Finland’s government announced that they have made an application to join the defensive alliance on Sunday, while Sweden followed suit on Monday.
Both Sweden and Finland have historically opposed NATO membership, but Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, directly counter to the outcome intended by Moscow, has driven Sweden and Finland straight into NATO’s open arms.
NATO is a defensive alliance, but has historically faced opposition from anti-war political contingents who argue that NATO escalates situations and is a tool of Western hegemony; pointing out that, since its inception, NATO hasn’t been called on to defend its member states once, but its members have launched (and assisted other members in the launching of) offensive wars against other nations. However, the invasion of Ukraine has once again made broader war in Europe a realistic possibility, causing many who had been sceptical of the alliance to re-evaluate the advantages of membership.
Sweden’s ruling party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, had, until Sunday, officially opposed NATO membership. Over the weekend the Swedish government announced that the party had officially changed its position to one of seeking membership.
Polls measuring the support of the Swedish and Finnish populations for NATO membership found that most people opposed membership – until Russia’s invasion – at which point the zeitgeist inverted to support joining the bloc.
Sweden and Finland were always likely to join – or remain neutral – together, as they have long been each other’s closest military partners.
Russia vocally opposes the eastward expansion of NATO, claiming that NATO representatives promised the Soviet Union that no nations further east than Germany would be allowed membership, although former USSR General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, denies such a promise was made.
One of Russia’s justifications for its invasion of Ukraine was that Ukraine was supposedly seeking to join NATO, resulting in an increased NATO-Russia land border, and would have meant that NATO forces, military bases, and missiles would have been positioned adjacent to the Russian state. Putin will therefore be unhappy with Finland and Sweden’s application to join, as Finland’s membership would double the total length of the NATO-Russian land border, while the context of the Russian invasion has already led to larger NATO-member military budgets, and an increased NATO troop presence along its eastern border.
Putin and Russian ministers have repeatedly warned Sweden and Finland not to join the bloc, saying:
“[NATO] is not that kind of alliance which ensures peace and stability, and its further expansion will not bring additional security to the European continent”.
The Kremlin also stated that it would take steps to “rebalance the situation” should the Nordic countries join NATO, although it is unclear what these steps will be.
There may also be some hurdles for Sweden and Finland to overcome in order to be accepted as members. In order to become a member, a nation must be accepted by a unanimous vote of all current members. NATO member Turkey has stated that it may vote against accepting the Nordic nations’ applications if they do not withdraw support for Kurdish militants within Turkey, although US diplomats have stated that they expect Erdoğan to bow to pressure from other member-states.
Some may point out how Turkey’s position highlights some hypocrisy within the bloc. A nation must meet several criteria in order to be accepted as a member, including being democratic, spending an amount equal to at least 2% of its GDP on its military, and treating minorities within its borders well. Turkey has been condemned by the United Nations for its treatment of the Kurds within its borders, accused of torture, murder of journalists, and systematic execution of civilians.
Another nation, famous for its neutrality, is also reconsidering its position. Switzerland, which has maintained a policy of neutrality for over 200 years, has stated that it is considering closer collaboration with NATO, although it is expected to materialise as joint military exercises, with membership being seen as unlikely.
Assuming, as is likely, that Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bids are accepted, politicians will be watching with bated breath to see how Putin responds.