Finland and Sweden Inch Toward NATO

“The problem isn’t that NATO enlargement went too far, the problem is that NATO enlargement didn’t go far enough

Illustration by Sadia Tariq

Europe’s security architecture could be in for a monumental shift as two of Europe’s neutral states, Finland and Sweden, leaned ever closer to joining NATO. The shift in tone from the two countries had been apparent for weeks, but was underlined in a Wednesday press conference with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her Swedish counterpart Magdalena Andersson.

Marin said that her government would consider in the next weeks whether to join the bloc, adding that “everything had changed” since Russia attacked Ukraine. Andersson was more circumspect, saying that she would “analyze the situation to see what is best for Sweden’s security, for the Swedish people, in this new situation.”

According to FP, Ukraine’s relative isolation has served as a billboard for joining the treaty alliance with polls in Finland and Sweden showing swings in its favor. A recent poll found 68 percent of Finns supported joining NATO, whereas a poll taken last year by Finland’s defense ministry put NATO support at just 24 percent.

The support is less fervent in Sweden, inching just over 50 percent approval. Nevertheless, the two countries tend to move in tandem, as they did in 1995 when they joined the European Union.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama, said the invasion of Ukraine, and the perceived volatility of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has helped change minds in Helsinki: “The Finns have said, well, wait a minute, do we really want to confront this Russian bear with this leader, by ourselves, without any expectation of assistance from anybody else? Or are we better off being part of NATO?”

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For Daalder, now the President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the invasion has upended the old strategic calculus of buffer zones and careful neutrality, with Putin creating new facts on the ground. “The lesson is: the problem isn’t that NATO enlargement went too far, the problem is that NATO enlargement didn’t go far enough,” Daalder said. “And for all those people, including the great strategists Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who argued that Ukraine should be Finlandized, isn’t it interesting that after the invasion, Finland is going to be NATO-ized?”

Getting the two countries in NATO’s “open door” stands to be significantly easier than efforts to bring in Ukraine. Their militaries are already integrated into NATO processes and come with a size and sophistication likely to benefit the alliance. Even Hungary and Turkey, seen as closest to Russia within the 30-member group, have not expressed reservations.

If the open door really is open, then how soon could the countries join? “Overnight,” according to former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The reality is likely to take a little longer, roughly a year, with every NATO member needing to agree before moving forward. That interim period is of concern for both Finland and Sweden, who are seeking security guarantees while their applications are under review.

There’s also Moscow to consider. As Elisabeth Braw argues in FP today, Finland would offer NATO greatly enhanced intelligence capabilities, given its 800-mile border with Russia. In February, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned of “serious military-political consequences” which would “require retaliatory steps” should Sweden and Finland join NATO. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto waved off the rhetoric as more technical than menacing.

“We don’t think that it calls for a military threat,” Haavisto told Finnish media of Zakharova’s comments. “Should Finland be NATO’s external border, it rather means that Russia would certainly take that into account in its own defense planning. I don’t see anything new as such.”

Mikko Hautala, Finland’s ambassador to Washington, told my FP colleagues Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon that sending in its NATO application would likely see some pushback from Moscow. “[At] a minimum, we will see information influencing … those kind of activities,” he said. “But it’s hard to say what the reaction would be.”

As FP’s Michael Hirsh wrote on Wednesday, Finland could ease some of Moscow’s anxieties by adopting Norway’s mode of NATO membership, meaning no foreign military bases, no nuclear weapons, and limited NATO exercises. That wouldn’t necessarily be much of a concession on Helsinki’s part: It can muster 900,000 troops and has more tanks on hand than Germany. “We’re not in desperate need of foreign bases because we have our own,” one Finnish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Hirsh. “Our military is one of the strongest in Europe in numbers and weapons.”

Foreign Policy Brief; Wednesday April 13, 2022