Putin Is Pushing Finland and Sweden Closer to NATO Membership

COMMENTARY Europe

Putin Is Pushing Finland and Sweden Closer to NATO Membership

Mar 21, 2022 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Daniel Kochis

Senior Policy Analyst, European Affairs

Daniel is a senior policy analyst for European affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
There has always been an unspoken belief that, should they ever seek membership, NATO would meet Finland and Sweden with open arms. Oleksii Liskonih / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Putin’s brutality has shattered the illusions of many Europeans about the nature of the regime in Moscow.

The consensus belief that elected officials would need to advocate strongly for NATO membership and bring public opinion around has been turned on its head.

While Sweden’s opposition conservative parties support NATO membership, the Social Democrats who are in power remain opposed.

What a difference three weeks can make. Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, European policies have changed, seemingly at warp speed. Even Germany has been roused to take its defense commitments seriously and rectify its military deficiencies.

Denmark announced plans to meet the NATO benchmark of spending 2% of GDP on defense. Italy’s Prime Minister Draghi also called for significant increases in defense spending, stating, “Today’s threat from Russia is an incentive to invest more in defense than we have ever done before.”

Clearly, Putin’s brutality has shattered the illusions of many Europeans about the nature of the regime in Moscow, the necessity of military capability, and the belief that the “rules-based international order” could avoid the type of needless bloodshed we see every day in Ukraine.

In Finland and Sweden, it has accelerated the languorous, longstanding debate over NATO membership. That debate is now moving forward in somewhat surprising ways.

While not members of NATO, Finland and Sweden are “enhanced opportunity partners” with the alliance. Both have signed host nation support agreements with NATO. Additionally, Finland, Sweden and the U.S. in 2018 signed a trilateral Statement of Intent to strengthen defense cooperation.

While aligned with and very much part of the West, neither nation has seriously pursued NATO membership for fear of upsetting regional stability and also because of—at least until now—lukewarm public support for the idea.

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Yet, there has always been an unspoken belief that, should they ever seek membership, NATO would meet Finland and Sweden with open arms.

That is still the case. In addition to the closeness of relations (for example, both nations currently are taking part in NATO’s Cold Response 2022, a large scale cold-weather exercise in Norway), Finland and Sweden would make the alliance stronger and remove any remaining question marks in the alliance’s operational planning for the Baltic theater.

Yet, Putin is deeply concerned about any expansion of NATO. In late February, he reiterated longstanding threats that, should either nation pursue membership, it would set off “serious military-political consequences.”

Earlier, before the invasion, Finland and Sweden received letters from Russia demanding “security guarantees.” They responded via a collective letter from the European Union. While the EU’s Lisbon Treaty contains a mutual defense clause, the organization’s miniature role in responding to the ongoing Ukraine war underscores what Finns and Swedes already know: the EU mutual defense clause is no substitute for NATO’s Article V.

This reality is reflected in recent polls, which show surging support for Finnish and Sweden NATO membership. In Sweden, for the first time, more people support membership than oppose it. In Finland, 63% now support membership, with only 16% opposed. Just a few years ago, 51% of Finns opposed membership.

The consensus belief that elected officials would need to advocate strongly for NATO membership and bring public opinion around has been turned on its head.

Today, it’s the officials in Helsinki and Stockholm who are dragging their feet. While Sweden’s opposition conservative parties support NATO membership, the Social Democrats who are in power remain opposed. Just last week, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said membership would “further destabilize the situation.”

Yet, there has always been an unspoken belief that, should they ever seek membership, NATO would meet Finland and Sweden with open arms.

That is still the case. In addition to the closeness of relations (for example, both nations currently are taking part in NATO’s Cold Response 2022, a large scale cold-weather exercise in Norway), Finland and Sweden would make the alliance stronger and remove any remaining question marks in the alliance’s operational planning for the Baltic theater.

>>> Putin’s Nuclear Threats Against Ukraine Demand a NATO Response

Yet, Putin is deeply concerned about any expansion of NATO. In late February, he reiterated longstanding threats that, should either nation pursue membership, it would set off “serious military-political consequences.”

Earlier, before the invasion, Finland and Sweden received letters from Russia demanding “security guarantees.” They responded via a collective letter from the European Union. While the EU’s Lisbon Treaty contains a mutual defense clause, the organization’s miniature role in responding to the ongoing Ukraine war underscores what Finns and Swedes already know: the EU mutual defense clause is no substitute for NATO’s Article V.

This reality is reflected in recent polls, which show surging support for Finnish and Sweden NATO membership. In Sweden, for the first time, more people support membership than oppose it. In Finland, 63% now support membership, with only 16% opposed. Just a few years ago, 51% of Finns opposed membership.

The consensus belief that elected officials would need to advocate strongly for NATO membership and bring public opinion around has been turned on its head.

Today, it’s the officials in Helsinki and Stockholm who are dragging their feet. While Sweden’s opposition conservative parties support NATO membership, the Social Democrats who are in power remain opposed. Just last week, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said membership would “further destabilize the situation.”

This piece originally appeared in RealClearDefense

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