20 June 2022

Finland and Sweden Turn to NATO

After NATO’s major expansion into Central and Eastern Europe in 1999 and 2004, the world’s strongest military alliance has added only four small southeastern European countries (Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia) during the following 18 years. Furthermore, it appeared that NATO days of expansion were over, as no other potential member state appeared likely to meet the criteria for membership in that organization. However, Russia’s decision to launch a full-scale of invasion of Ukraine has not only revived what had been a rather directionless alliance, but brought back the opportunity for the alliance to expand in a region where expansion seemed a longshot at best, Europe’s Nordic region.

The fact that Finland and Sweden both moved quickly to bolster their security by announcing their intentions to join NATO less than three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlight the fact that it is a fear of Russian aggression that motivated both countries to end decades of neutrality.

For Finland, this neutrality was forced upon it by its defeat at the side of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, in which Finland attempted to reverse its territorial losses in the Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940. Furthermore, Finland was a part of the Russian Empire for more than a century until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1918. Sharing a long border with a revanchist Russia under Vladimir Putin raised fears in Finland that Moscow could turn its attention to the Baltics once its war in Ukraine had reached its conclusion.

As for Sweden, neutrality was a much more home-grown policy, with Sweden remaining relatively aloof from the Trans-Atlantic alliance. This was a long-held policy in Sweden, with the country maintaining its precarious neutrality in both of the World Wars and staying out of NATO in the post-war period. Nevertheless, Russia’s growing assertiveness in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic motivated many Swedes to abandon their neutrality in favor of the protection of the United States and its allies in NATO.

Neither Finland nor Sweden is a major military power. With a combined population of just 16 million and with combined annual defense spending of just $10 billion, neither country will add considerably to NATO’s military capabilities. However, it is the strategic location of Finland and Sweden in relation to Russia that will provide the greatest advantage to NATO. In particularly, Finland’s 830-mile long border with Russia will force Moscow to commit more military forces to that region to counter NATO forces that will likely deployed in that region. Furthermore, the addition of Finland and Sweden will allow NATO to commit more forces to the strategic Arctic region where Russia has enjoyed a considerable advantage in recent years.

There appears to be only one obstacle to Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s authoritarian president is angry at the presence of Kurdish political leaders in Finland and Sweden, and with a presidential election looming next year, he is keen to be shown taking a hardline towards rebellious Kurds. However, President Erdogan is likely to face significant pressure from the Biden Administration to drop its opposition to Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO. Furthermore, the US could make concessions to Turkey, including allowing it to purchase advanced US weapons systems, as a means of alleviating Turkish concerns. Either way, it is highly unlikely that Turkey will block Finland and Sweden from joining NATO in the end.

In recent years, there was a growing sense that NATO was becoming increasingly irrelevant. On one hand, NATO’s dominant power, the United States, appeared to be losing interest in maintaining peace and security in Europe. On the other, many European countries, most notably France, desired a greater degree of strategic autonomy from the United States and viewed NATO as a tool for US domination of Europe. However, Russia’s invasion of Europe has reinvigorated NATO. European defense capabilities which had deteriorated dramatically will be bolstered by rising levels of defense spending. The US, despite of its focus on the rising power of China, will be forced to refocus on European security issues. As a result, NATO has a new lease on life, something that Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped to avoid at all costs.