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What would Sweden and Finland joining NATO mean for the Baltics?

By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin wanted to change Europe’s security architecture and stop the expansion of NATO. Instead, Sweden and Finland, traditionally non-aligned countries, are now considering to join the alliance. Their membership would have a major impact on the security of the Baltic states.

May 11, 2022 - Andrius Balčiūnas LRT - Articles and Commentary

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin during a meeting in March 2022. Photo: Fanni Uusitalo. flickr.com

Not members of NATO, Sweden and Finland have paid great attention to their security and have very strong naval and air forces, warplanes and submarines. When Finland receives the new American F35 fighter jets, already in production, the Nordic countries will collectively have over 250 state-of-the-art fighters.

Both countries are NATO partners and know how to operate with allied forces. Back in mid-March, Finnish and Swedish fighter jets took part in an air force exercise in the Estonian skies, simulating combat operations, conducting aerial refuelling, and carrying out air policing tasks on the Russian border.

Although members of various Nordic defence initiatives, involved in international missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and part of the UK’s Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), Stockholm and Helsinki believed that military non-alignment was a better way to ensure their security. But this year everything has changed.

Swedish and Finnish media reported last week that the leaders of the two countries would announce their intention to join NATO at a meeting on 16 May. This has not been officially confirmed, but the Finnish foreign minister noted that it would be “in the interest of both countries” to submit their accession applications together.

“Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine”, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in mid-April, echoed by Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Finland, Sweden and the Alliance have been sharing intelligence, coordinating their policies. Finnish and Swedish defence and foreign ministers have attended extraordinary NATO ministerial meetings. Both countries are reviewing their security policies and preparing to take a decisive step towards membership.

Crossing the Rubicon

In late 2021, Russia began amassing troops at the Ukrainian border, sending its demands to Washington and NATO to withdraw troops from the post-1997 NATO members. Additionally, it was issuing ultimatums and threats to Stockholm and Helsinki.

In its security policy, Finland has had the so-called “NATO option”, although there was little popular support for membership in the Alliance. In Sweden, the issue was absent from the political discourse, with most parties either not supporting membership or simply not talking about it.

Finland has also taken the historic decision to transfer arms to Ukraine.

Swedish politicians have begun to openly say that the security situation in Europe has changed and that security policy needs to be rethought, including the country’s membership of the Alliance.

In Sweden, according to polls, 57 per cent of the population now support NATO membership, whereas before the Ukraine war the figure had tended to hover around 30 per cent. In Finland, support for membership used to be even lower, at 21 per cent in 2017, but it now has shot up to 65 per cent.

“In both Sweden and Finland now we see very rapid developments from where they were six months ago,” Martin Hurt, a fellow at the Estonian International Centre for Defence and Security told LRT.lt.

Political atmosphere is also changing. In Finland, only the small Left Alliance party now opposes membership. “Public support for NATO membership has increased significantly, and also the politicians have come to the conclusion that they need to not just follow the public, but they also need to lead in this situation. But I would say that in Finland this is probably easier because they already have a more serious mindset towards security and defense compared to Sweden,” said Hurt.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has promised to conclude membership discussions by mid-summer, which is also when the NATO summit in Madrid is due to take place and where the Alliance will present its new “Strategic Compass”.

In Sweden, a referendum on membership is proposed by the Left Party, which opposes NATO accession. But Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats, who were openly opposed to membership as recently as last year, reject a referendum, and are supported by the main opposition Moderate Party, which says that “the public is not naive about Russia”.

Analysts believe that Finland has broken the ice for Sweden’s NATO membership as well, doing all the hard political work and allowing Stockholm to follow in its footsteps.

“Many are saying that if it wasn’t for Finland, we may have hesitated longer. But now that the Finns are so determined to do this for the NATO summit in Madrid in the end of June. So this now sets the timetable and makes me draw the conclusion that this is now a done deal more or less,” according to Sahlin.

Sweden and Finland are likely to receive invitations to join the Alliance in just a few weeks after expressing their will to join, whereas the Baltic states had been in the process for a decade.

“We are in dialogue with Finland and Sweden, and it’s their decision. But if they decide to apply, Finland and Sweden will be warmly welcomed, and I expect the process to go quickly,” the NATO chief also said last Thursday.

Aid and collective defence

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has forced the Nordic countries to rethink deterrence. Sweden and Finland are members of JEF and the Nordefco format for Nordic defence cooperation, and their publics support defending neighbours in the event of war. Stockholm and Helsinki also thought they would receive international help in the event of an attack, but Ukraine’s case has shown that this may come short of Article 5 guarantees.

“And now they see that there is a huge difference between being a NATO member and being outside NATO, even while in close cooperation. This big difference is very important. And this is something that they want to take the right decision on, based on the assumption that if they joined NATO, they would be more secure,” Hurt told LRT.lt.

Russia is already trying to prevent this and is threatening that the accession of new countries to the Alliance will have consequences – it will lead to the deployment of nuclear weapons in the Baltic Sea region. However, according to Lithuanian officials, Iskander missiles armed with nuclear warheads have long been deployed in Kaliningrad.

“The question is what Russia can do. They can only threaten, but anything they do or say will only reinforce Swedish and Finnish attitudes, because any hesitation will look like backing down to blackmail. I think [Russia] can’t do anything about it and knows it,” said Sahlin.

Swedish security structures are already warning of possible Russian provocations, cyber-attacks and interference in the discussions on NATO membership.

“[There are concerns] that parliamentary ratification of the Swedish and Finnish applications could be a risky process. Maybe for example, criticism from Sweden against the Turkish lack of respect for human rights […] but I think that application is a necessary step to make before the summit in Madrid, so that all necessary preparations are done before that,” Sahlin said.

US defence officials have indicated off the record to Swedish media that the Americans, together with the British, would provide security guarantees to countries already in the accession process, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has indicated that there are ways to get through the interim period.

Finland and Sweden are also covered by the mutual assistance clause 42(7) of the EU treaty, something they mentioned in their letters to the Community after Russia attacked Ukraine. This clause provides for EU countries to assist allies under aggression, with other security initiatives such as the JEF likely to come to the rescue.

Sahlin says he is seeing signs that the NATO leadership is ready to accept new members, even if this would in principle confirm Putin’s arguments that the Alliance is encircling Russia.

“But the overall path is now a high degree of readiness on our part, and on their [NATO] part to welcome that step in various ways, and Russian protests will not be able to prevent this,” the ambassador said.

Baltic security

Finland has already published a new assessment of its security situation, and Sweden will do the same in mid-May. The Finnish report does not directly suggest joining the Alliance, but several times notes that Finland would be safer as a NATO member.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, in an article for Foreign Affairs, predicts that the Swedes and Finns are unlikely to ask NATO to deploy forces on their territories, lest this increase tensions with Russia, and that the countries will not be willing to host nuclear weapons either.

Moscow has been building up its forces in the Arctic region over the last few years, with the Kola Peninsula home to Russia’s Northern Flotilla. NATO is therefore also increasingly focusing on the north, where Norway has been the Alliance’s most important pole of defence.

“The whole security situation in Europe is considerably changed and an important response from our side is to strengthen activities and presence in the north. Here, we are talking protection of sovereignty, surveillance and presence,” said Norway’s new Defence Minister Bjørn Arild Gram during his visit to Kirkenes, which is just 100 km away from important Russian military bases on the Kola Peninsula.

With a strong military force and well-developed civil defence, Finland and Sweden would also strengthen NATO, and both countries intend to increase defence funding to meet the 2-per cent GDP benchmark.

“If Finland and Sweden join NATO the risk of attack will decrease and deterrence will be cohesive for the Nordic region,” Per Erik Solli, senior defence analyst at the Norwegian Institute of International Relations (NUPI), told The Barents Observer.

Two new members in the Alliance would also significantly change the security of the Baltic states. The strategically located Swedish island of Gotland is crucial for the defence of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

“Obviously, Sweden and Finland actually have more advanced military capabilities than the Baltic states. They have something that we don’t – strong air forces and strong maritime forces as well. So from that point of view, it would be a big difference and a big improvement for the Baltic states,” according to Hurt.

Joining would not only strengthen NATO, force the Alliance to re-plan the Nordic and Baltic defences, but would also act as a greater deterrent against Russian aggression.

This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

Andrius Balčiūnas is a foreign news editor at LRT.lt

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