Despite their orientation toward the US and western Europe, Finland and Sweden since the Cold War have bet that their national security was best protected by staying out of NATO.
They had aimed to avoid disturbing the military balance in the Baltic Sea region and provoking Russia. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its demands to stop NATO expansion have sparked a rethinking in both countries.
Now their entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization looks like a done deal.
1. Why aren’t Finland and Sweden NATO members?
Both countries conduct military exercises with NATO and increasingly share intelligence with it.
They are part of the alliance’s Partnership for Peace program, which fosters cooperation with non-members, and, along with Ukraine, are among six so-called Enhanced Opportunity Partners that make “particularly significant contributions to NATO operations”.
But they didn’t join the group for historic reasons.
- Finland has spent the 104 years since its independence tiptoeing around Russia, the giant to its east, with which it has a 1,300km border. Two wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1944 were followed by a policy of deference and self-censorship toward the Soviets that came to be known as Finlandization.
After the Cold War ended, Finland began turning more toward the democracies of western Europe, joining the European Union and adopting the euro. But the ghost of Finlandization lingered and Finns held onto the cornerstone of their foreign policy: maintaining good relations with Russia.
The country’s leaders didn’t consider NATO a viable option, and popular opinion, until now, was firmly against joining.
- Sweden stayed out of both world wars, and as the two superpowers vied for influence during the Cold War, neutrality was seen as the best way of ensuring the country’s independence. Still, Sweden’s defence during the Cold War was designed to deter a Soviet invasion, and the country covertly cooperated with NATO.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sweden’s policy was officially rebranded as military non-alignment, and its defence was significantly scaled down.
But since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, Sweden has gradually ramped up military spending and sought ever closer cooperation with NATO.
2. What would their joining do for NATO?
Having Finland and Sweden in the alliance would arguably make it easier to stabilise the security of the area around the Baltic Sea and to defend NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Those countries are often seen as a potential target for Russian aggression because they have substantial ethnic Russian minorities, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has used protecting such people as a pretext for interventions in Ukraine.
Including Finland and Sweden would add to NATO two sophisticated, well-equipped militaries whose gear is already compatible with that used by the alliance. It would lengthen NATO’s border with Russia, which now comprises just 6 per cent of Russia’s land perimeter, and enable the alliance to improve its surveillance of the country’s western flank.
|Armoured personnel carriers||613||1,064|
|Infantry fighting vehicles||212||411|
|Main battle tanks||100||120|
|Combat capable aircraft||64||96|
|Patrol and coastal combat vessels||20||150|
|Defence spending, %/GDP||2||1.4|
Source: The Military Balance by IISS
Note: Finland's mobilisation strength is about 280,000. Sweden reinstated conscription in 2018.
3. What’s required to join NATO?
NATO’s 30 participating countries have to be unanimous in welcoming a new member. Sweden and Finland, which are among the world’s most developed nations with stable democracies and highly trusted political institutions, expect no resistance.
The criteria for aspirant nations include a functioning democracy based on a market economy, fair treatment of minority populations, a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully, and a willingness and ability to make a military contribution to NATO operations. It’s not a requirement that citizens bless a move to join, but favourable public opinion lends legitimacy to a country’s bid for membership.
4. How quickly could it happen?
Finnish leaders came out with a statement on May 12 saying “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay”, and Sweden’s government was expected to do the same shortly.
While the dozen countries that have joined the alliance since 2004 have followed a gradual process under NATO’s Membership Action Plan, many analysts think that entry could be fast-tracked for Sweden and Finland.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly said that the two nations meet NATO standards “in most areas” and that the process can go “very quickly” if they decide to apply.
Path to NATO Membership
- Country requests to join NATO
- North Atlantic Council decides whether or not to proceed with request*
- If Council agrees, then candidate country conducts accession talks with NATO about obligations of membership, a process that can last as little as a day
- North Atlantic Council reconvenes to consider whether or not to move forward with accession
- If agreed, allies sign accession protocol and country becomes a formal invitee, allowing them participation in most NATO meetings but no right to vote
- Allies then need to ratify the bid according to national procedures, a step that can take months
- Country ratifies bid and deposits it with the US State Department in Washington, becoming a formal member of NATO
*North Atlantic Council can convene at various levels, including among NATO ambassadors, foreign ministers or heads of state
5. How has Russia responded to the idea?
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 12 that Finland joining NATO would “definitely” be a threat to Russia. Russia has previously warned of “serious military and political consequences” from Finnish and Swedish accession, requiring Russia “to respond”.
In April, Russia said it would deploy nuclear weapons in and around the Baltic Sea region if the two joined. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda dismissed the threat as “empty”, accusing Russia of already placing tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, its exclave on the Baltic. Russia had warned the Baltic states of serious consequences before they joined NATO in 2004, but that turned out to be a bluff.
On the other hand, Montenegro in 2016 said it had foiled a Russia-backed plan to assassinate then-premier Milo Djukanovic over the country’s plans to enter NATO, which materialised a year later.
A court in 2019 sentenced 14 people, including opposition leaders and Russian and Serbian nationals, to as many as 15 years in jail for staging the failed plot, though an appeals court last year annulled the verdicts. Finns expect to face more spying, cyberattacks, airspace breaches and influence operations by Russia should they pursue NATO membership.
6. What are Finland and Sweden doing apart from rethinking NATO membership?
They are increasing military cooperation between themselves and with other nations, work that began to accelerate in the run-up to the war in Ukraine.
In early March, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto visited US President Joe Biden, who promised, in a joint phone call with Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, to deepen cooperation between the three nations, and later the US made security assurances to both.
They’ve also signed security cooperation agreements with the UK. NATO’s pledge of collective defence only applies to members, and an extended period on the doorstep of the alliance without a security guarantee would risk a backlash from Russia that the applicant would face on its own.
They both intend to continue ramping up defence spending, with Sweden’s long-term plan increasing funding for the armed forces by almost 30 per cent from 2021 to 2024.