In a world deeply divided between democracy and dictatorship, neutrality has outlived its usefulness as a defense strategy for Russia’s European neighbors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bloody rampage in Ukraine violates international law as enshrined in the 1945 Charter of the United Nations, the treaty on which Sweden and Finland based their nonalignment throughout the Cold War and as former republics of the Soviet Union drifted westward.
After close coordination in recent weeks, the leaders of Finland and Sweden announced Sunday their intentions to apply for NATO membership, moves that represent a seismic shift in European security policy on Russia.
Accession of the two prosperous social democracies would double the length of NATO countries’ land border with Russia and extend alliance territory to encircle the Baltic Sea. Enhanced naval patrols in the Baltic are likely to allay fears in the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that they could be Putin’s next victims as he tries to recover the Kremlin “sphere of influence” lost with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
The newest states aiming to join the 30-nation NATO alliance have made clear that Putin’s unprovoked war against Ukraine was the catalyst for their governments’ sea change in defense strategy. Support for joining NATO had hovered below 30% over the decades since the United Nations’ founding but shot up above 70% in polling after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of its neighbor.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto called Putin on Saturday to inform him of the two countries’ decision to join the alliance. In an interview with CNN Sunday, Niinisto described Putin as “calm and cool” while warning that it would be a mistake for Finland to break from nonalignment. A Kremlin statement on the phone call said Russia-Finland relations would be “negatively affected” by any move to join NATO.
Putin earlier threatened Finland and Sweden with a “military-technical” response if they join the alliance, the same wording he used to warn Ukraine against moves to align with the United States and NATO before he unleashed his forces in a failed attempt to overrun Kyiv and install a puppet government. With Russian troops again in retreat as Ukrainian defenders drive them out of seized territory in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s latest warnings to the Finns and Swedes failed to dampen the Nordic nations’ desire for Western alignment.
While the Kremlin has little pressure to apply beyond bluster, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised the prospect of his country torpedoing the latest NATO expansion with the accusation that the Nordic countries support “terrorist groups.” He appeared to be referring to Kurdish militant organizations in Sweden supportive of the Kurdish insurgency waged in Turkey for decades.
Erdogan has not elaborated since his comments to reporters as he left a mosque after Friday prayers. But Ibrahim Kalin, the president’s spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser, walked back Erdogan’s threat to deny the new applications for NATO admission.
“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Kalin told Reuters in Istanbul.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts on the sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers gathering in Berlin over the weekend that morphed into a negotiating forum on what assurances Ankara would need to sign off on the latest expansion bid. Cavusoglu told journalists that all involved were working to address Turkish concerns about the presence in Sweden of activists of Kurdistan Worker’s Party that Turkey has branded a terrorist organization.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after Sunday’s Berlin meeting that he was “very confident” NATO would endorse admission of Finland and Sweden, which by alliance policy requires unanimous ratification by all 30 current member-nation parliaments.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told her diplomatic counterparts that the war in Ukraine has shown “in the absolutely most brutal way why NATO needs a security and defensive union.” She attributed the Nordic states’ about-face on Western military alignment to Europeans finally reaching “the painful realization that security, peace, and above all, freedom, do not fall from the sky.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg assured the Nordic leaders their application process would be expedited, even though previous NATO enlargements have taken as long as a year to get each of the existing member states’ parliamentary approval. He warmly welcomed their changed security strategy as a “historic moment” and a message to the world’s dictators that “aggression does not pay.”
Putin’s war in Ukraine not only broke the Nordic states’ embrace of nonalignment, it unified NATO after the divisive years of the Trump administration, when the former president berated fellow members for what he perceived as freeloading on the outsized U.S. investment of troops and equipment to protect NATO states closer to the risks of an increasingly hostile Russia.
While the alliance sets 2% of a country’s gross domestic product as the standard for defense investments, the average among current member states was only 1.6% last year. Finland already meets the alliance spending target and Sweden has committed to reaching 2% by 2028. And unlike Ukraine, which remains at least a decade away from qualifying for NATO admission, Finland and Sweden already have vibrant democracies, stable economies, and control of their borders.
Finland’s formal application for NATO membership could come as early as this week, and will likely be followed soon by Sweden once its parliament votes approval as is widely expected. Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats announced Sunday that they have dropped their longstanding opposition to joining the Western defense alliance.
Concerns have been raised in the leadup to the decision to join NATO that Sweden and Finland could be vulnerable to Russian retaliation in the interim between applying and getting formal membership and the protection of NATO’s key Article 5, the treaty provision that an attack on any member state is an attack on all that must be repulsed by alliance forces.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto acknowledged last month that applying for NATO membership could put the two Nordic countries at risk if Putin persists with his so-far failed quest to force former Soviet republics and Eastern European democracies into alliance with the Kremlin.
Haavisto noted, though, that “NATO member countries have an interest in that no security breaches would take place during the application period.” Enhancing the scope and frequency of joint military exercises with future NATO partners in the interim could provide the extra protection against any Russian provocation, he and others suggested at the Berlin gathering.
The United States, Britain and Germany have already assured Sweden and Finland that they would come to their defense in the event of an attack during the pendency of their NATO applications.
Admission of Sweden and Finland would unify the Nordic countries that are among those geographically closest to Russia, joining Denmark, Norway and Iceland as a northern naval bulwark in the key Arctic region where Russia’s Northern Fleet in based. An expanded NATO presence throughout the Baltic Sea would give the alliance closer surveillance capability of Russian naval movements from Kaliningrad, the heavily militarized exclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland, as well as the small stretch of Baltic coastline that is mainland Russia’s sole outlet for cargo and cruise ships into the St. Petersburg region 100 miles inland.
The five Nordic countries already cooperate in training and exercises within their Nordic Defense Cooperation pact, NORDEFCO. NATO membership would enhance their security by putting forces under joint command for any necessary defensive operations.
Prime Ministers Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and Sanna Marin of Finland announced their plans to coordinate applications to NATO at a news conference last month, citing a strategy of strength in numbers.
“We share the idea that close cooperation will benefit both of us,” Andersson said as she and Marin announced their decisions to end nonalignment that had kept the country safe until now.
“Our 200-year-long standing policy of military nonalignment has served Sweden well,” Andersson said Sunday in announcing its end in light of Russia’s “illegal and indefensible” attacks on Ukraine that undermine the world order on which Sweden’s security depends.