What advocates of NATO membership in both Sweden and Finland failed to do in seven decades, Vladimir Putin achieved in a couple of weeks, and the geopolitical impact of their accession to NATO should not be underestimated, writes Tomi Huhtanen.
Tomi Huhtanen is the executive director of the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels.
Finland and Sweden have been closely linked to the West since the Second World War, and increasingly, so after European integration really took off.
Both countries have discussed NATO membership, but the majority of Finnish and Swedish citizens were in favour of the status quo, not applying for NATO membership.
The war in Ukraine changed the two countries’ perception of their security situation overnight. Finland, a part of the Russian Empire until its independence in 1917, sharing a border with Russia and being outside the NATO security umbrella, could easily identify with Ukraine.
Post-1945, Finland developed a complex relationship with Russia, seeking to keep its distance while de facto taking into account the Soviet Union’s concerns. For Sweden, the situation was different, as they were not exposed to Russia as Finland was; the Finno-Russian border is 1,340 kilometres long.
As the only country that escaped from Imperial Czarist Russia, Finland knows that when geopolitical plates are moving, one has to act fast if one wants to be on the lucky side of history.
During the Cold War, the thinking was that should Sweden join NATO, the Soviet Union would seek to strengthen its grip on Finland in order to maintain the balance of power, perhaps even through war.
As a result, while Norway and Denmark acceded to NATO in the late 1940s, Sweden opted for a policy of neutrality, backed by strong defence capabilities.
As Finnish public opinion on NATO membership began to change rapidly in a few short weeks, the same happened in Sweden. The preference in both countries has always been that if they were to ever join NATO, they should do it together.
For Finland, joining NATO was a practical question, an attempt to mark its belonging to the West. Sweden has historically been more attached to the concepts of non-alignment and neutrality, though Swedish-American relations have been as close as they come.
The geopolitical impact of the two countries joining NATO should not be underestimated. With Finland and Sweden as members, NATO will be stronger, seeing its reach stretched across the continent.
The Baltic Sea will be almost totally surrounded by NATO members; for the Baltic States, Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO is good news, as the defence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by NATO against a potential Russian invasion will become easier.
Also helpful in this regard is another one of Putin’s achievements: on June 1 this year, Denmark is holding a referendum on lifting the defence opt-out from the country’s participation in EU security and defence policies.
The added value of Finland and Sweden for NATO is significant.
Both countries have built their defence capabilities following NATO standards to the extent that they are more compatible with NATO than some of its existing members. Finland’s military strength in wartime adds up to 280,000 soldiers, with 870,000 men and women in reserves, built to single-handedly resist a Russian attack.
Despite being a strong military power since the end of the Second World War, Sweden was recently investing less into its military. But due to the changed security situation in recent years, it has begun rebuilding its army, having particularly strong air capabilities backed up by a solid military industry.
With Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession, it becomes clearer that the future of Europe’s security architecture will be based on strengthening the European pillar within NATO.
Both countries will continue to be motivated to build Europe’s common security and defence policy, but with the interest of avoiding overlapping structures between NATO and the EU, aiming for a clearer division of tasks.
While Finland and Sweden are within days of announcing their intention to join NATO, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has already officially endorsed the idea that her country should join the alliance. The two countries are expecting an invitation from NATO to begin accession negotiations shortly.
It is unclear how Russia will react.
It will most likely remind the West that it is a nuclear power and announce major troop reinforcements on its Western borders. Russia might also start hybrid cyberattack operations against the two new NATO applicants.
Direct military operations by Russia against both countries would be hard to imagine, especially as it only has a fraction of its usual military strength in Northern Europe due to the Ukraine war.
Then again, Russia has lately developed a habit of shooting itself in the foot. Any operation against the two countries would only be interpreted by Finns and Swedes as proof that NATO membership should have happened a long time ago.
Putin has long been telling Europeans and the West that he wants to change the European security order. By starting his war in Ukraine, he is finally achieving that, but not in the way he wanted.