Sweden on Sunday night joined Finland in announcing its intention to join Nato, demonstrating to Russia that “aggression does not pay”, the chief of the alliance has said.
In a move that ends more than 200 years of military neutrality, Sweden’s governing Social Democratic Party announced that the country would submit an application to join.
Finland also announced it was applying for Nato membership in a shift that will more than double the alliance’s borders with Russia.
“This is a historic day. A new era starts,” Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, said at a press conference on Sunday.
Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson said the best thing “for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people” is for the country to join Nato.
“We believe Sweden needs the formal security guarantees that come with membership in Nato,” she added.
Echoing those remarks following a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Berlin, Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, said the two nations’ applications would be be a “historical moment” for the 30-member bloc.
Vladimir Putin has failed in his ambition to curtail the expansion of Nato by launching his invasion of Ukraine, Mr Stoltenberg added.
“Their membership would increase our shared security, demonstrate that Nato’s door is open and that aggression does not pay,” he told reporters via video link while isolating after testing positive for Covid.
Nato officials are buoyed at the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining the alliance after years of working closely together. They say the strength of Helsinki and Stockholm’s militaries would instantly make them “net contributors” to the security of Europe.
The accession of the two nations to Nato would make it easier for the alliance to defend its Baltic members and increase its borders with Russia by more than 800 miles.
To protect them from Russian aggression while their applications go through, Mr Stoltenberg said Nato would look at providing security guarantees to Sweden and Finland.
“Finland and Sweden are concerned about the interim period… we will try to speed up that progress,” the Nato secretary-general said. “We will look into ways to provide security assurances by increasing Nato presence in the region.”
Officials said this could include bringing forward planned military exercising or dispatching war ships to the region.
Russia has previously threatened to retaliate against the Nordic nations if they opted to join the alliance.
Shortly after Sweden announced its planned membership bid, Russian state television said the Kremlin would have “no choice” but to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to counter the “threat”.
“Their official reason is fear. But they’ll have more fear in Nato,” the broadcast said. “When Nato bases appear in Sweden and Finland, Russia will have no choice but to neutralise the imbalance and new threat by deploying tactical nuclear weapons.”
Kremlin officials have previously suggested new nuclear weapons could be deployed in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave in Central Europe.
Turkey is threatening to dampen Finland and Sweden’s hopes of a speedy accession to Nato in a row over arms exports.
Speaking after the meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Berlin on Sunday, Turkey’s foreign minister demanded that the two Nordic states immediately end their bans on a number of defence firms exporting to Turkey.
Mevlut Casusoglu also blamed their apparent support for a Kurdish terror group for his government’s resistance.
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, warned Ankara that it risked handing Putin a major victory by opposing the expected Nato expansion from 30 members to 32.
She argued that the two Nordic nations must be integrated into the US-led military alliance “as quickly as possible should they choose to join”.
“Nato’s open-door policy is essential and if Finland and Sweden decide to apply to join it is clear that they would strengthen the alliance and European security as a whole,” she added.
Diplomats said US concessions, such as agreeing to send F-16 fighter jets to Ankara, could also allow Turkey to climb down.
Turkey was banned by Washington from purchasing the US-made F-35 fighter jets in 2019 after Ankara bought Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Moscow.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said he was confident that Turkey’s opposition could be overcome. He said he had held separate talks with his Turkish counterpart.
“I don’t want to characterise the specific conversation that we had either with the foreign minister or within the Nato session themselves,” he told reporters. “But I can say this much: I heard almost across the board, very strong support [for Sweden and Finland] joining the alliance.”
Mr Stoltenberg said: “Turkey has made it clear that its intention is not to block membership.”
The Nato chief told reporters he was “confident that we will be able to address the concerns that Turkey has expressed in a way that doesn’t delay the membership or the accession process”.
Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, called for allies to not hold up Sweden and Finland’s membership talks. “There should be no grey zone,” she said. “If those countries are deciding to join, they can join very quickly.”
Mr Niinisto said he was “confused” after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, announced last week that he was “not positive” about the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining Nato.
The Turkish leader accused the Nordic states of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ party, classified as a terrorist group by Ankara, the US and the EU.
Despite Ankara’s opposition, Nato officials believe the Scandinavian countries will be confirmed as official “invitees” before the alliance’s leadership summit in Madrid at the end of June.
At the meeting, the alliance will discuss its next package of support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, which Mr Stoltenberg believes Kyiv can win.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned. They failed to take Kyiv,” he said. “They are pulling back from Kharkiv and their major offensive in Donbas has stalled.”
Nato’s leaders are expected to agree to help Ukraine’s army into a Nato-standard military through training and further weapons deliveries.