Putin's Ukraine War Could Push His Neighbors Into NATO's Hands

When even traditionally dovish Social Democrats are beginning to change their minds about joining NATO, it's clear that Putin's assault on Ukraine is causing Sweden and Finland serious second thoughts on the subject

David Stavrou
David Stavrou
Stockholm
Swedish soldiers on the Swedish island of Gotland amid increased tensions between NATO and Russia in January.
Swedish soldiers on the Swedish island of Gotland amid increased tensions between NATO and Russia in January. Credit: Karl Melander/TT News Agency/Reuters
David Stavrou
David Stavrou
Stockholm

STOCKHOLM – Membership in NATO has been a controversial issue in Sweden and Finland since the alliance’s founding in 1949, and the two countries’ traditions of nonalignment has survived crisis after crisis in Europe through the decades.

The end of the Cold War saw 14 new members join NATO, bringing the roster to 30, but without these two Nordic countries.

For Sweden, the main reason for staying out has been its long-standing policy of nonalignment and neutrality. For Finland, it has largely been concern about the way its Russian neighbor would interpret such a step.

Thus, while the other Nordic countries – Denmark, Norway and Iceland – are full NATO members, Sweden and Finland have been cooperating with the alliance for years without actually joining. But then came Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine.

According to surveys conducted after the invasion, about half of Swedes are in favor of joining NATO – a record for the country, and up from 37 percent last summer and 32 percent in 2017. Other studies show that more and more Swedes are concerned about a possible Russian attack.

Countries in blue are members of NATO. Sweden and Finland, on the northern edge of the map, are nonaligned, but Putin's attack on Ukraine could lead them in a new direction. Credit: Anastasia Shub, Sergei Guneyev/AP, Volina/Shutterstock, Francisco Seco/AP

In Finland, a petition signed by over 50,000 people calls for a referendum on NATO membership, a subject discussed in parliament last week. A poll by Finland’s public broadcaster early in Russia’s invasion showed that a record 53 percent of Finns support full NATO membership. In 2017 this number was only 19 percent.

In Helsinki last weekend, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, discussed defense policy and cooperation while keeping the NATO issue vague. Marin said that it’s “very understandable that the mindset of our citizens is changing due to Russia’s attack against Ukraine,” adding that Finland’s political parties would now be delving into the issue.

Andersson agreed and added that “the security situation has altered in a dramatic way, and of course this will be discussed both in Finland and in Sweden.” In the current crisis, officials from both countries have also spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden on their close cooperation with the United States.

“Historically, in both countries, nonalignment has been a long tradition, especially in Sweden, which was neutral during World War II, though it was of course helping the Germans,” says Ann-Sofie Dahl, an associate professor in international relations and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“Sweden clung to nonalignment during the Cold War as mostly a political and ideological tool for the ruling Social Democrats, who have a romantic view of Sweden playing a role in global politics as a neutral country,” Dahl says. “But this was a two-sided doctrine because it was combined with top secret cooperation with NATO during the Cold War.”

Pro-Ukraine demonstrators in Helsinki on Saturday.Credit: Mikko Stig/Lehtikuva/AP

Getting closer

In the Finnish case it’s more of a security matter.

“Finland has a very long border with Russia and they’ve also been part of the Russian Empire, which puts them in Putin’s sphere of interest. The Finns have also fought against the Russians [during World War II], which means that the Russians respect them. So, although Sweden and Finland both have nonalignment security doctrines, they have very different historical backgrounds.”

In 1994, Sweden and Finland were among the first to join the Partnership for Peace, NATO’s nonmember partnership program. But unlike Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, they have not joined NATO. In 2014, with the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland became part of the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership, a small group of the alliance’s closest partners that now includes Ukraine.

“This means Sweden and Finland are part of NATO military exercises and various forms of communications and training. Now, because of the war, Sweden and Finland are even closer to NATO, and they’re participating in its discussions on the Ukraine crisis,” Dahl says.

“This is a historic moment; we have never seen discussions like this before. Domestically in both countries, some center-right parties have supported joining NATO for years, others have recently joined, but now even some Social Democratic voices are moving towards accepting the idea of NATO membership. In Sweden this means a possible ideological U-turn for traditional supporters of nonalignment, while in Finland, the Social Democrats seem to be one step ahead because of a more pragmatic approach in these matters.”

The UN High Commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, shaking hands with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in Stockholm on Wednesday.Credit: Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency/AFP

Exposed and vulnerable

Swedes and Finns who are now changing their minds about NATO membership have a clear understanding of its benefits. It’s all about Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That clause, sometimes called the “Three Musketeer article,” commits each NATO member to consider an attack on another member an attack on itself. As in the Alexandre Dumas novel, it’s “all for one and one for all.”

“People in Sweden and Finland are afraid of what’s happening in Ukraine, which isn’t very far from them. They realize that they’re outside NATO, which means that like Ukraine, they’re exposed and vulnerable, particularly Sweden, which still has a very weak military and is seen as the most vulnerable part of the Baltic,” Dahl says.

“We have a president in Moscow who is obviously unstable and ready to invade a neighboring country. Russia has been provoking Sweden with fighter jets entering its airspace. People are aware of this and of course they’re scared.”

Still, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Andersson said that a Swedish application for NATO membership was not on the table at the moment, adding that such a move would further destabilize the situation in Europe. Sweden's government prefers to strengthen its ties with Finland and the United States, cooperate with NATO as a nonmember partner and work within the EU framework to support Ukraine.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin speaking before an emergency EU summit in Brussels on February 24 after Russia invaded Ukraine.Credit: John Thys/Pool/AFP

As for Finland, “the Finnish position is that we are at the beginning of a process,” says Maimo Henriksson, a senior Foreign Ministry official who headed the Eastern Europe department and is now ambassador to Sweden.

“The security situation has changed in our neighborhood, which means there are more reasons to analyze and discuss the situation and its implications. Joining NATO is one option, but it’s not self-evident that we’ll land there.”

Henriksson says a political debate has been launched in Finland that includes policy papers, parliamentary debates and discussions among the parties.

“It’s an open issue, it should be handled efficiently but with care, and it’s not clear what the end result will be,” she says, adding that Finland has constantly been talking with the Russians throughout the years, but not over the last few weeks. The Finnish people, shocked like so many people around the world, have shown strong support for Ukraine.

Regarding Sweden, Henriksson says that “both countries wish to go hand in hand when it comes to the decision about NATO. But of course, there are no guarantees since both countries have their individual national processes, and decisions will be made on the basis of national interest.”

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