From Neutral to NATO: Why Finland & Sweden’s Potential Membership Is a Big Deal

Both states had, until now, exercised a degree of pragmatism and avoided joining NATO to not provoke Russia.

4 min read
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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar

If the Russians thought that invading Ukraine would deter non-NATO countries like Finland and Sweden from requesting to join the alliance, they could not be more wrong.

Finland is expected to announce its bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), after President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin asserted on Thursday, 12 May, that their country "must apply" for membership "without delay."

Sweden is expected to follow similar lines.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that both countries would be welcomed "with open arms" into the alliance and their incorporation would be rapid.

All of this is happening despite Russia's repeated warnings. In fact, in response to the news regarding the potential Finnish membership, Moscow said that it may have to take "military-technical" steps in response to Helsinki's moves.

Finland's announcement regarding NATO, along with expectations from Sweden to do the same, is big news, and we'll tell you why. But let's start with a basic question: Why weren't these two countries NATO members in the first place?


Why Sweden & Finland Aren't in NATO Already: Ideology and Pragmatism

Both Sweden and Finland have been non-aligned, that is, neutral, for a long period of time.

While the former has not been involved in a war since emerging victorious in the 1814 Swedish–Norwegian War, the latter has been neutral since the Second World War.

The last war that Finland fought was the Winter War against the Soviet Union. After WWII, Helsinki signed an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with Moscow in 1948, isolating it militarily from western Europe.

Both Finland and Sweden shifted from total neutrality to military non-alignment in 1995 after joining the European Union. But even military neutrality may become a thing of the past, given that NATO is primarily a military alliance.

Additionally, both states have exercised a degree of pragmatism and avoided joining NATO in order to not provoke Russia, a much stronger state, into pursuing a hostile policy against them.

So, what changed? Russia invaded Ukraine.


'Everything Changed': The Effect of Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Why both nations suddenly decided to raise the question of NATO membership can be best understood by taking note of what their leaders have been saying in the recent past.

At a joint press conference in Stockholm last month, the prime ministers of both countries said that Russia's invasion of Ukraine had changed Europe's "whole security landscape" and had "dramatically shaped mindsets" of the people in their respective countries.

Magdalena Andersson had argued that "there is a before and after 24 February," (the date on which Russia invaded Ukraine) and that this was "a very important time in history," reported The Guardian.

"We have to analyse the situation to see what is best for Sweden's security, for the Swedish people, in this new situation."

On the other hand, Prime Minister Sanna Marin had said that Finland had to be "prepared for all kinds of actions from Russia" and that "everything had changed" when Moscow attacked Ukraine.

"There is no other way to have security guarantees than under NATO's deterrence and common defence as guaranteed by the alliance's Article 5," Marin added.

And that is what it is essentially about: Collective security guaranteed by Article 5 of the NATO charter, which reads, "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all ..."

Both states had, until now, exercised a degree of pragmatism and avoided joining NATO to not provoke Russia.

Article 5 of the NATO charter. 

(Source: NATO)

The logic is simple. Joining NATO would allow Sweden and Finland to avoid a Ukraine-like scenario, where if attacked by an aggressor like Russia, other member states will be obligated to intervene against that aggressor in defence of the victim state.

That is the privilege that Ukraine wanted for so long but did not have.

A thin majority of Swedish people back the idea of their country joining the alliance, while support in Finland for NATO membership, after hovering around 20-30 percent for years, now stands at around 70 percent, according to Reuters and AP.


Why Is It a Big Deal?

In one word: Security.

The merits of Article 5 have already been discussed in the above section.

Additionally, Finland and Sweden joining NATO would strengthen another alliance known as the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) consisting of three other countries – Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

Given that the troops of NORDEFCO function under a joint command, two NATO states in the Nordic alliance will enhance coordination and security.

Entry into NATO would also increase the strategic clout of Sweden and Finland with respect to the Baltic Sea, which is Russia's main maritime access point to Saint Petersburg and its Kaliningrad exclave, as explained by AP.

The region around the northern Kola Peninsula (extreme northwest of Russia) would also be easier to defend for the Nordic states with an integrated NATO command.

The potential accession is also a big deal because of all the warnings that the Kremlin has issued in the recent past.

Last month, Moscow had said that in response to Finland and Sweden's entry into NATO, it would be forced to "restore military balance" by strengthening its forces in the Baltic region, and the deployment of nuclear weapons could not be ruled out.

On 12 May, Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that "the expansion of NATO and the approach of the alliance to our borders does not make the world and our continent more stable and secure."

Nevertheless, Swedish and Finnish defiance in the face of Russian warnings can lead us to conclude one thing for sure, which is that if the Russian invasion of Ukraine had the external objective of deterring other countries from joining NATO, then the Kremlin's strategy has clearly backfired.

(With inputs from Reuters, The Guardian and AP.)

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