Why Finland and Sweden joining alliance would be big deal for Europe, Russia
Posted On May 13, 2022
It’s likely to be the quickest NATO expansion ever and one that would redraw Europe’s security map.
Should they apply for membership, the move would have far-reaching ramifications for Northern Europe and trans-Atlantic security.
No doubt, it will also anger their large neighbour Russia, which blames, at least in part, its war in Ukraine on NATO’s continued expansion closer to its borders. It’s unclear how Russian President Vladimir Putin might retaliate. The Kremlin said on Thursday that it certainly won’t improve European security.
The following is a brief look at what Finland and Sweden’s membership in the 30-country NATO alliance could mean, with the Nordic partners expected to announce their intention to join within days.
Not neutral like Switzerland, Finland and Sweden traditionally think of themselves as militarily “nonaligned”.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine and Putin’s apparent desire to establish a Moscow-centered sphere of influence have shaken their security notions to the core. Just days after he ordered the February 24 invasion, public opinion shifted dramatically.
Support in Finland for NATO membership has hovered around 20-30 per cent for years. It now stands at over 70 per cent. It and Sweden are NATO’s closest partners but maintaining good ties with Russia has been an important part of their foreign policy, particularly for Finland.
Now they hope for security support from NATO states – primarily the United States – in case Moscow retaliates. Britain pledged on Wednesday to come to their aid.
NATO membership for the two, joining regional neighbours Denmark, Norway and Iceland, would formalise their joint security and defence work in ways that their Nordic Defense Cooperation pact hasn’t.
NORDEFCO, as it’s known, focuses on cooperation. Working within NATO means putting forces under joint command.
Accession would tighten NATO’s strategic Nordic grip on the Baltic Sea – Russia’s maritime point of access to the city of St Petersburg and its Kaliningrad exclave.
Finland and Sweden also join them, along with Iceland, at the heart of the triangle formed with the North Atlantic and maritime areas in the Arctic, to where Russia projects its military might from the northern Kola Peninsula. Integrated NATO military planning will become a lot simpler, making the region easier to defend.
Finland and Sweden are NATO’s closest partners. They contribute to the alliance’s operations and air policing.
Most importantly, they already meet NATO’s membership criteria, on functioning democracies, good neighbourly relations, clear borders and armed forces that are in lock-step with the allies. After the invasion, they formally boosted information exchanges with NATO and sit in on every meeting on war issues.
Both are modernising their armed forces and investing in new equipment. Finland is purchasing dozens of high-end F-35 warplanes. Sweden has top-quality fighter jets, the Gripen.
Finland says it’s already hit NATO’s defence spending guideline of 2 per cent of gross domestic product. Sweden too is ramping up its military budget and expects to reach the target by 2028. The NATO average was estimated at 1.6 per cent last year.
Vladimir Putin has demanded that NATO stop expanding and in his May 9 speech blamed the West for the war.
But public opinion in Finland and Sweden suggests that he has driven them into NATO’s arms.
If Finland joins, it would double the length of the alliance’s border with Russia, adding a further 1300km for Moscow to defend.
Defenders of Ukrainian stronghold continue to repel attacks
Putin has promised a “military, technical” response if they join. But many troops from Russia’s western district near Finland were sent to Ukraine, and those units suffered heavy casualties, Western military officers say.
So far, Moscow is doing nothing obvious to dissuade the two – apart perhaps from a couple of incidents where Russian planes entered their airspace. The Kremlin said on Thursday that its response could depend on how close NATO infrastructure moves toward Russia’s borders.
Some at NATO worry that the Russians might deploy nuclear weapons or more hypersonic missiles to the Kaliningrad exclave, across the Baltic Sea wedged between allies Poland and Lithuania.