In a stunning move, the historically non-aligned nations of Finland and Sweden have formally applied to join NATO, with their legislatures approving applications to the alliance on May 15 and 16th respectively.
According to Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, “It is the government’s assessment that a Swedish NATO membership is the best way to protect Sweden’s security in light of the fundamentally changed security policy situation after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin shared those sentiments, stating “Everything has changed when Russia attacked Ukraine,”
Sweden has remained officially neutral in all European conflicts since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, maintaining its diplomatically non-aligned status for over 200 years. However, this position has slowly been tempered by increasing integration with the European Union, especially the 2009 signing of a mutual defense pact with the EU.
Finland’s military history is more complicated: Finnish territory was occupied by first the Swedish Empire and later the Russian Empire for most of the last few centuries. Finland broke away from the collapsing Russian Empire in 1917 in the wake of the October Revolution, and fended off a Russian invasion of its own in the Winter War of 1939-1940. Finland would later become the only democracy to align itself with the Axis during Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union; after 1944 it negotiated an armistice with the Soviets and the Allies contingent upon its expulsion of German soldiers from its territory and severing of all ties with Nazi Germany. Finland lost 12% of its territory after the war and was forced to pay reparations to the Soviet Union, but, unlike most of Eastern Europe, retained its sovereignty. However, while never part of the Soviet bloc, Finland was compelled to remain neutral throughout the Cold War to avoid aggravating the superpower on its border.
The NATO application of both Nordic countries represents a seismic shift in their position on the world stage and a significant decline in Russian influence in Northern Europe. Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that having a Western ally on its border was an intolerable security threat — Finland has an 830 mile border with Russia, and St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city and strategic Baltic is within a few hours drive of that border.
President Putin’s response to the announcements was somewhat muted, as while he insisted that Russia had “no problems” with either country, he declared “the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly provoke our response.” These statements come in the wake of the suspension of all electricity Finland by Russian energy company Inter RAO and reports that Russia has placed nuclear missiles near its Finnish Border
However, just because Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO, a significant obstacle still remains to their joining the alliance. All NATO hopefuls have to be approved unanimously by all pre-existing members of the alliance, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has emerged as a possible roadblock; in a recent press conference he reiterated his opposition to the two countries joining NATO, largely as a result of their past sanctioning of Turkey during the Syrian Civil War, and the applicants’ perceived sympathy for militant Kurdish groups such as the PKK, which is considered by Turkey and many NATO allies to be a terrorist organization. The United States and its allies have recently backed many Kurdish militants in the battle against ISIS and the Assad government in Syria.
“First of all, we cannot say ‘yes’ to those who impose sanctions on Turkey, on joining NATO which is a security organization,” Erdoğan stated, before noting that Finnish and Swedish diplomats heading to Turkey to allay their concerns “should not bother.”
Other members of the alliance are more optimistic about their prospects.
The Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said, “The objections Turkey voiced have nothing to do with the membership of these countries, they have to do with Turkey’s wishes it would like to resolve with these countries on a bilateral basis,” and argued that such negotiations could take place “Until the formal admission of Sweden and Finland,”.
Nato Secretary Jens Stoltenberg was also bullish on the eventual admission of the two Nordic countries. “Their membership in NATO would increase our shared security, demonstrate that NATO’s door is open and that aggression does not pay.”