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Finland and Sweden: NATO’s Two New Members Thanks to Russia’s Ukraine Invasion?

Sweden's JAS 39. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Sweden's JAS 39. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

NATO Could Gain Two New Members – What a difference three weeks can make. Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, European policies have changed, seemingly at warp speed. Even Germany has been roused to take its defense commitments seriously and rectify its military deficiencies.

Denmark announced plans to meet the NATO benchmark of spending 2% of GDP on defense. Italy’s Prime Minister Draghi also called for significant increases in defense spending, stating, “Today’s threat from Russia is an incentive to invest more in defense than we have ever done before.”

Clearly, Putin’s brutality has shattered the illusions of many Europeans about the nature of the regime in Moscow, the necessity of military capability, and the belief that the “rules-based international order” could avoid the type of needless bloodshed we see every day in Ukraine.

In Finland and Sweden, it has accelerated the languorous, longstanding debate over NATO membership. That debate is now moving forward in somewhat surprising ways.

While not members of NATO, Finland and Sweden are “enhanced opportunity partners” with the alliance. Both have signed host nation support agreements with NATO. Additionally, Finland, Sweden and the U.S. in 2018 signed a trilateral Statement of Intent to strengthen defense cooperation.

While aligned with and very much part of the West, neither nation has seriously pursued NATO membership for fear of upsetting regional stability and also because of—at least until now—lukewarm public support for the idea.

Yet, there has always been an unspoken belief that, should they ever seek membership, NATO would meet Finland and Sweden with open arms.

That is still the case. In addition to the closeness of relations (for example, both nations currently are taking part in NATO’s Cold Response 2022, a large scale cold-weather exercise in Norway), Finland and Sweden would make the alliance stronger and remove any remaining question marks in the alliance’s operational planning for the Baltic theater.

Yet, Putin is deeply concerned about any expansion of NATO. In late February, he reiterated longstanding threats that, should either nation pursue membership, it would set off “serious military-political consequences.”

Earlier, before the invasion, Finland and Sweden received letters from Russia demanding “security guarantees.” They responded via a collective letter from the European Union. While the EU’s Lisbon Treaty contains a mutual defense clause, the organization’s miniature role in responding to the ongoing Ukraine war underscores what Finns and Swedes already know: the EU mutual defense clause is no substitute for NATO’s Article V.

This reality is reflected in recent polls, which show surging support for Finnish and Sweden NATO membership. In Sweden, for the first time, more people support membership than oppose it. In Finland, 63% now support membership, with only 16% opposed. Just a few years ago, 51% of Finns opposed membership.

The consensus belief that elected officials would need to advocate strongly for NATO membership and bring public opinion around has been turned on its head.

Today, it’s the officials in Helsinki and Stockholm who are dragging their feet. While Sweden’s opposition conservative parties support NATO membership, the Social Democrats who are in power remain opposed. Just last week, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said membership would “further destabilize the situation.”

That hasn’t stopped the nation from beefing up its defense capabilities. The government recently announced it, too, would increase defense spending from 1.3% of GDP to 2%. The Prime Minister called the increase “a clear message to the Swedish people and to the world around us: Sweden’s defence capability must be greatly strengthened.”

The debate is also heating up in Finland, which has an 830-mile land border with Russia. Following Putin’s invasion, a “citizens’ initiative to hold a referendum on whether Finland should join NATO gathered the required 50,000 signatures in less than a week.” This forced Parliament to debate the issue in late February.

Both Finland’s President and Prime Minister stated that debates on potential membership would continue but at a methodical pace. Finland seems likely to increase defense spending in spring budget negotiations. Finland never cut its military capabilities as much as neighboring Sweden, and in December announced a $9.4 billion deal to procure 64 F-35 aircraft by 2030. Last year, Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen wrote, “We have maintained and developed a national defense capability throughout the decades. We never dropped the ball on defense.”

While Finland and Sweden remain closely tied to the U.S. and NATO, formal membership in the alliance has meaning and essential deterrence value. Putin’s butchery in Ukraine has seemingly ignited public support for membership in those two nations, always thought to be the albatross holding back serious consideration.

The ball is now in the government’s court, both in Helsinki and Stockholm as well as in every NATO member state, which would need to decide whether or not to accept Finnish and Swedish accession. It seems likely they would join together and be accepted by the alliance members. Still, concerns in some corners over membership as “destabilizing” or “provocative” mean that Finland and Sweden should not assume automatic membership.

Fueled by Russian threats regarding NATO membership, these same concerns could grind government decision-making to a snail’s pace.

Yet something seems to have fundamentally shifted in this longstanding debate. The value of NATO and the real risk of Russian aggression have accelerated the longstanding debate over Finnish and Swedish NATO membership. Whether or not it results in a new outcome remains to be seen.

Daniel Kochis is a senior policy analyst of European affairs in The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Written By

Daniel Kochis is a senior fellow in the Center on Europe and Eurasia at Hudson Institute. He specializes in transatlantic security issues and regularly publishes on United States policy in Europe, NATO, Baltic, and Nordic dimensions of collective defense and Arctic issues. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.