious debate within the alliance about what kind of security guarantees can be provided to Finland and Sweden in the pre-ratification period, to try and ensure that an adversary – read Russia – did not take advantage of the interim before the ratification. two countries were part of NATO and were able to take advantage of its collective defense promise.

Both Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union and already have a strong partnership with NATO, participating in military exercises and even strategic and operational planning.

But Finland, with its long border with Russia, famously survived the Cold War as an independent and unoccupied democracy by striving diligently for neutrality, something some have suggested for Ukraine. Finland has openly sided with the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union, though, like Sweden, it has maintained a policy of military non-alignment.

Mr Putin’s invasion has led to a dizzying turn of public opinion in Finland in favor of joining the alliance. Silently led by its president, Sauli Niinisto, Finland is paving the way towards NATO membership for a more reluctant Sweden.

“With the contours of European security having irrevocably changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the direction of thinking in both countries – especially Finland – is becoming clearer by the day.” wrote Anna Wieslander and Christopher Skaluba of the Atlantic Council. “From Moscow’s perspective, the result could be another undesirable consequence of his unnecessary and reckless aggression.”

While Finland’s security doctrine includes an option to join NATO if circumstances change, that has not been the case for Sweden, which has a minority government led by the Social Democrats, whose formal stance of military non-alignment was adopted. confirmed at their party congress in November.

But as complicated as NATO membership looks politically for Sweden, it would be dangerous to stay out of the alliance if Finland joins, as the two countries are each other’s closest defense partners and plan war together, Ms Wieslander, a Swede who director of the Atlantic Council for Northern Europe, said in an interview.

“We always consider Finnish security together with ours,” she said.

Opinions are also rapidly shifting in Sweden, with about 50 percent of people in favor of joining NATO, rising to 62 percent if Finland joins, Ms Wieslander said. in Finland, a recent poll had 68 percent in favor of joining the alliance, rising to 77 percent if the president and government recommend it.

In Sweden, an all-party parliamentary group, led by Foreign Minister Ann Linde, is studying the issue with a report due on May 31. That deadline could be accelerated, as a decision to join NATO would require a firm majority of parliament to approve, and that would depend on a change of stance from the Social Democrats, Ms Wieslander said.

In the last election of 2018, the Social Democrats’ vote share fell to 28.3 percent, the lowest point since 1908, so they are now more sensitive to public opinion than before, and just this week the party announced that it would change its stance on NATO. .

Carl Bildt, a former Swedish Prime Minister, wrote recently that after the war against Ukraine, “There is no going back to a past of illusionary neutrality.”

Given the two countries’ relations with NATO, applications to join the 30-member alliance would be accepted soon, likely at the end of June, at the NATO summit in Madrid.

But all member states and their parliaments would have to ratify that decision, which took about a year before the last country, North Macedonia, joined.

Meanwhile, Mr Niinisto has discussed with President Biden and the British government the possibility of a bilateral or trilateral security guarantee.

Such a guarantee could be politically controversial, but could appeal to ‘Global Britain’. And Washington already has a trilateral defense cooperation agreement with Sweden and Finland that could be expanded.

In any case, NATO should act quickly to draft plans to defend both countries ahead of membership, possibly in line with its plans to defend Norway, said Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO.

To the Russians, Ms Wieslander said “you’re under the shield or you’re not”, so security guarantees should be public and clear. Of course, she said, Sweden “is ready to fire if necessary — we don’t need to be formal allies for that.”

In any case, Russia’s responses will include internet outages, hacking into key government ministries and disinformation efforts primarily targeting lawmakers who should vote on the issue. Tensions along the borders would increase, as would Russian fighter jets that appear to challenge the skies.

The United States has publicly supported the idea of ​​membership. Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO, said the United States would welcome both countries. “We have practiced; we trained with them. They bring very capable military personnel,” she said. “They are some of our closest allies in Europe, so I can’t imagine a situation where there would be huge resistance to this idea.”

But it is Russia’s sudden war against Ukraine that has made old assumptions hollow. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reminded Finns of the dangers Moscow presents in a speech to the Finnish parliament on Friday, recalling the 1939-40 Winter War, when Stalin’s Soviet Union attacked Finland.

“You have seen Russia attack your country, and that threat still exists,” Mr Zelensky said. “What they did in Bucha, they will do in your cities.” And it was the Finnish courage at the time that inspired the Ukrainians in their own struggle, he said.

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Johanna Lemola from Helsinki.


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