The Finnish and Swedish applications to join NATO have upended their long history of neutrality. NATO members should now not only warmly welcome their Nordic partners into the alliance, but also guarantee them the full support of NATO from the moment of their applications.
The move towards NATO membership has been surging in public opinion polls in both countries since the beginning of the Russian invasion in late February, with some Finnish commentators such as legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi directly pointing out how the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin’s Russia made NATO membership a necessity to guarantee their country’s safety.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö maybe put it best, when answering how he would explain Vladimir Putin his country’s step to join NATO: “You caused this – look at the mirror”. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson similarly linked the Swedish membership bid to a radical change in Swedish security concerns after the Russian invasion.
The change in opinion was especially striking in Finland, which shares a 1300-Kilometer-long border with Russia. Finland’s collective memory is full of reminders of the long history of Russian aggression against its neighbour.
Sweden, moreover, whose tradition of neutrality can be traced back for more than two centuries, has only recently again experienced provocations by the Russian air force.
It’s for those reasons, that both Finland and Sweden have already beefed up their national defence since the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Their applications to NATO now clearly show: Being military non-aligned and being in a close proximity to Russia has become unpredictably risky.
The attention now rests once again with the current NATO member states, whose governments and parliaments all need to ratify Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO. Overwhelmingly, the member states have welcomed their Nordic partners, with Germany and the United States even vying to be the first country that ratifies Finland’s and Sweden’s membership.
Somewhat unexpectedly, however, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced his country’s opposition to the accession of Finland and Sweden, justifying it with their alleged support for Kurdish terrorist groups.
Some commentators have pointed out though, that Erdogan’s new concerns might rather be a shrewd move to gain ground in negotiations about new F-16 fighter jets from the USA. NATO diplomats have therefore spent the last week frenetically communicating between Ankara, Brussels and Washington D.C. to find ways to assuage Turkey.
The reaction from Russia has been unsurprisingly hostile. Russian officials have responded to the decisions of Finland and Sweden with thinly veiled threats.
Only days after the announcement that Finland would join NATO, Russia cut off the gas supply to Finland. While most commentators are confident that Russia would not attack Finland or Sweden directly, there are legitimate fears that military provocations and cyber-attacks from Russia are going to increase in the following weeks.
What should NATO do now?
Amid this aggressive pushback from Russia and the opportunistic manoeuvres of Erdogan, NATO and its leaders should stand strong and continue to welcome a quick integration of Sweden and Finland into its ranks.
A plethora of reasons continue to make NATO membership of Finland and Sweden a logical next step. Not only are Sweden and Finland strong liberal democracies, whose governments’ foreign policies exert moral courage. The Finnish and Swedish armies also have a reputation as modern and highly effective units, which have cooperated with NATO in the past.
Finland can rightly take pride in its impressive military capabilities, coupled with an intricate system of civil defence. Sweden does not only have an effective submarine fleet and air force, but also hosts important arms manufacturers.
More important than these strategic calculations are, however, the guiding principles of the international order. All countries should be able to freely choose with which countries to align themselves on the world stage, without threats of outside coercion. The blatant Russian threats against Sweden and Finland, including the cut-off of energy supply to Finland, should not be allowed to bear fruits.
Therefore, NATO leaders should pursue a dual strategy of pressure and commitments to convince Turkey to set aside its objections. Erdogan’s demands concerning the extradition of perceived Kurdish terrorists and more weapon supplies might put Finland, Sweden and their western allies in a difficult, but not inescapable position. While President Erdogan might be an uneasy partner for NATO in these questions, he has already given some indication that he might be able to overthink his opposition.
NATO should further make it very explicit to Russia, that any attack on Finland or Sweden during the application process, will be treated as an attack on a NATO member. As Boris Johnson promised trilaterally recently, an enhanced commitment to Finnish and Swedish security concerns by NATO should begin immediately.
Contrary to some voices, Finnish and Swedish NATO membership will not increase the conflict potential between the two blocks. Firstly, no NATO member has territorial claims against Russia nor does any of the members wish for more conflict with Russia.
Secondly, the relationship between with the two Nordic countries is decidedly distinct from Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. Sweden and Finland are culturally, historically, and linguistically far more detached from Russia than Ukraine and don’t have significant Russian minority populations.
Moreover, Finland and Sweden have cultivated close ties to NATO and the west for decades, becoming EU members in 1995 and participating in NATO operations for a number of years already. Lastly, NATO membership will make any military attack on Finland or Sweden – already an immensely difficult untertaking – even more unlikely, since any military action could trigger the collective defense clause of Article 5 of the NATO-Treaty, a risk that even Putin hasn’t been willing to take. Even Putin has already tepidly indicated that he could accept the NATO expansion.
Finland and Sweden are natural allies to NATO. Their accession will make Europe safer and send a powerful message to Putin and his cronies in Russia and elsewhere: The abhorrent Russian aggression in Ukraine will not succeed in rebuilding a Russian Empire, but rather only bind the defenders of peace and democratic self-determination in Europe closer together.