Will Russian Aggression in Ukraine Convince Finland and Sweden to Finally Join NATO?

For decades, both Finland and Sweden, two historically neutral countries in northern Europe, have chosen not to seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. However, the recent buildup of Russian troops along the Ukraine border and subsequent invasion have renewed debate in both countries about joining the alliance, prompting an irritated response from Russia who promised “military and political consequences” should either country join.

Antti Kaikkonen (Minister of Defence, Finland) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Peter Hultqvist (Minister of Defence, Sweden)

To Join or Not to Join?

As part of their traditional policies of miliary non-alignment, Finland and Sweden have remained outside of NATO. Throughout the Cold War, neither country joined NATO nor the Warsaw Pact – a defense treaty established by the Soviet Union and several Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. One factor explaining this is the typically low support for NATO membership among Finnish and Swedish citizens. Moreover, each country, in recent years, has strengthened its bilateral defense cooperation, particularly with the United States, the United Kingdom, and neighboring Norway, all of which are NATO members.

Bboth countries cooperate closely with NATO, maintaining deep political and military ties and even allowing NATO troops to conduct exercises within their borders. Relatedly, both countries are observer nations through the Partnership for Peace system that allows cooperation with the alliance without actually joining. No technical obstacles exist that prevent either Finland or Sweden, the only two Nordic-Baltic countries which are not members, from joining the military alliance Now, in light of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, will this change the calculus within Finland and Sweden when it comes to NATO membership?   

Finland Stayed Out of NATO, But Membership Looking More Popular

Finland has largely stayed out of NATO for decades. For one, the Nordic country maintains robust defense capabilities, being one of the few European countries that did not significantly cut its military strength after the Cold War. Interestingly, despite sharing an 830-mile land border with Russia, which ruled Finland until 1917 and with whom it fought a war in 1939, Finland has also maintained close diplomatic and economic ties with its eastern neighbor. Moreover, the Finnish President speaks with his Russian counterpart on a regular basis. While he likelihood of Russian troops and tanks rolling into Finnish territory remains pretty low, despite the history of Russian domination, the need to join the alliance wasn’t crucial, until recently.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinisto asserted that, while Finland is not expected to pursue membership during their term in office, the country retains the option of applying for membership. Only Finland and NATO can determine the country’s future membership in NATO, leaving the door for future membership open. Consequently, the public attitude appears to be shifting. A recent poll conducted by YLE, a Finnish broadcaster, found that 53% of Finns were in favor of joining NATO. In fact, as the Financial Times reports, a “majority of Finns are in favor of joining NATO for the first time in the Nordic country’s history” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, the possibility of Finland joining NATO is becoming more palatable as Finland’s leaders have promised a “thorough but expeditious debate” on the issue.

Public Opinion High, Government Opinion Skeptical

Much like Finland, Sweden also has not pursued membership in NATO. At the end of the Cold War, Sweden actually reduced its military spending. However, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Sweden began building up its defenses with the Swedish parliament voting in 2020 to increase defense spending by 40 percent over five years and increase the size of the armed forces by 50 percent. While showing no signs of joining the alliance in the immediate future, Sweden has increased its cooperation with NATO over the past few years and deepened its bilateral security ties with other Nordic states, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, as well as the United States and United Kingdom.

The recent Russian invasion prompted the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to declare, “I want to be extremely clear. It is Sweden that itself and independently decides on our security policy line.” Sweden responded in suit with Finland, noting that Russia has no right to dictate which countries can apply to NATO. And now, Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has reignited debate in Sweden on whether Sweden should apply to join the alliance. In fact, according to a Demoskop poll, 51% of Swedes favor joining NATO. However, Prime Minister Andersson – a member of the center-left Social Democrats, largely the biggest obstacle to joining NATO in Sweden – recently debunked Sweden’s the idea, calling Sweden’s application to NAT membership “destabilizing.” In Sweden, while public opinion on the issue looks to be shifting, the government is not yet in lockstep.  

What’s Next?

Public opinion on NATO membership in both Finland and Sweden appears to be shifting with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine as the catalyst. Finland and Sweden, two traditionally non-aligned countries with neutrality rooted in the post-World War II environment, have deepened political and military ties with NATO while maintaining good ties with Russia.

Yet, Russia’s invasion prompted public support to swing toward possible NATO membership. In fact, both countries participated in the NATO foreign ministers meeting on March 4, deciding to attend all future meetings on Ukraine. Both Nordic countries, with their politics decidedly aligned with the United States and other European neighbors, have not signaled their intent to apply for NATO membership. But, as a result of recent Russian aggression, the issue is now up for debate once again with both Finland and Sweden seeing the benefits that come with alliance membership.  

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