Putin’s ruthless drive to keep Ukraine out of NATO has, inadvertently, increased the military alliance’s popularity among other potential members. According to up-to-date opinion polls, Finland and Sweden are reconsidering their long-held neutrality, with a majority of voters now preferring membership in the 30-member alliance.
The conflict in Ukraine has fundamentally reshuffled the deck. In terms of defence and security, Sweden and Finland have long been strategically linked. Both countries agreed in 2014 to proceed hand in hand in regard to their future with NATO. As such, If one of them decides to join NATO, the other is likely to follow suit.
Both countries were invited to join NATO in their recent emergency summit in Brussels. Perhaps predictably, such moves have prompted Russia to, again, issue threats of “serious military-political consequences” if they join NATO.
With a changing security situation across Europe, the case for joining NATO is, for many countries, much stronger. In recent months, NATO has stepped up cooperation focusing on security in the Baltic Sea region, which includes political consultations, exchanges of information on hybrid warfare and joint exercises.
While Sweden has said it is open to reviewing its non-NATO status, the Swedish government has, of yet, not changed its line on membership. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has reignited the debate in Finland over NATO membership. Finland, another EU member, shares a more than 830 mile border with Russia.
Sweden’s and Finland’s relationship with NATO is already substantial, with both countries deeply integrated into the Western defence pact. They are two of six Enhanced Opportunity Partners for NATO — a group that also includes Ukraine — which constitutes the closest form of partnership with the alliance. Both countries are also part of NATO’s partnership for peace programme (PfP), regularly take part in NATO exercises and have committed troops and resources to NATO-led missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
Swedish and Finnish military hardware is deemed to be NATO-compatible. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, both countries continued to enhance their military capabilities. As such, a NATO alliance comprising Finland and Sweden would bring considerable leverage to the alliance, with the recent selection of the F-35 as the Finnish air force’s next multi-role fighter and Sweden’s air combat and undersea warfare capabilities likely to bolster NATO’s capacity to deter and defend.
Were Finland and Sweden to join, it would allow NATO to push the alliance’s frontier even closer to Russia. Furthermore, the Baltic Sea would be become a NATO dominated area. This would have profound consequences for Russia and leave Moscow vulnerable to NATO pressure. The only access that Russia has to the Mediterranean is the Black Sea, forming an important route for its military operations beyond the neighbourhood as well as the means to export its hydrocarbon.
NATO membership a reality?
Any future NATO membership for Sweden and Finland will comprise a number of complicating factors informed by military and economic trade threats by Moscow against the two Nordic unaligned states. Russia views the prospect of Finnish membership as extending NATO’s reach that directly threatens its borders.
There are also unknown factors, such as if Finland and Sweden will agree to “leap together” into NATO or act separately. The option of NATO membership is already included in Finland’s National Defense Strategy Plan. Sweden has no such fast-track mechanism to joining the alliance.
Will of the people
According to a poll conducted by Atlantic Council, 53 per cent of Finns are now in favour of joining NATO (the Russian invasion began on February 24). That’s a significant shift from 2017, when the same poll revealed that only 19 per cent of Finns wanted to join NATO, a figure that had remained relatively consistent over time. Polls in Sweden in favour of joining NATO were also higher, with 41 per cent supporting it in a poll released February 25, compared to 37 per cent in January. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, public support for membership in Sweden has hovered around 35 per cent.