- Raphael Conte
NATO: To Join or Not to Join? By Raphael Conte
How Sweden and Finland are grappling with this question as the Ukraine crisis evolves
The Ukraine conflict appears to have become, in many respects, a turning point in history. Indeed, it may shift the geostrategic dynamics of Europe for decades to come. One dimension of this could be the Nordic expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), to encompass Finland and Sweden, although this may become part of a broader enlargement, as Kosovo’s request for faster entry suggests. Indeed, many neutral European countries, from Switzerland and Austria, to Ireland, have been reconsidering their positions, as well as making gestures like closing airspace to Russian aircraft and providing millions in humanitarian aid. In this respect, Finland and Sweden have been more assertive, assisting with a range of support measures, from helmets, body armour, and rations, to anti-tank weapons and assault rifles, while citizens of both countries have flocked to join their army reserves. It is noteworthy that the last time Sweden sent military aid of this nature was in 1939 to Finland to employ against the Soviet Union.
Although these countries have been Member States of the EU since 1995 and are Enhanced Opportunity Partners of NATO, they remain ‘non-aligned’, and are the only countries that are non-NATO members in the Nordic-Baltic region. These countries are also of immense strategic importance to the West, due to Finland’s land border with Russia, and Sweden’s island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, which could serve as an airbase. Therefore, this article explores the arguments surrounding prospective NATO membership in both Finland and Sweden, and evaluates their respective political landscapes in order to assess the likelihood and timescale of future participation.
The Ukraine conflict has drastically changed Finland’s perspective on NATO membership. On 28th March 2022, Finnish President, Sauli Niinistö phoned Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, asking him to outline a method for Finland to join the organisation. The Finnish Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto, has also announced that a white paper on the issue will be presented to the Finnish parliament by mid-April. On the one hand, NATO membership seems to be a logical choice. After all, Finland shares Europe’s longest border with Russia of over 1,300 kilometres, making it extremely vulnerable to Russian aggression. Such a situation is also not without precedent. During the Second World War, 2.5% of the Finnish population died fighting the Russians, a memory still pervasive in the Finnish psyche, as the anecdotal testimony of pensioner Markku Kuusela, reveals. This has even been echoed on the political stage, with Prime Minister, Sanna Marin stating that, ‘we have shown that we have learnt from the past.’
‘A Russian is a Russian, even if you fry him in butter.’ (old Finnish saying)
In this context, the ‘absolute security guarantees’ offered to NATO allies, alongside the rapid integration process promised by Stoltenberg, is appealing. Additionally, a questionnaire by the Finnish national public broadcaster, Yleisradio Oy, found that 62% of those polled supported NATO membership, with only 16% against, signalling public concurrence. Taking into account a 2017 poll which counted only 19% in favour, this represents a seismic shift. This has been reflected by Prime Minister Marin, who revealed that, ‘[Finland] is moving quickly’, with some MPs even seeking an outcome before the NATO summit in Madrid in June.
However, there are valid reasons for Finland’s hesitation regarding NATO membership. Primarily, although it has been exposed to Russian expansionism in the past, the Finnish-Russian relationship has previously been one of collaboration. As a senior Finnish official has revealed, ‘the Finnish political elite have always thought Finland is best served by having a working, rational relationship with Russia’. In this regard, it seems unwise to poke the bear, which Russian warnings of ‘serious military and political consequences’ reinforce. Such sentiments have been expressed by Haavisto, who worries that an enrolment request would make Finland a ‘target of [Russian] interference or hybrid actions’, as a new member must be unanimously approved by all 30 NATO member states, a process which would inevitably take time. Combined by the fact that there is currently no threat to Finland, according to its security service (Supo), due to the Russian focus on Ukraine, the status quo option is certainly not without merit. These arguments have been transposed into the Finnish parliament where only 58 MPs responded ‘yes’ to NATO membership, while 118 of the 200-strong institution declined to answer, suggesting widespread ambivalence. Consequently, it is understandable that Finland is not rushing into a decision, and opting for deliberation and consensus instead.
There has also been intense political debate in Sweden on NATO membership as a consequence of the Ukraine conflict, although it is much less determined than Finland. Like in Finland, a security review is ongoing with conclusions to be made in May. Likewise, there are strong reasons favouring Swedish membership of NATO. Firstly, a potential change in the Finnish stance could motivate Sweden. This has been suggested by Oscar Jonsson from the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, who has labelled Finland as one of the three ‘vetoes’ dissuading membership in the past. Additionally, pro-NATO sentiment has increased to 59% according to a recent poll by a television broadcaster, while approximately 71% of polled Swedes were afraid of a Russian military threat, an increase of a quarter between January and March, thereby overcoming the second barrier to membership. On a political front, the increasing support of the general population has been taken up by the four opposition parties, heavily criticising Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson for her reluctance. For example, Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate party, asserted that Swedish hesitation could divide Finland and Sweden ‘in a dangerous way’. With parliamentary elections looming in September 2022, NATO membership could be on the cards. Moreover, even within the ruling Social Democratic party, some key figures have come forward in favour of supporting NATO membership, implying that the situation is very dynamic and Swedish entry is possible.
However, although Sweden has traditionally been more supportive of NATO membership than Finland, evidence suggests that it is less likely to be joining NATO in the immediate future. This is suggested by the firm stance of Prime Minister Andersson who argued that, ‘If Sweden were to choose to submit its membership application in the current situation, it would further destabilise the security of this particular region of Europe and increase tensions in Europe…’ The argument that Sweden must retain its sovereignty regarding security has also been at the forefront of the debate. Additionally, unlike Finland, history has been used as a lesson against NATO membership, with emphasis on the success of over 200 years of non-alignment, a policy which has been tested by recent Russian incursions into Swedish airspace. Although Andersson has insisted that she ‘do[es] not rule out NATO membership in any way’, she and her Social Democratic party remain the greatest obstacle.
Overall, the decision in both countries remains, to a certain extent, in the balance, although the momentum in Finland is ever-increasing. With ‘almost daily’ communication between Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers, the fact that NATO would like both countries to enter into the alliance together, alongside the increased security risk to Finland, if it seeks to apply alone, suggests that it will be an all-or-nothing outcome.