STOCKHOLM (AP) — To join or not to join? The question of NATO arises this week in Finland and Sweden where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered the long-held belief that staying out of the military alliance was the best way to stay out of trouble with their giant neighbor.
If the Finnish President and the ruling Social Democrats in both countries come out in favor of membership in the next few days, NATO could soon add two members to the gates of Russia.
It would be a historic development for the two Nordic countries: Sweden avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland adopted neutrality after being defeated by the Soviet Union in World War II.
NATO membership was never seriously considered in Stockholm and Helsinki until Russian forces attacked Ukraine on February 24. Virtually overnight, the conversation in both capitals shifted from “Why should we join? to “How long does it take?”
Along with ruthless Ukrainian resistance and far-reaching Western sanctions, this is one of the most important ways the invasion appears to have backfired on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If Finland and Sweden joined the alliance, Russia would find itself completely surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic.
“There is no going back to the status quo before the invasion,” said Heli Hautala, a Finnish diplomat previously stationed in Moscow and a researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, the Western leader who seemed to have the best relations with Putin before the war in Ukraine, is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership on Thursday. The ruling social democratic parties in both countries are due to present their positions this weekend.
If their answer is “yes”, there would be solid majorities in both parliaments for NATO membership, paving the way for formal application procedures to begin immediately.
Finland’s Social Democrats led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin are likely to join other Finnish parties in backing a NATO bid. The situation in Sweden is not so clear.
Sweden’s Social Democrats have always been a firm believer in non-alignment, but party leader and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said there was a “before and after February 24”.
The party’s women’s faction, led by Climate and Environment Minister Annika Strandhall, has come out against NATO membership.
“We believe our interests are best served by being militarily non-aligned,” Strandhall told Swedish broadcaster TV4. “Sweden has traditionally been a strong voice for peace and disarmament.”
Neither Finland nor Sweden are planning a referendum, fearing it will become a prime target for Russian interference.
Both Sweden and Finland sought – and received – assurances of support from the United States and other NATO members during the application period if they wished to become members.
Both countries believe they would be vulnerable in the meantime, before being covered by the alliance’s one-for-all, all-for-one security guarantees.
The Kremlin has warned of “military and political repercussions” if the Swedes and Finns decide to join NATO.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who is deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said last month he would force Moscow to boost its military presence in the Baltic region.
However, analysts say military action against the Nordic countries seems unlikely, given the bogged down state of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Many Russian troops stationed near the 1,300 kilometer (830 mile) border with Finland were sent to Ukraine and suffered “significant losses” there, Hautala said.
She said potential Russian countermeasures could include bringing weapons systems closer to Finland, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, economic countermoves and directing migration to the Russian-Finnish border. similar to what happened on Poland’s border with Belarus last year.
There are signs that Russia has already increased its focus on Sweden and Finland, with several airspace violations by Russian military aircraft reported in recent weeks and an apparent campaign in Moscow with posters featuring famous Swedes. as Nazi sympathizers. Putin used similar tactics against Ukraine’s leadership before launching what the Kremlin called its “special military operation.”
After remaining firmly opposed to membership for decades, public opinion in both countries has changed rapidly this year. Polls show that more than 70% of Finns and around 50% of Swedes are now in favor of membership.
The shocking scenes unfolding in Ukraine have Finns drawn to the conclusion that “it could happen to us”, said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, while Sweden already had a tradition of neutrality dating back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But both countries built up strong conscription-based armed forces to counter any Soviet threat. Sweden even had a nuclear weapons program, but abandoned it in the 1960s.
The threat of conflict erupted in October 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground off the coast of southwestern Sweden. Eventually, the submarine was brought back to sea, ending a tense standoff between Swedish forces and a Soviet rescue fleet.
As Russia’s military might waned in the 1990s, Finland kept its guard high, while Sweden, considering a conflict with Russia increasingly unlikely, downsized its military and shifted its focus from territorial defense to peacekeeping missions in remote conflict zones.
The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 prompted the Swedes to reassess the security situation. They reintroduced conscription and began to rebuild defensive capabilities, including on the strategically important Baltic Sea island of Gotland.
Defense analysts say Finland and Sweden have modern and capable armed forces that would significantly boost NATO’s capabilities in northern Europe. Finnish and Swedish forces train so often with NATO that they are essentially interoperable.
Adding new members usually takes months, as these decisions must be ratified by all 30 NATO members. But in the case of Finland and Sweden, the accession process could be done “in a matter of weeks”, according to a NATO official who told reporters on the condition of not being identified because no request was made. was made by both countries.
“These are not normal times,” he said.
Lorne Cook contributed to this report from Brussels.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine