While Moscow ex-presses disagreement with the plans for further expansion of NATO, the alliance itself says that it is ready to include new members in its composition as soon as possible – Finland and Sweden, which have remained neutral for a long time. We are looking into whether Stockholm and Helsinki will take this step and what it means for Russia.
Russia’s demands not to admit Ukraine and Georgia to NATO worried Finland and Sweden
Although these countries are members of the EU, they are not members of the North Atlantic Alliance. At the same time, judging by the statements, it is important for them not so much to join NATO as to have such an opportunity. Both Finland and Sweden oppo-sed Russian security initiatives demanding a legal end to the bloc’s expansion.
For example, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in early January that “now that military cooperation with the European Union is intensifying,” Helsinki would like to have the option of becoming a member of the North Atlantic Alliance.
The fact that Finland “retains the opportunity to apply for NATO membership, if it decides to do so itself,” was also indicated by President Sauli Niinistö in his New Year’s address, specifying, however, that so far Finland is not going to change its foreign policy course.
Swedish Defense Minis-ter Peter Hultqvist spoke in a similar vein , stressing that the kingdom is not goi-ng to join the alliance “not now or later”, but should have freedom of decision.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson also pointed out that the government does not yet need to join NATO, but referred to the parliamentary majority, which supports deepening cooperation with the alliance.
NATO and Washington welcome the entry of Finland and Sweden
Despite the fact that neither Finland nor Sweden have expressed a direct desire to join the military alliance, the NATO leadership, as well as Washing-ton, indicate that they are ready to accept these countries within “one night.”
According to Jens Stoltenberg, both states “comply with NATO standards in almost all areas, they have very well organized and managed defense and security institutions” and are “very close to NATO in many aspects.”
Approximately the same was stated by Washington. According to US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, both Stockholm and Helsinki have long established stable democracies, which seriously distinguishes them from other candidates who are only in transition to a democratic system and deal with economic instability and corruption.
Moscow indicates that they respect the sovereignty and choice of both countries. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently stated , the Russian side recognizes the right of neutral states to independently determine their participation in military associations. At the same time, he expressed the hope that both Helsinki and Stockholm would continue to contribute to the maintenance of neutrality and, consequently, of pan-European security.
“But those who do not respect the sovereignty of Finland and Sweden are th-ose who, by hook or by cr-ook, want to provoke their accession to NATO. And this issue began to be raised a long time ago, far from now,” the minister stressed.
In December 2021, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, also indicated that Moscow sees NATO’s purposeful work to draw Sweden and Finland “into the orbit of its interests.” According to her, these countries are increasingly participating in large-scale NATO exercises and provide them with their territories.
Zakharova noted that the hypothetical entry of Stockholm and Helsinki into the alliance would have serious military and political consequences and would require an adequate response from the Russian Federation.
Finland and Sweden remain neutral since the Cold War
Both countries retained a non-bloc military status and were engaged in the formation of their own defense structures. At the same time, since the last century, the social democratic government of Sweden has provided the United States and other NATO members with intelligence data, bought military equipment from them and relied on Washington’s help.
As for Finland, after the Second World War, Helsinki and Moscow signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, which limited Finland’s military capabilities, since the country fought on the side of Nazi Germany. Now it has its own Defense Forces, in which boys undergo compulsory service, and girls can enter voluntary service. Finland also buys weapons from the US. For example, last year the country decided to purchase the F-35A Lightning II multifunctional fighter jets from the American company Lockheed Martin for its Air Force.
Since 1994, both Sweden and Finland have been officially NATO partners under the Partnership for Peace program. The countries participated in the alliance’s missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. The alliance also has the right to deploy its Rapid Reaction Force (NRF) to Swedish and Finnish territory. It is assumed that the host country provides the necessary logistical conditions for the supply of food and ammunition for the alliance.
Thus, despite formal independence from NATO, both countries are actively cooperating with the alliance, conducting joint exercises and operations, and certainly counting on its help in the event of a military conflict.
Should Sweden and Finland join NATO?
It is theoretically possible, but unlikely to happen anytime soon. The Finnish government’s defense report in September maintains this possibility, but in reality there is a split in the country’s parliament over this issue.
After all the recent statements from Moscow, Was-hington and Brussels, Hel-sinki again noted that “Fin-land is not discussing joining the organization with NATO.”
Similar story in Sweden. In December 2020, for the first time, a parliamentary majority formed in favor of accepting a Finnish-style “possibility to join NATO”. However, when Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson outlined her government’s policy on November 30, she stated bluntly: “Sweden will not apply for membership.” Nevertheless, Ande-rsson stressed that “Sweden is deepening its defense cooperation with Finland and other Scandinavian neighbors within the EU, with the US and in partnership with NATO.”
“Many media outlets are simplifying the messages by pointing out that NATO membership depends only on the will of Helsinki and Stockholm. In fact, every member of the current alli-ance will have to approve such an application,” writes Martin Hörth, a former official at the Estonian Ministry of Defense, for the ICDS think tank. .
According to Hurt, there really is no fast track to N-ATO membership, even for democratic, stable and wea-lthy partners. So, Monten-egro and North Macedonia – the last members of N-ATO – took 18 and 20 mon-ths, respectively, to become full members of the allian-ce. “NATO Option” is an invention of Helsinki and Stockholm. NATO does not have a policy or prior agreement that would give Finland and Sweden more membership rights than, say, Georgia or Ukraine. If Finland or Sweden apply, the hesitation of just one ally will be enough to delay or block their acceptance,” he points out. In addition, Hurt notes that this process also needs public support within countries.
A recent poll requested by the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat showed that over 40% of Finnish residents are opposed to joining the bloc. 28% of respondents were in favor of joining NATO, which, in turn, is a record high figure for such interviews, which the newspaper has been conducting since 2002. Meanwhile, a similar poll in Sweden conducted in early 2021 found that 46% of Swedes want to join NATO, compared with 43% three years earlier.