Eyeing Russia, Finland and Sweden edge closer to a NATO future

Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin (R) and Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson (L) attend a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, 08 December 2021. [EPA-EFE/KIMMO BRANDT]

Finland and Sweden are edging closer to joining NATO. Helsinki is expected to produce a report on the country’s security policy this Wednesday (13 April), which could present a key step toward its application.

The new security policy report is expected to start discussions in Finland’s parliament about whether to pursue membership in the alliance, discussions which Prime Minister Sanna Marin said could be finalised “before mid-summer.”

If there is a clear majority in favour of NATO membership, the government and the president are expected to decide on a potential application.

“All indications are that Finland’s government will decide to apply for NATO membership. No one wants to talk about specific dates, but if I say it will happen within the next two months, I don’t think I will be wrong,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Institute of Foreign Policy in Helsinki, told Swedish news agency TT.

Within the Finnish Social Democrats, the internal debate is expected to take place at the beginning of May, after which an extraordinary meeting of the party council will decide whether they would support the move.

Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said earlier this week in Luxembourg that it was “important” that neighbouring Sweden was following a “similar process”.

“But of course, we exchange information all the time and, hopefully, if we make similar kinds of decisions, we could do them around the same time,” he added.

Rising support

Finland and Sweden have so far pursued policies of military non-alignment. But public opinion in both countries has shifted significantly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and NATO allies and officials are on the whole supportive of the two countries joining.

According to a new poll ordered by MTV on Monday (11 April), 68% of Finns are ready to join NATO on their own and 75% believe that Finland will join NATO within a year.

In Sweden, where the population was traditionally steadfast in its non-alignment, the Russian invasion prompted a sharp rise in support for NATO, with almost one Swede out of two being in favour of NATO membership, according to a Novus poll in March, a week after the invasion.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said last month she does “not exclude NATO membership in any way.”

Tensions between Russia and Sweden have risen over the last decade, namely around the island of Gotland, strategically located in the Baltic Sea, halfway between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Saint-Petersburg.

Russian officials have repeatedly threatened both countries with “consequences” should they decide to join the Western military alliance. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned on Monday that expanding NATO would not bring any more stability to Europe.

“We have repeatedly said that the alliance itself is more of a tool for confrontation. This is not an alliance that provides peace and stability, and further expansion of the alliance, of course, will not lead to more stability on the European continent,” Peskov said.

Last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated that NATO allies would welcome Finland and Sweden into the alliance if they decided to join, but any such move is up to the two nations.

“It’s for them to decide of course, but if they apply, I expect that 30 allies will welcome them,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

He said NATO would likely find ways “to address the concerns they may have about this interim period between having applied and until the last ratification (by allies) has taken place”. Stoltenberg referred to possible Russian retaliation before the pair were fully under NATO protection, effectively speaking about potential security guarantees.

His words were echoed by Rob Bauer, head of NATO’s military committee, who told reporters on Tuesday (12 April) that the alliance has not ruled out new members, but said it was ultimately up to Finland and Sweden to decide whether they want to join, Reuters reported.

“It is a sovereign decision of any nation that wants to join NATO to apply for membership, which they so far have not done … We are forcing no one into NATO,” Bauer said.

Meanwhile, US officials quoted by The Times, however, estimated Sweden and Finland could very well submit their applications in June and join NATO as soon as this summer.

Finland, Sweden to receive enhanced access to NATO intel over Ukraine

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine extends Moscow’s military power to the borders of several NATO members, NATO partners Finland and Sweden can be part of an intensified exchange of information and NATO’s strategic communication.

Finland and Sweden are two of six countries known as ‘enhanced partners’, largely due to their contributions to NATO operations. As such, they have options when it comes to cooperation.

In recent months, NATO has stepped up cooperation focusing on security in the Baltic Sea region, which includes political consultations, exchanges of information on hybrid warfare, and joint exercises.

As NATO partners, Finland and Sweden have been made part of an intensified exchange of information and NATO’s strategic communication amid the Ukraine war.

Realistically, the only objection could come from Hungary’s newly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who could stand in the way of their NATO aspirations or ask NATO or the EU for something in return for his support.

However, NATO officials believe that if it comes to a decision, Orbán could very well be coerced into acceptance.

A ‘third way’?

Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet reported on Sunday (10 April), that Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist and the Swedish Social Democrats are considering a third option – a defence alliance with Finland backed by the US.

“I have had several conversations with Swedish Social Democrats and I know that they are taking this option seriously,” said Finnish MP and former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja. His position was echoed by Prime Minister Marin on Sunday on Radio Suomi, although more cautiously.

“NATO cooperation makes it possible to cooperate with others, but a system that provides the same security guarantees as NATO does not exist,” Marin said.

She called the discussion around a Swedish-Finland military alliance “good and analytical”, adding that “if we join NATO, it will not be easy to leave the defence alliance”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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