Last Wednesday in Stockholm, the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland, countries where neutrality and military non-alliance are deeply woven into their cultures, shocked the world by issuing a joint statement that, thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they were considering applying for membership in NATO.
“There is a before and after Feb. 24,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters in reference to Russia’s latest military incursion in Ukraine. “The security landscape has completely changed.”
“We have to be prepared for all kinds of actions from Russia,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said, adding that Finland would decide about applying to NATO in a matter of weeks.
While both countries had already closed off their skies to Russian air traffic, the announcement about NATO membership further risked the wrath of the Kremlin, which has repeatedly threatened both against joining the 30-member military alliance.
Over the last week in Sweden, radios, portable generators and camping stoves are flying off shelves as its 10.4 million citizens begin stocking up on canned food, water, flashlights and matches in preparation for anticipated acts of Russian sabotage. In Finland, where the government has stockpiled enough grains and fuels in strategic reserves to last at least five months, they’re expecting more cyberattacks like those that hit the ministries of defense and foreign relations on April 8, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Finnish Parliament via video. Like the Swedes, the 5.5 million residents of Finland believe that Russia will soon target its infrastructure, including the internet and electrical grid, and Russian violations of the airspace in both countries are already on the rise.
In response to their public declarations of interest in NATO membership, Moscow has renewed its threats to retaliate and bolster nearby ground and air forces, deploying “significant naval forces in the Gulf of Finland,” according to Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council. "There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic [Sea],” Medvedev added, a threat dismissed by analysts in the region as saber rattling, since tiny Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic, is widely believed to already hold nuclear weapons.
“If you’re talking about large nuclear weapons, it doesn’t really matter if the bases literally are in the Baltic Sea or the Gulf of Finland, if it is in Kaliningrad or if they’re 500 miles away,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak, security and defense analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, told Yahoo News.
The addition of Finland and Sweden to the Western military alliance would not only expand NATO territory by 300,000 square miles toward the northeast — in blatant defiance of Putin’s demands last December to shrink NATO’s footprint — but it would also roughly double NATO's borders with Russia to nearly 1,600 miles. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who called Sweden and Finland “our closest partners,” said in early April that he expected all NATO “allies will welcome them.” He added, “We know that they can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply.”
“These are two really capable military powers, who are far more capable than the size of the countries would suggest,” Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Yahoo News with regard to Sweden and Finland. And they would also boost military capabilities in the Baltic Sea, home to three small NATO countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — whose defense has always posed a problem for the alliance, Daalder said.
The likely accession of Finland and Sweden is “a really big deal” for NATO as well as Finland and Sweden themselves, Daalder added.
“Sweden has been neutral or [militarily nonaligned] since 1814,” he noted. And Finland, which became independent from Russia over a century ago, “has never wanted to be part of any alliance since it became independent in 1917. ... But for the invasion of Ukraine, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Indeed, even three months ago the prospect of Sweden and Finland joining NATO didn’t appear in the cards. Finnish Prime Minister Marin said in January that her country was “very unlikely” to join NATO under her watch, a sentiment that was echoed by Sweden’s defense minister. Two weeks ago, however, Marin did an about-face, proclaiming that “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was.”
The fact that “Russia seems willing to invade, on completely false pretenses, its neighbors that don’t belong to NATO” sparked a realization among Finns, who have long tried to placate the Kremlin, Salonius-Pasternak said.
Specifically, when the citizens of Finland, which fought the Soviet Union after it invaded in 1939, watched Russia’s savage attacks unfold in Ukraine, something fundamental changed in their logic. After Russia’s atrocities in Bucha became clear earlier this month, Finnish public support for joining NATO soared to 68%. Local thinking, Salonius-Pasternak said, switched from “If we join NATO, Russia may get annoyed and do something bad to us” to “They may do something bad anyway, so why not seek a form of deterrence that is completely unavailable to them?”
“What happened,” Salonius-Pasternak added, “was the Finnish population drew some conclusions which forced the hand of the Finnish political elite, and thereby also the Swedish.”
Gunilla Herolf, senior associate research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, agreed that Finland is blazing the trail toward NATO membership. “Finland has been taking the lead,” she told Yahoo News. “After public support for NATO went up so much in Finland, people in Sweden started to realize that it’s very likely that Finland will join, and that made public opinion go up in Sweden as well.” The two countries have a very close relationship, she added, which only intensified in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time, annexing Crimea.
Herolf expects that the extensive cooperation of Sweden and Finland with NATO, with which they often perform joint military exercises and whose forces they fought alongside in the Balkans and Afghanistan, will help speed up the process of applying for membership.
But there’s a risk: While Finland and Sweden are expected to apply in the coming weeks, their acceptance into the military alliance depends on unanimous agreement from all 30 of NATO’s current members, a process that could take months.
“That invitation needs to be ratified by all 30 current members, and that means that the U.S. Senate will have to ratify it, and 29 parliaments will have to ratify it,” said Daalder. While he doesn’t foresee any problems, he added, “you never know — maybe a parliament gets dissolved and therefore there’s no parliament to ratify it.”
Until their membership is ratified, Finland and Sweden will remain vulnerable. If Russia attacked either before they were admitted to the alliance, neither could invoke Article 5, the NATO clause that states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Another potential snag is the upcoming presidential election in France. Right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, currently trailing incumbent President Emmanuel Macron by at least 7 points, has vowed to cut France’s military involvement with NATO.
“While the ratification process among the 30 NATO members could happen quickly," said Daalder, “the problem is it needs to go quickly in 30 countries. The real question is, what do you do in the meantime?” Once Finland and Sweden are officially invited to apply to NATO, Daalder said, even before their membership is approved by member countries, “the president of the United States should make clear that until such time as these countries are formally part of NATO, that we, the United States, hopefully with partner countries, are committed to defending their security.”
In the meantime, both Finland and Sweden are boosting their armed forces and ramping up annual spending on civil defense and arms. The Finnish government in February ordered 64 F-35s from Lockheed Martin, with a price tag of over $9 billion. Sweden, where the 2021 defense budget was around $7 billion, is expected to raise that amount to about $11 billion, roughly the 2% of GDP required of NATO members.