Why Sweden and Finland are reconsidering their years-long neutral stance towards NATO

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the militarily non-aligned countries of Sweden and Finland to rethink their membership in NATO. Recent polls in both countries have shown that more people see a benefit in joining the alliance

Explained: Why Sweden and Finland are reconsidering their years-long neutral stance towards NATO

Image used for representational purposes only. AFP

Russia’s war in Ukraine, which entered Day 47 on Monday, is changing the geopolitical scenario of the world. In a move that could anger Russia even further, Finland and Sweden could soon join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Both the countries, which have maintained neutrality, are now mulling joining NATO, and as per a report published in the Times, it could happen as early as this summer.

NATO officials reportedly told CNN that discussions about Sweden and Finland joining the bloc have gotten extremely serious since Russia’s invasion, and US senior State Department officials said the matter came up at this week’s NATO foreign ministerial, which was attended by the foreign ministers from Stockholm and Helsinki.

Here’s a simple guide to what Finland and Sweden’s position was until now, what happens if they join NATO and how has Russia reacted to the development.

Finland and Sweden’s neutrality

In the case of Finland, the Nordic nation of 5.5 million people, which shares a 1,300 kilometre (830 mile) border with Russia, it has been militarily non-aligned.

In fact, of the 27 European Union nations, it is one of just six that isn’t part of NATO.

Finland’s neutrality dates back to the end of World War II. In 1948, it signed a treaty with Moscow in which it promised to join neither NATO nor the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

In the 1970s, it began to strengthen its alliances with the West and also joined the EU in 1995. But, support for NATO has always been low and until very recently it was below 30 per cent.

This ‘forced neutrality’ has been called Finlandization and has become a general term used for a process by which one powerful country makes a smaller neighbouring country refrain from opposing the former’s foreign policy rules, while allowing it to keep its nominal independence and its own political system.

However, ever since Russia began what it describes as a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine on 24 February, opinions in Finland have begun changing.

According to Time magazine, polls conducted by newspapers just days after the outbreak of the war put support for joining at a historic 53 per cent in Finland.

Former prime minister Alexander Stubb was recently quoted as saying that Russia is “pushing Finland closer to NATO membership” and that “at this rate, we have no other option but to join”.

News agency AFP reported that a government-commissioned national security review will be delivered to parliament next week to help Finnish MPs make up their own minds, before it is put to a vote.

Mika Aaltola, director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told Time magazine, «Russia doesn’t view things a single country at a time. They are using Ukraine to demonstrate their power, perhaps trying to ‘shock and awe’ a bit regionally, so that everyone in the region understands that if Russian security is not assured, no one’s security is assured.»

Also read: Ukraine crisis: What might happen if the war spreads to a NATO country

Sweden has long maintained a neutral stance in world politics.

However, Russia’s multiple acts of hostility from 2014 onwards has pushed Sweden to pour resources into its own military.

The Russians’ invasion of Ukraine also prompted Sweden to send military aid, including anti-tank weapons, helmets and body armour to war-ravaged Kyiv. This is the first time that Stockholm offered military aid since 1939, when it assisted Finland against the Soviet Union.

A late February poll commissioned by the Swedish public broadcaster SVT found 41 per cent of Swedes supporting NATO membership and 35 per cent opposing it, marking the first time that those in favour exceeded those against.

NATO speaks

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week the military alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden into the fold if they decided to apply. CNN quoting officials said that NATO and US would be thrilled if both countries joined the bloc.

Russia reacts

The Kremlin reported that the possible accession of Sweden and Finland to the NATO military alliance would not bring stability to Europe.

«We have repeatedly said that the alliance remains a tool geared towards confrontation and its further expansion will not bring stability to the European continent,» Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call when asked about the possibility of Sweden and Finland joining NATO, as per Reuters.

With inputs from agencies

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