Swedish army insignia. [Mikael Sjoberg/Bloomberg]
Finland and Sweden are set to apply for membership in the NATO defense bloc after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is ending an era of the two Nordic nations shunning military alliances.
Finland’s parliament is expected in coming days to approve a formal decision to seek entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced at a news conference in Helsinki on Sunday. Later in the day, neighboring Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats reversed their long-held opposition to such a step, removing the last obstacle to joining Finland’s bid.
The move heralds one of the most prominent changes in the European security landscape after Russia’s war against Ukraine led to shifts including a ramp-up of defense spending in Germany. The Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine prompted an almost overnight change in public opposition to membership in NATO in Finland and Sweden, even as Russia has kept warning the pair with potential consequences.
“Taking a stance for NATO membership means that we are ready to abandon a security policy line that Sweden has kept, in various forms, for 200 years,” Sweden’s Prime Minister and Chair of Social Democrats Magdalena Andersson told reporters in Stockholm, adding Sweden needs the security guarantees that come with NATO membership.
“For us Social Democrats it is clear that military non-alignment has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it won’t serve us as well in the future.”
Still, her party said in a statement it will advocate that Sweden expresses “unilateral reservations against the deployment of nuclear weapons and permanent bases on Swedish territory.”
Both countries’ lawmakers are set to debate the bids on Monday, while Sweden is likely to submit an application to join NATO in coming days, according to local media reports.
On Monday, Niinisto is set to meet Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Helsinki, along with other Republican senators, as he continues a campaign to ensure bipartisan support for NATO accession. McConnell is also due to visit Sweden, while the Finnish president will start a two-day state visit in Stockholm on Tuesday.
The Nordic countries were met with widespread support by NATO foreign ministers gathering in Berlin on Saturday, as policy makers are seeking to calm concerns that Turkey could derail their bid, citing worries that Sweden and Finland have shown support for Kurdish “terrorists.” The 30-member military bloc requires unanimity to bring in new members.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with documents for Sweden's and Finland's applications. [Johanna Geron/The Associated Press]
The membership bids would need to be ratified by NATO countries’ parliaments, a process that can take months, before they gain entry and begin to enjoy collective defense commitments under Article 5. Both countries have already won pledges from allies including the US and UK about additional security steps for the so-called grey period between the filing of entry bids and the eventual entry when collective security guarantees begin to apply to them.
Path to NATO Membership
1. Country requests to join NATO
2. North Atlantic Council decides whether or not to proceed with request*
3. If Council agrees, then candidate country conducts accession talks with NATO about obligations of membership, a process that can last as little as a day
4. North Atlantic Council reconvenes to consider whether or not to move forward with accession
5. If agreed, allies sign accession protocol and country becomes a formal invitee, allowing them participation in most NATO meetings but no right to vote
6. Allies then need to ratify the bid according to national procedures, a step that can take months
7. Country ratifies bid and deposits it with the U.S. State Department in Washington, becoming a formal member of NATO
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday he’s “very confident” allies will reach a consensus on Finland and Sweden. His comments were echoed by the bloc’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who said Turkey “has made it clear that its intention is not to block membership” of NATO for Finland and Sweden.
Turkey has long complained of insufficient cooperation from NATO and European allies in its fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is labeled as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.
Representatives of Sweden and Finland “were holding meetings with PKK and YPG members and Sweden was also providing weapons to those,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday in Berlin. He also suggested the two countries should lift a weapons-export ban on Turkey, and signaled that a more conciliatory attitude was required from Sweden.
The entry of Sweden and Finland would significantly extend the alliance’s border with Russia and give the organization scope to protect the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, long seen as a vulnerable region. It would effectively isolate Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.
Both nation’s militaries are compatible with NATO and include a large number of artillery and tanks. Finland, whose border with Russia is roughly 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) long, held onto a conscription-based system, commanding a reserve of 900,000 troops and being able to deploy 280,000 of them in war time. Sweden brought back military conscription from 2018.
President Niinisto phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to say the Nordic country plans to seek NATO membership. The move would be a “mistake because there are no threats to Finland’s security,” Putin told his Finnish counterpart, according to a statement from the Kremlin, adding that it could harm relations between the countries.
Putin’s reaction to the Finnish plan was “milder than ever before,” Niinisto told reporters on Sunday. “It may be that they want to avoid” this becoming a topic of discussion in Russia, he said.
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