Finland and Sweden could join NATO despite pressure from Russia

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg shakes hands with President of Finland Sauli Niinisto before their meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 9, 2016. THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP via Getty Images

Finland has said it could join NATO in defiance of Russia’s warning that the alliance should not be allowed to expand any further to the east.

Throughout its short history as an independent nation, Finland has been left uninvited to many banquets, but these days, the doors to the Western world’s preeminent banquet, NATO, are wide open to Finland and its neighbor Sweden. And as Finland’s president and prime minister made clear in twin New Year’s messages, Finland intends to decide for itself—without consulting Russia first—on whether to join the alliance.

That’s a remarkable departure from Finland’s Cold War years, which involved consultations with the Soviet Union ahead of any crucial decision. It could, in fact, turn out to be a decisive point in the two Nordic countries’ relationship with NATO.

Sauli Niinisto, president of the Nordic country, made the remark during a New Year address on Saturday which seemed designed to antagonise Vladimir Putin.

To be sure, even as it maintained its official policy of neutrality, Sweden secretly cooperated with NATO. Beginning in the late 1940s, Sweden’s social democratic government provided the United States and other NATO countries with intelligence, bought defense equipment from them, and relied on the United States to come to Sweden’s aid in the case of a Soviet invasion.

Finland and especially Sweden have spent many post-Cold War years agonizing over NATO membership, and the two Finnish leaders’ words are bound to influence Sweden too. “Sweden and Finland have extremely close military cooperation and even joint defense planning,” Jonson pointed out. Indeed, because the two countries would in reality only join the alliance together, sentiments in both countries matter greatly.

Putin had previously demanded cast iron guarantees that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, saying the alliance’s eastwards expansion is a threat to his border. 

That prompted Niinisto’s remark, which appears designed as a warning to Russia not to threaten neighbouring states.

Finland could request to join NATO, its president has said, in defiance of a warning from Vladimir Putin that the alliance should not be allowed to expand any further east

Sauli Niinisto, president of Finland, made the remark during his New Year address as he also urged the EU to take a tougher stance on Russia’s threats to member states

Finland shares a lengthy land border with Russia, and two countries fought a short but bloody war over it between 1939 to 1940 which saw Finland inflict heavy losses on Soviet forces. 

‘Finland’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide,’ Mr Niinisto said. 

He also called on the EU to take a more active role in deterring Russian aggression, seemingly a rebuke to Germany which for years has taken a soft line with Moscow because the two share close economic ties.

‘In this situation Europe cannot just listen in,’ Niinisto added. 

‘The sovereignty of several member states, also Sweden and Finland, has been challenged from outside the Union. 

‘This makes the EU an involved party. The EU must not settle merely with the role of a technical coordinator of sanctions.’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, successor to Angela Merkel, took a markedly more moderate line on Russia in his own address.

‘We are currently facing new challenges regarding Ukraine. The inviolability of borders is precious, and is not negotiable’, he said, without outlining what measures Russia will face if it violates those borders. 

Last year’s annual survey of Finns’ attitudes toward national security, conducted by Finland’s defense ministry, showed 24 percent support NATO membership, while the 2020 survey showed 20 percent support it. Indeed, in recent years, surveys have hovered around 20 percent. A corresponding Swedish poll from early 2021, meanwhile, showed 46 percent of Swedes want to join NATO, up from 43 percent three years prior.

In the end, Finland and Sweden may decide to apply for NATO membership. But the key point made by Niinisto and Marin is it’s Finland’s choice, just as it’s Sweden’s. What a liberating feeling for two nations—in particular, Finland—that have spent so many decades worrying how Moscow might react to their every military decision.

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