Why Finland and Sweden Seem Likely to Join NATO

One of the many justifications Vladimir Putin has offered for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that NATO’s post-Cold War eastward advance threatens Russia’s national security. He was hoping that his attack on Ukraine would force the transatlantic alliance to the sidelines, but Finland and Sweden will disappoint him. In the coming months both will be joining NATO, instantly increasing the size of the border that seperates Russia from the strongest and most successful military alliances in history.

Many Americans may be surprised to learn that Russia’s large Nordic neighbors weren’t already members. Finland was involved in two wars before World War II. They also fought with the Soviet Union. In exchange, Finland was allowed to retain its independence and pledged to be neutral during the Cold War war between East and West. Sweden for its part has made neutrality a key pillar in its foreign policies over the past 200 years.

The Soviet Union collapsed and the countries joined the European Union. However, neither country felt the need to join a post-Cold War alliance. Its purpose was not clear. Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea persuaded both countries to build cooperation with NATO, but there was no groundswell of public opinion to join. This was true until Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2014.

What makes Finland and Sweden so keen to be a part of the EU? These countries’ voters are increasingly convinced that NATO membership is necessary for their protection. Russia is known to have attacked and harassed the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. These countries are NATO full members. And non-alignment hasn’t spared Ukraine. “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was,” said Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin after its soldiers crossed Ukraine’s borders. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally,” read a statement from Sweden’s governing Social Democratic party earlier this month. “I do not really see how Sweden and Finland will be able to guarantee our security outside NATO when Russia is ready in 2022 to start completely unprovoked a full-scale war against a neighboring country,” wrote the political editor of a Swedish newspaper linked to that party, which has been historically reluctant to support joining NATO. In both countries, record numbers support NATO membership.

They can join in a matter of minutes. Finland is likely to file an application for membership before the NATO summit in Madrid, June 29. Sweden’s governing party has made clear its position that Sweden should follow Finland’s lead. Biden’s administration and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg both sent clear signals to suggest that the applications be accepted quickly. Acceptance will require a unanimous vote from all current members. The only foreseeable opposition would come from Hungary’s Putin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban but, given the financial leverage that European officials continue to hold over Orban’s head and Orban’s willingness so far to support EU sanctions against Russia, he’s not likely to stop the process.

And from a military standpoint, the joint exercises Finland and Sweden have conducted since Russia’s 2014 invasion on Crimea have erased any possible concerns about the interoperability of Nordic and NATO forces. Furthermore, Finland spends already 2% on defense. Sweden is likely to follow that lead.

NATO, Finland and Sweden have plenty of reasons to speed up the process. Between the time the countries apply for membership and the acceptance of formal NATO protection, Finland & Sweden are particularly vulnerable to Russian attacks. NATO and both countries will be trying to shorten that window. As EU members, Finland and Sweden already have some protection from Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which requires all EU states to “aid and assist by all means” other members that are under attack, but NATO will still want to move quickly.

Speaking of Russia’s reaction, what’s it likely to be? The effectiveness of its options is very limited. Russia won’t be able to spare many troops to place in threatening positions near Nordic borders as long as the war in Ukraine grinds on. Russian officials warn that Russia could use nuclear weapons in the Baltics if it becomes a NATO member for Sweden or Finland. That threat would mean more if Russia didn’t already have nuclear installations in its Kaliningrad region, which is less than 500 miles from both Helsinki and Stockholm.

Still, it’s a warning that will put Finns and Swedes on edge. Russia may launch additional cyberattacks against both the Finnish government and major company networks. It can provoke both countries with submarine incursions into Nordic waters in the Baltic Sea and fighter jet intrusions into Finland and Sweden’s airspace. All of these have happened in the past by Russia. The result of NATO expansion will likely be limited to heightened tensions of various kinds for the foreseeable future, but by itself it won’t heighten the risk of confrontation with Russia any higher than NATO support for Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia already have.

Yes, but… Further frustrations in Ukraine could darken Putin’s mood. In that case, another expansion of NATO can only add to the (already high) broader risk that Russia’s president, having lost face as the author of a massive strategic blunder in Ukraine, will find other ways to undermine Europe, America, and their alliance. The risk of Putin launching an unexpectedly devastating attack if Russia’s defeat in the Ukraine war looks more like it is. He’s already revealed himself to be both isolated from reality and reckless.

Still, Finland and Sweden now calculate that they’re better off within the transatlantic alliance than without its promises of protection.

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