What you need to know about Finland, Sweden and NATO

Here’s what you need to know about how the Ukraine war brought the two Nordic countries closer to a US-backed alliance.

Other Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark and Iceland were original members of the alliance, but Sweden and Finland did not join the treaty for historical and geopolitical reasons.

Finland and Sweden, which declared independence from Russia in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution, adopted neutral foreign policies during the Cold War, rejecting alliances with the Soviet Union or the United States.

For Finland, this turned out to be more difficult as it shares huge borders with authoritarian superpowers. To keep the peace, the Finns have adopted a process called “Finnishization,” in which leaders sometimes agree to Soviet demands.

The balancing act between the two countries effectively ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. They joined the European Union together in 1995 and gradually aligned defense policies with the West, but still avoided full membership in NATO.

The reasons for their reluctance to join the NATO treaty along with the European Union (EU) varied from country to country.

Finland was more geopolitical. The threat to Russia is more visible thanks to the 830-mile border the two countries share.

“Finland is an exposed country and we are a protected country,” former Swedish Prime Minister Karl Bild said in a joint interview with former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stub.

Although an independent country, Sweden’s geographic location is in the same “strategic environment” as its liberal-democratic neighbor, Bildt said. Finland and Sweden have had a close partnership for decades, and Stockholm has decided to refrain from joining NATO as a way to escape the Helsinki heat. But now Sweden is likely to follow Finland’s footsteps.

“We share the idea that close cooperation will benefit all of us,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said at a press conference with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin last month.

What does NATO membership entail?

Most countries join NATO for the following reasons: Article 5 North Atlantic Treaty requiring all signatories to consider one attack as an attack on the whole.

Article 5 has been the cornerstone of the alliance since 1949 when NATO was established to oppose the Soviet Union.

The main point of the treaty, especially Article 5, was to prevent the Soviet Union from attacking liberal democracies that lacked military power. Article 5 ensures that the resources of the alliance as a whole, including large U.S. forces, can be used to protect single member states, such as small states that would otherwise be defenseless. Iceland, for example, does not have a standing army.

Bildt said he would not see large new military bases being built in both countries if he joined NATO. He said joining the alliance would lead to more joint military exercises and initiatives between Finland, Sweden and NATO’s 30 incumbent members. Swedish and Finnish forces can also participate in other NATO operations around the world, such as the Baltic States, which have multinational forces at multiple bases.

“We will be prepared for any contingency as part of a plan to thwart every adventure the Russians can think of,” Bildt said. “The actual change will be fairly limited.”

Why does Russia hate NATO?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the alliance as a bulwark against Russia, despite spending much of his post-Soviet time focusing on issues such as terrorism and peacekeeping.

Before invading Ukraine, Putin made clear his belief that NATO had gotten too close to Russia and that some of Russia’s neighbors or former Soviet states should return to their borders in the 1990s before joining their military alliance.

Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and its status as a NATO partner (which is considered a step towards eventual formal accession) were among the many complaints Putin addressed to justify Russia’s invasion of its neighbors.

The irony is that the Ukrainian war effectively gave NATO a new purpose.

“Group 5 is back in the game and people understand we need NATO because of the potential Russian threat,” Stub told CNN before the invasion.

Why the Ukrainian War Changed Everything

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the last lever that triggered Sweden and Finland to join NATO.

If the Kremlin were willing to invade Ukraine, which has a population of 44 million, a GDP of about $516 million, and an army of 200,000 active-duty soldiers, what could stop Putin from invading a small country like Sweden’s Finland?

“Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine,” Marine said in April. “Even in Finland and Sweden, people’s mindsets have changed and changed very dramatically.”

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, public support for NATO membership in Finland jumped from around 30% to nearly 80% in some polls. Polls in Sweden show that the majority of Swedes are also in favor of their country joining the alliance.

“Our membership in NATO was decided at 5:00 a.m. on February 24, when Putin and Russia attacked Ukraine,” Stub said. “Finland and Sweden would not have joined without this attack.”

Swedish and Finnish officials have expressed frustration over Russia’s attempt to demand security guarantees from NATO to halt the alliance’s eastern expansion ahead of the Ukraine war. But such concessions would have effectively given Russia the power to dictate the foreign policy of its neighbors by depriving it of the ability to choose its allies and partners.

Sweden’s defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, told CNN that Russia “wants to have a real impact on Europe’s security choices.”

“They want influence over their neighbors. And that’s completely unacceptable to Sweden.”

What comes next?

Finnish leaders expressed their intention to join NATO on Thursday. Sweden is expected to follow the suit as early as Monday, according to Bildt.

Finland said it hopes to apply for membership “without delay” and complete the necessary steps at the national level “in the next few days”. This includes a vote in the Finnish Parliament that ultimately decides whether or not to join.

NATO diplomats told Reuters it could take a year to ratify the new member states as the legislative branch of the 30 current member states must approve new applicants. Both countries already meet many membership criteria, containing the functioning of a democratic political system based on a market economy; Treat minorities fairly. We promise to resolve conflicts peacefully. ability and willingness to make military contributions to NATO operations; Commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.

Two liberal democracies, Sweden and Finland, meet the NATO membership requirements. But Turkey could make the process more difficult for ambitious member states. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that he was not considering joining NATO “positively”, accusing the two countries of accepting Kurdish “terrorist organizations”.

In the meantime, both countries will have to rely on their current allies and partners, not Article 5, to ensure security. Sweden and Finland have been promised support from the US and Germany in case of an attack, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Johnson signed a mutual security pact this week with Finland and the Swedish countries.

What is Russia’s reaction?

Russia denounced the decision. Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Finland would adopt “radical changes” in its foreign policy that would force Russia to “take retaliatory measures on military and technical terms”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “NATO expansion does not make the world more stable and secure.” He added that Russia’s response would depend on “how far and how close the military infrastructure will be moved from the border.”

According to the alliance, Russia now shares about 755 miles of land borders with five NATO members. Finland’s accession signifies an official military alliance with the United States by a country that shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

Not only will this be bad news for the Kremlin, but the addition of Finland and Sweden will help the alliance. Both are serious military powers despite their small populations.

But Bild and Stub, former Prime Ministers of Sweden and Finland, see Russia’s response as relatively insignificant so far.

“The Kremlin sees Finland and Sweden joining NATO as a Nordic solution, not a radical threat in that sense,” Stub said. “We’re not too concerned.”

Stubb and Bildt believe that Moscow ultimately sees the two countries as trusted neighbors, despite the decision to join a Washington-backed alliance.

“It’s no surprise that Finland and Sweden are part of the West,” said Bildt.

CNN’s Luke McGee, Nic Robertson, Paul LeBlanc, and Reuters contributed to this report.


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