BRUSSELS – Finland and Sweden on Wednesday formally submitted a letter expressing interest in joining NATO, a historic moment for the two countries who remained firmly on the military front until their concerns over security were raised before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Announcing the decision on Monday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Anderson said, “We are leaving one era and starting another.”
How Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine pushed Finland towards NATO
Anderson and Finnish President Sauli Ninisto are scheduled to arrive at the White House on Thursday, where President Biden is expected to show his support.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and several NATO countries have indicated that Finland and Sweden can expect protection before their membership is fully ratified, and that they are part of NATO’s Comprehensive Defense Agreement, known as “Article 5”.
The big question is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will take revenge. European officials and diplomats say Finland and Sweden are ready for a hybrid attack.
Putin justified the threat of NATO expansion in Ukraine without justifying his aggression. Kyiv itself is not considered to be on the verge of gaining NATO membership. But Putin’s war has resulted in a revived alliance that is now ready to double its land border with Russia.
The two new members will bring NATO’s full strength to the far north and strengthen its presence in the Baltic Sea region. The alliance will acquire two state-of-the-art military forces with deep experience working near the Russian border. The strategically important island of Gotland, just 200 miles from the Russian military in Kaliningrad, is also occupied by Sweden.
Stoltenberg said on Sunday that their accession would be a “turning point for security” in Europe. “Their membership in NATO will increase our shared security, demonstrate that NATO’s doors are open, and that aggression does not pay off,” he said.
Finland and Sweden no longer consider themselves neutral. Militarily, they were close partners of NATO. Politically, they are members of the European Union.
But to consider themselves militarily neutral is an important part of their self-concept. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most people in both countries said it was safe to stay outside NATO. But the last few months have seen a dramatic shift in public opinion.
Why were Finland and Sweden not part of NATO?
“This is a remarkable development from where we were in February,” said Anna Wieslander, director of the Atlantic Council’s Northern Europe.
“Russia wanted to turn back time, to go back to the Cold War, to divide and weaken the West,” he continued. “Now, in May, we’re here.”
After receiving the requests, NATO will call on its decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, to decide whether to proceed with the request. From there, there will be talks of joining, according to a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with the alliance’s ground rules.
This first step in the accession process is expected to accelerate, as both countries are already close NATO partners. From there, it could take “months” for each member state to approve the decision, the official said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed skepticism last week about joining Sweden and Finland, but NATO officials and analysts believe Turkey will fall into the line. “I am confident that we will be able to find common ground and agreement,” Stoltenberg said on Sunday.
Russian officials have warned of “consequences” for every move, but in recent days there have been more silent speeches.
“Russia has no problem with Finland and Sweden, and in this sense, the expansion of the spending of these countries does not pose an immediate threat to us,” Putin said in a televised comment on Monday. “But the expansion of military infrastructure in the region will certainly provoke our response.”
In a telephone call over the weekend, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Ninistিস্ত that his decision to join NATO was “wrong” and could have a “negative impact” on Russian-Finnish relations, but did not make specific threats, according to a readout.
Russia is angry that Finland is joining NATO but cannot do much about it
NATO and European officials have, for the most part, significantly reduced the risk of Russian aggression.
The country’s military is embroiled in fierce fighting in Ukraine and has lost both troops and equipment. Russia withdraws troops from the Finnish border, reducing Moscow’s ability to target militarily.
Given the overwhelming support for NATO membership in Finland and Sweden, it will be difficult for Russia to try to influence that population.
“There is no place to intervene, no basis to change people’s minds,” said Henry Vanhanen, a foreign policy expert and adviser to the center-right National Coalition Party. “This is our democratic resilience against Russia.”
“Trying to prevent Finland and Sweden from joining NATO is now beyond Russia’s reach,” he continued. “It must come to an agreement.”
Allies have promised to support Putin if he tries anything. Britain, Denmark, France, Iceland and Norway, which have pledged military assistance, will be attacked by Finland or Sweden. Anyone who wants to test European solidarity by threatening or attacking their sovereignty, by any means, must be sure that France will stand shoulder to shoulder with Finland and Sweden, “read the French statement.