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‘Unity and strength’: Why Finland and Sweden will join NATO

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have sought the protection of NATO and are considering a paradigm shift of their respective security policies: the abdication of neutrality and military independence.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In January, Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin declared in Helsinki that Finland could not be expected to seek NATO membership during the current legislative period. However, Russia’s invasion has laid bare the disadvantages of being a non-member.

While NATO provides Kyiv with a certain amount of help, it has remained reluctant to intervene directly or collectively under Article 5. Finland, similar to Ukraine, is a direct neighbour of Russia, sharing a 1,300km (600-mile) long border.

“Unsurprisingly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the key factor in pushing Sweden and Finland closer to applying for full membership of NATO.

Russia’s invasion has dramatically changed the political discourse in Sweden and Finland and also crucially public opinion,” Alistair Shepherd, senior lecturer for European security at Aberystwyth University, told Al Jazeera.

There are indications both Finland and Sweden are heading towards a genuinely historic change of course in their respective security policies. During the Cold War, Sweden and Finland were essentially considered neutral states, albeit for different reasons.

“Sweden’s neutrality was much more part of their national identity, whereas Finland’s neutrality was more pragmatic and virtually forced upon them by the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance signed between Finland and the USSR in 1948,” said Shepherd.

‘Very significant contributions’
Since the end of the Cold War, both have developed an ever-closer relationship with NATO, especially after joining its Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme in 1994 and the European Union in 1995.

“PfP was designed to offer non-NATO states a way to develop their individual relations to NATO at a pace and to the extent of their own choosing,” said Shepherd.

Despite joining the EU, and more significantly in terms of defence and military policy, both countries continued to position themselves as militarily non-aligned. This effectively meant while they were no longer politically neutral, they formally remained outside of any military alliances.

The latter is seemingly about to change.

Finland is reportedly inclined to decide on NATO membership within weeks. Sweden, meanwhile, faces an election midyear, and it has been somewhat more cautious than Finland where its future is concerned.

The government will want to avoid impulsive security policy changes that would throw decades-old dogmas overboard and thereby alienate its core electorate. However, since Russia’s invasion, public opinion has significantly shifted, making NATO membership for Sweden, as well as Finland, more conceivable than perhaps ever.

“Polling in Finland found 53 percent in favour of NATO membership and 41 percent in Sweden. More recently that has risen further with over 50 percent now in favour in Sweden [rising to 62 percent if Finland joins]. In Finland, 68 percent are in favour of joining NATO [rising to 77 per cent if the government recommends it],” said Shepherd.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said after a meeting with her Finnish colleague the new security situation would be examined comprehensively and quickly.

In any case, Sweden and Finland are already firmly integrated into NATO structures. Their armies have been cooperating with NATO troops for many years. Finnish and Swedish soldiers participated in the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan, and both have been working closely with the United States on equipment and training since 2015.

“Both countries are what NATO calls ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partners’. These are partners that make very significant contributions to NATO operations and objectives,” Shepherd noted.

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