• Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the long-standing military non-alignment discourse in Finland and Sweden with regards to joining NATO.
  • Finland and Sweden Prime Ministers met on April 13 to discuss regional security matters, signalling they could apply to join the Western Alliance in the near future.
  • Formal political discussions about the issue of NATO membership began in Finland on April 20.
  • The Kremlin has issued a number of warnings about consequences of Finland and Sweden possibly joining NATO, alluding to cyberattacks, and deployment of nuclear weapons in the Baltic Sea Region.
  • Lithuanian defence officials have confirmed Russia already has deployed nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, before the start of the conflict with Ukraine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has prompted Finland and Sweden to revaluate their traditional positions of neutrality that lasted throughout the Cold War.

Politicians in both countries have revived calls to join NATO.

The Prime Ministers of the two traditionally militarily non-aligned Nordic countries have indicated that Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine is shifting the political balance in both nations in favour of both countries applying for NATO membership. For Finland and Sweden, Ukraine is a case example that shows how countries without an Article 5 collective defence pledge are vulnerable.

Public opinion in both countries has also shifted in light of the conflict - recent polls show a majority of respondents willing to join the alliance in Finland, and supporters of NATO in Sweden clearly outnumbering those against the idea.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and a video conferencing link with Dmytro Kuleba (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ukraine) on March 4 at Extraordinary meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs with Finland, Sweden and the EU at NATO Headquarters, Brussels

Finland and Sweden: What’s Changed?

For decades, when it comes to the prospect of joining NATO, Finland and Sweden’s fates have long been intertwined. There’s an understanding that the two countries would always join together should they decide to do so. Traditionally, Swedes have viewed NATO membership more favourably, with polls consistently showing support of 30 percent or higher in recent years. However, in Helsinki, NATO support has remained persistently below 30 percent.

In December 2021, Finland’s Ministry of Defence released its annual survey on national security, with support for NATO membership being 24 percent. Four months later, support had reportedly increased to 68%.

Amidst the Ukraine crisis, on Wednesday 13 April, Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson met in Stockholm to discuss regional security matters in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In the joint press conference that followed, Marin stressed that Finland and Sweden will make independent decisions regarding their security policy arrangements, including whether to join NATO. “But we do that with a clear understanding that our choices will affect not only ourselves but our neighbours as well,” Marin said, adding that she would prefer seeing both Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members. The PM also stated that her government “will end the discussion before midsummer”.

Her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, said there was “no point” in delaying analysis of whether it was right for Sweden to apply for NATO membership. She said that Sweden and Finland would maintain “a very close dialogue and have very straightforward and honest discussions” in the coming weeks over their countries' respective choices on NATO. “There is a before and after 24 February,” Andersson added, referring to the date on which Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

This is a very important time in history. The security landscape has completely changed. We have to analyse the situation to see what is best for Sweden’s security, for the Swedish people, in this new situation.” Magdalena Andersson

Media reporting suggests both nations will file NATO membership bids sooner rather than later.

For instance, last week, citing unnamed officials, the Times of London reported that Sweden and Finland are expected to apply to join NATO as soon as this summer. The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported that the Swedish Prime Minister wants to join NATO in June this year, and will apply for membership during the NATO meeting in Madrid, the 29-30 June, according to sources.

Finnish MP, Deputy Chair of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Erkki Tuomioja said on Thursday 21 that Finland will file a request to join NATO in the coming weeks, as reported by the Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat.

Balanced Security Policy: NATO and Russia

Finland and Sweden both have a long history of nonalignment and neutrality on security and defence. Despite both countries' sharing a complicated history with Russia, and their policies agreeing on seeing Russian as a common threat, Finland and Sweden have opted to remain militarily non-aligned and outside of NATO. As well, they have preferred to pursue a balanced security policy toward Russia.

Finland, shares an 832-mile (1.340-kilometer) land border with Russia. Although Sweden shares no border with Russia, it owns the strategically important island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, less than 350 kilometres (217 miles) from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

The Finnish state, as a result of being under the Tsars' rule from the early 19th century until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - when it won its independence - and the Soviet invasion during WWII, adopted an official neutral foreign policy in 1955. The policy was built on the 1948 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed between Finland and the USSR. As a signatory to the Treaty, Finland promised not to join any military alliance against the USSR, the predecessor state of Russia. Additionally, Helsinki pledged that it would not allow any other forces to use its territory to attack the Soviets; similarly, the USSR pledged not to invade Finland.

Sweden’s relationship with Russia dates to the 12th century. During the 17th century, Russia emerged as a superior force in the Baltic region, from different conflicts, including the Ukrainian rebellions against Muscovite leadership supported by the Swedish Kingdom. During the Napoleonic Wars, Moscow protected Sweden against Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion. At the same time, Sweden lost Finland to Russia. These events resulted in the emergence of Swedish neutrality - the country adopted a foreign policy based on no direct military involvement, which is also called the Policy of 1812 -. Sweden has not been in any direct armed conflict with any country since 1813.

Finland and Sweden have sought to maintain a robust dialogue with Moscow and avoid provoking their powerful eastern neighbour, even after Russia’s initial aggression in Ukraine in 2014.

In line with this balanced approach, Finland and Sweden also frequently cooperate on defence matters with the United States, NATO, and friendly northern European nations via minilateral arrangements such as the Nordic Defence Cooperation or the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. In fact, in recent decades, Finland and Sweden have developed a close relationship with the Western Alliance. Both countries joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program in 1994 and have contributed to NATO-led operations and missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has accelerated its cooperation with Helsinki and Stockholm in terms of intelligence sharing and political coordination. Both countries have been invited to NATO’s foreign and defence ministerial meetings as well as the extraordinary summit on March 24. Finnish and Swedish armed forces have also participated in recent NATO exercises on the eastern flank.

Finland and Sweden’s Intent

The Finnish Parliament started debating whether the country should seek membership in the NATO military alliance on April 20.

Finland’s discourse - a close partner with NATO, that has maintained a militarily non-aligned status - has shifted. Now, “Its defence and security need strengthening, and a decision on whether to apply for NATO membership could be taken within weeks,” Finland’s Prime Minister Marin has said recently.

Finland’s 200 members of Parliament recently took receipt of a government-commissioned white paper that assessed the implications of NATO membership alongside other security options, such as increased bilateral defence agreements. The report does not make recommendations but stresses that without NATO membership Finland enjoys no security guarantees, despite currently being a partner of the Alliance. It also says the deterrent effect on Finland’s defence would be considerably greaterinside the bloc, while noting that membership also carried obligations for Finland to assist other NATO states.

After two decades of public support for NATO membership remaining steady at 20-30%, a poll in March indicated that up to 62% of Finnish citizens are now in favour of joining the Western Alliance, with only 16% opposing the move. This is a significant change from the 21% in favour in 2017. Public statements gathered by Finnish media suggest half of the 200 MPs now support membership, with only 12 opposing it. Major parties who traditionally opposed NATO membership, like the Centre Party and Social Democrats, are re-evaluating their stance. Reporting indicates that only the Left Alliance party remains formally opposed.

Source: https://www.dw.com/en/war-in-ukraine-will-it-bring-sweden-and-finland-closer-to-joining-nato/a-61003152

On April 16, Finland’s European Affairs Minister Tytti Tuppurainen said she believed a Finnish application was highly likely. “But the decision is not yet made,” she told Britain’s Sky News. However, the Finns “Seem to have already made up their mind and there is a huge majority for NATO membership”.

In Sweden, where the ruling party also prepares for a debate on whether to abandon the country’s long-standing military neutrality, a new poll shows a majority of Swedes are in favour of joining NATO.

According to the survey carried out by polling institute Novus on April 20, for the first time in history, the pollster recorded a majority on the issue, with 51% of Swedes being in favour of joining the Western military alliance, up from 45% just a week previously. Polls also show a fall of those opposed to 21% from 24%, recorded in March. Experts suggest that public opinion in Sweden is now being influenced by the NATO’s debate in Finland. If Finland were to join the military alliance, 64% of Swedes questioned said they were in favour of joining, Novus said.

What’s the Process to Join NATO?

NATO has expanded to include 30 countries over the past 70 years. It is up to individual nations whether and when to apply for membership in NATO. Members may invite other European countries to join the organisation.

The process of joining the Alliance is governed by Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, also known as the Washington Treaty. The Alliance’s 'open-door policy' was established under that article, in its founding document. In its own words, “NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.” Accession requires a consensus of existing NATO members who may, “by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.

As part of the accession process, aspirant countries must demonstrate they meet the criteria for NATO membership, which include political, military, and economic goals. Examples of these include resilient democratic institutions, a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and sufficient investment in modern and capable military forces. Aspirants must prove they are in accordance with Article 10, that is, “In a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”. Applicants not meeting the criteria are offered support through a Membership Action Plan, a process that Bosnia and Herzegovina is now going through. Negotiations are then followed by an Accession Protocol document, that is sent to the national legislatures of all NATO allies, who ratify it according to their own domestic procedures. Eventually, after bureaucratic formalities, the aspirant country is officially invited to join the alliance.

There is no set timeline for this process. It is simply a matter of the extent to which the aspirant country already meets NATO’s criteria and the political will of NATO allies to let them in.

How fast can it happen for Finland and Sweden?

Referring to Finland and Sweden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said, “We know that they can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply”. Should they decide to apply for membership, the process within NATO could happen quickly.

Operationally speaking, Sweden and Finland are already well integrated into NATO and have a considerable degree of military interoperability with allied nations. They are two of six countries known as Enhanced Opportunity Partners, under NATO’s Partnership Interoperability Initiative. As such, they are able to make particularly significant contributions to NATO operations and other Alliance objectives. As well, both nations have enhanced opportunities for dialogue and cooperation with the Allies, such as joint military exercising.

Finland and Sweden are widely considered to be leading security providers in Europe, possessing highly advanced militaries and civil defence capacities that would bring substantial capability and expertise to NATO.

Finland and Sweden both have high-quality militaries with advanced capabilities at sea, on land, and in the air. Both have discussed increasing their defence budget in the coming years, including to reach the NATO target of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. Finland appears to have already accounted for this in its report, predicting an increase in its defence budget of up to 1.5%.

The Finnish Army on manoeuvres with the NLAW light anti-tank weapon - primarily intended for use against heavy armoured vehicles, but it is also suitable for destroying infantry fighting vehicles and light armoured vehicles as well as weapon positions.  The NLAW is a disposable, fire-and-forget anti-tank weapon intended for use by individual soldiers.   The missile uses predicted line of sight, PLOS, for homing on targets. The missile may engage a target by direct attack, DA, or overflight top attack, OTA.

Finland and the Baltic Sea are vital from a security standpoint, as well as a strategic area for European shipping, to which both countries would add significant naval defence forces. Similarly, as NATO increasingly considers a role for itself in the High North, the Arctic-specific capabilities, expertise, and skills of both countries would be highly valuable.

(L) Sweden's Navy ordered a full update on five Visby class corvettes in early 2021; (R) Maritime surveillance underway in the northern Baltic Sea earlier this year

Another reason why Finland and Sweden’s admission process may happen swiftly is that both nations have long-standing efforts to build societal resilience against Russian disinformation, emphasising civic preparedness and national self-defence. Finland’s approach of 'Comprehensive Security' and Sweden’s 'Total Defence' concept are widely seen as models of best practice across Europe. Finland also hosts the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which has 31 members from across NATO and the European Union.

What Happens if Finland and Sweden Join NATO?

In the highly likely scenario Finland and Sweden decide to apply for NATO membership, the period between their application and final approval by all NATO members, including legislative action, may be difficult. Based on his own discourse, undoubtedly, Putin will do whatever he can to threaten the applicant countries directly and derail the process overall.

Although it is likely that Putin internally recognizes that Sweden and Finland are intimately aligned with NATO already, and an invasion would therefore achieve little beyond heavier sanctions, further isolation, and military losses, it is worth noting that these did not stop Russia from invading Ukraine.

The Kremlin has already threatened the Scandinavian countries rhetorically, warning of conducting cyberattacks against government websites and a military response including the deployment of nuclear and hypersonic weapons to the Baltic Sea area if either nation should decide to apply.

The latest warning from the Kremlin was issued last Wednesday, the same day Finnish MPs started formal discussions regarding the NATO issue. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said "We made all our warnings, both publicly and via bilateral channels. They know about this, so there are no surprises. They were informed about everything, what it will lead to," she added, without specifying the consequences.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, explicitly raised the nuclear threat a couple of weeks ago by saying that there could be no more talk of a nuclear-free Baltic should Sweden and Finland join NATO, adding that Russia would "Seriously strengthen the grouping of ground forces and air defence (and) deploy significant naval forces in the Gulf of Finland", in that case.

However, as Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas pointed out, Russia has already deployed nuclear weapons in the Baltic Region, in Russia’s Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea - an enclave sandwiched between NATO members Lithuania and Poland, just over 300 miles from Berlin.

Arvydas Anusauskas (Minister of Defence, Lithuania), sixth from the left alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Despite having sustained heavy military losses in Ukraine, including the loss of its flagship Black Sea missile cruiser, Russia’s capabilities remain significant and highly competent. At the moment, they have land and air forces in the Western Military District, a Baltic Fleet, missile forces in Kaliningrad and the Gulf of Finland, and a Northern Fleet based on the Kola Peninsula.

According to March reports from the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service Supo, Russia may attempt to influence the public and political debate around Finland’s potential membership in NATO with the use of deepfake videos distributed via social media platforms. Together with cyber and information activities, operations targeting Finland’s critical infrastructure are also to be expected.

Russian military intelligence activity, such as assassinations attempts or even terrorist attacks perpetrated by lone individuals or small groups who support far-right or radical Islamist ideology are two other potential threats according to the Finnish intelligence services.

The above are enough reasons for Finland and Sweden to - whether they decide to apply for membership or choose to remain neutral - design, in conjunction with NATO Allies, a contingency plan to protect them during the interim period until they can commit to the Alliance’s Article 5 or until tensions in the region settle.

Political Analyst Assessment

Repercussions from Russia are likely to cover a range of domains and are scalable in both visibility (to the international community) and severity. It is likely that they ‘grey zone’ of hybrid activity is where the majority of activity would be felt. Russia Today (RT) and other Russian state-sponsored media are likely to conduct Information Operations (IO) portraying the NATO expansion as ‘Russophobic’ and a threat to their national security, as well as highlighting any errors or blunders made by targeted politicians/political parties.

Concurrent to conducting IO, it is likely that Russia will covertly fund and enable opposition political parties within Sweden and Finland in order to undermine the political process and split the governments’ (and public’s) opinions on NATO membership. Other measures taken by Russia may include 'military-technical measures' which would increase military force deployments to the Baltic Sea area, likely including the enclave of Kaliningrad.

Need for a Contingency Plan

NATO has already indicated it would provide security guarantees for the interim period, and discussions are underway in Brussels to determine what form these would take. For one, the acceptance process for Finland and Sweden should be swift and easy, since it is probable that Russia will use that window of time to increase hybrid attacks and unlawful intelligence operations against both countries.

Military formations such as the Joint Expeditionary Force - UK-led, consisting of NATO members Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland and Sweden - could have a role to play in the contingency plan.

Both nations are European Union members, and thus are covered by Article 42.7 of its Lisbon Treaty which obliges all members to 'aid and assist by all means' in the case of armed aggression. If reinforced, the commitment could be seen as the EU equivalent to Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

Another step that could be taken to strengthen interim security guarantees would be expediting defence cooperation under the 2018 Trilateral Statement of Intent signed between the US Department of Defence, Finland and Sweden. This would enable actions such as accelerating arms transfers and strengthening intelligence.

Finnish Intelligence Services Director Antti Pelttari has advised that companies must constantly ensure that the control circuitry of critical infrastructure, such as energy distribution systems, cannot be accessed directly from an openly-public network. “All operators that maintain network infrastructure in Finland, such as water or heat supply, should ensure that all systems are up to date. The responsibility for this is widely shared within both the public and the private sectors,” Pelttari said.

Alleviating some of Russia’s security concerns around the Baltic Sea during the membership acceptance process could also ease the transition.

What About Ukraine?

Unlike Finland and Sweden, Ukraine’s process to join NATO is likely to be lengthy and uncertain.

At the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia’s aspirations for membership in the Alliance were welcomed and it was agreed that "These countries will become members of NATO". However, 14 years later, these countries are not much closer to joining NATO than they were in 2008.

Ukraine was not offered a Membership Action Plan.

In 2010, Ukraine's Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, said there was no need for the country to join NATO, with parliament voting in 2010 for the country to have a non-aligned status.

Following Yanukovych's ousting and Putin's annexation of Crimea, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the country's view on NATO membership had changed, and the Ukrainian Parliament adopted legislation in 2017 reinstating NATO membership as the country's objective.

In 2020, Ukraine became an Enhanced Opportunity Partner of NATO - the same status held by Finland and Sweden - which allowed for more information sharing and access to exercises with the organisation.

Regardless, NATO thinks Ukraine does not really satisfy the criteria for becoming a member.

It may be at question whether Ukraine adds to the security of the alliance or detracts from it.

It would be difficult for Kyiv to contribute to the Alliance while partially occupied by Russian troops.

The territorial dispute over Crimea that started in 2014, may make Ukraine less likely to become a member, since essentially the Alliance would be internalising a war with Russia if it accepted Ukraine.

Although its military has improved since the invasion of Crimea, Ukraine still needs to implement legal, economic and anti-corruption reforms to join NATO, experts say.

Another important difference between the Scandinavian case and the Ukrainian, is that Finland and Sweden are EU members, while Ukraine is not. President Volodymyr Zelensky signed his country’s application for membership in the EU in the middle of fierce resistance against the Russian invasion on February 28.

Even though European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has publicly stated that the EU "wants them in", andPpresidents of 8 EU member states (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) requested in a joint statement for the EU to deal with Ukraine’s application swiftly, it seems Ukraine will be facing a long way to EU membership, if it ever gets admitted at all.

Currently, EU-Ukraine relations are regulated by an Association agreement which was signed in 2014 and concluded in 2017. The agreement is the main tool for bringing Ukraine and the EU closer together, promoting deeper political ties, stronger economic links and the respect of common values.

The deep and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA) is the economic part of the agreement. It offers a framework for modernising Ukraine’s economy and trade relations. As a result, the EU has already replaced Russia as Ukraine’s main trade partner.

Yet, Ukraine needs to implement more reforms in the areas of rule of law, public administration and anti-corruption in order to meet EU’s conditions for membership.

Thus, while Finland and Sweden’s rapid acceptance into NATO if they decided to apply seems warranted, it is highly likely that for Ukraine, joining NATO or the EU will be a long-term effort; and it is not a certainty it will ever happen.