Marion Gabriel is a second-year International Relations student at King’s College London. With strong interests in diplomacy, strategy, and European politics broadly, she is currently the European editor of International Relations today.
As recent developments in Eastern Europe showed, the noose is tightening around Russia. On 15th and 16th May, the leaders of Finland and Sweden confirmed their intention to join the NATO organisation. This move ends 200 years of military non-alignment for the two Nordic states, and raises the stakes for the geopolitical architecture and the appeasement of tensions in Northern Europe. The Nordic countries’ moves were in stark contrast with their policies of non-alignment, whilst rooted in different historiographic contexts.
Dating its neutrality to the end of the Napoleonic Era, in the 20th century Finland has made neutrality a “pragmatic concession to Soviet might“. Finland’s concerns have indeed been largely functional. Sharing an 810-mile (1,300km) border with Russia and being largely militarily dominated by the Soviet in the 20th century and post-Cold War, Finland had always adapted its position to Russia’s will. It has stayed militarily non-aligned and nominally neutral , respecting its treaty of friendship signed with the Soviet Union after the Finland-Russia war in 1939-40.
Sweden’s opposition to Nato membership has been more ideological. As exposed by Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, “Swedish leaders believed that any move toward a broader Western alliance would make Finland’s position even more precarious“, directing Sweden’s postwar foreign policy towards multilateral dialogue and armed neutrality. Despite boosting defence spending since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Sweden remained critical of both the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact and US-led NATO’s agenda, making neutrality the cornerstone of its foreign policy response to regional tensions.
The threat of Russian invasion outstripped fears of involvement in NATO. Finland and Sweden’s prime ministers, Sanna Marin and Magdalena Andersson, claimed that the war in Ukraine had “changed Europe’s whole security landscape” and “dramatically shaped mindsets” in the Nordic region.
The same reason ruling out any formal involvement in NATO became a strong argument for joining the organisation. Essentially, Finnish and Swedish leaders felt that joining Natowould help keep them safe in front of a belligerent and unpredictable Russian leader. The concept of neutrality also shifted in most Finns and Swedes’ eyes. A recent Finnish government report on changes in the security environment makes explicit that public opinion decisively shifted in favourof membership. By the end of March, opinion polls showed that 61 percent of Finns supported NATO membership, compared to 28 per cent in January. The Swedish public has followed along, with 52 percent now favouring joining NATO, especially if Finland joins, up from about 27 percent before the war.
In fact, prospects of increasing regional security constituted a pre-condition to the Nordic states’ applications. For analysts in either country, NATO membership would have positive consequences for Nordic cooperation and the protection of Northern Europe. Having a long tradition of cooperation, Sweden and Finland could indeed benefit from a “new form of regionalism” shaped by NATO memberships. In turn, as mentioned by Swedish journalist PM Nilsson’s editorial in Dagens Industri, ‘NordNATO’ would give the alliance more strategic influence in Northern Europe, transforming its geopolitical landscape. Additionally, with NATO membership, Finland and Sweden would have security guarantees from nuclear states, especially Russia, which has risen threats of nuclear escalation since the beginning of the War.
Another reason for the enlargement is the promotion of stability and cooperation in Europe. This could be seen as a response to tensions in Eastern Europe. Moving forward, the war in Ukraine opened the door for the Nordic states’ strengthening of ties with the West and NATO’s extension. With more leverage in Eastern Europe, NATO could enforce security, as well as promote peace and stability.
Starting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on 15th May, applications were welcomed by the organisation. “Finland and Sweden are NATO’s closest partners,” Stoltenberg told a press conference. Boris Johnson and Joe Biden have also committed to defending both countries during the process of their applications. Both agreed to “confront”any threats to the security of Finland and Sweden during the process of their application. They described the Nordic countries’ potential accession as a “momentous” step to strengthen the transatlantic military alliance“. Similarly, experts state that NATO members will deter any possible Russian retaliation until the end of the accession process in 2023.
But obstacles to full membership remain. Despite tolerating Finland and Sweden’s applications, Vladimir Putin has warned the Kremlin would respond if military bases or equipment were installed in either country. Moreover, on 20th May, Russia responded to this tremendous move by cutting off Finland from its natural gas supplies. The second partner to be irritated by this move is Turkey. Accusing Sweden and Finland to house Kurdish “terrorist organisations“, and notably the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which seeks an independent state in Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposed integrating the Nordic countries into the alliance.
Finland and Sweden’s accession to memberships promises to be of great significance for the security architecture of northern Europe. At a time when Russia’s military aggression of Ukraine divides the world, this should be seen as an opportunity to both strengthen the alliance and deal with deep regional security challenges.