The eastward expansion of NATO after the Cold War was one of the justifications that Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated to start the war in Ukraine. But one of the consequences of his decision could be exactly what he did not want: both Finland and Sweden are preparing to join NATO in the upcoming months, doubling the Russian border with the Atlantic alliance at once.
Finland shares a 1,340km-long border with Russia, which would be added to the existing Russia-NATO borders with Estonia, Latvia and the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad ( which borders Lithuania and Poland, also members of the alliance). Sweden does not share any border with Russia but fears a possible invasion of Gotland island, a strategic territory in the middle of the Baltic Sea, which could in the future be a perfect site for a NATO military base.
The question now is how the two countries will join and what Russia would do to prevent it. They both became members of the European Union after the collapse of the Soviet Union but they opted to remain militarily non-aligned and outside of the North Atlantic Alliance, pursuing a balanced security policy toward Russia. They often cooperate on defense matters with the United States, NATO, and friendly northern European nations but even after Russia’s first aggression in Ukraine in 2014, both have maintained a robust dialogue with Moscow and avoid provoking their powerful eastern neighbour.
A History of Neutrality
Finland and Sweden’s neutrality has always been a pragmatic way that allows dialogue and commercial trade both with Russia and the United States. Finland has been part of the Sweden kingdom for almost 700 years and became part of the Russian Empire after the Finnish War in 1809.
After more than a century in the Russian Empire, it officially declared independence in 1917. Almost 20 years later, with most countries involved in World War II, the Soviets saw the opportunity and invaded. The cruel campaign became known as the Winter War.
Finland managed to withstand Russia’s attack and avoid a full-scale invasion until a treaty was signed in 1940. Some of its borderlands were ceded as part of the conditions for peace. During the Cold War, the country also adapted its policies and remained neutral to further appease its Soviet neighbour, a phenomenon that was described with the term “Finlandisation”. This was enabled by the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (FCMA) signed in 1948 by Finland and the Soviet Union, which became the main instrument in Finno-Soviet relations from 1948 to 1992. To honour the treaty and not provoke the Soviet Union, Finland declined funding from the Marshall Plan, which was instead accepted by Sweden. It is widely known that this agreement was signed under pressure from the Soviet Union, but it granted Finland enough freedom to continue to grow as a democracy.
Sweden has never participated in any war or joined a military alliance since 1814. After War World II the country decided to not align either with the United States or the Soviet Union, trying instead to create a neutral Scandinavian Defense Alliance with Denmark and Norway, a plan that did not succeed.
Finland and Sweden joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in May 1994, and they joined the European Union on Jan. 1, 1995.
The PfP program was a way for NATO to offer its partnership to a non-NATO member (especially to former Soviet Union countries) without the requirement of membership. Thirteen of the countries that joined the PfP program over the years went on to become full NATO members, but Finland and Sweden never felt the need to do so. However, they have both contributed to NATO-led operations and missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO has accelerated its collaboration with Helsinki and Stockholm and they have also cooperated in recent NATO exercises on the eastern border.
In January, despite Russian troops were already massively deployed across Ukraine’s border, Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin said that it was very unlikely that her country would join NATO. This has been the government’s approach to the topic for decades, also legitimated by the Finnish public opinion which founds that only 21 percent of the citizens were in favour of entering NATO.
But a significant switch from that 2017 poll followed the Russian invasion at the end of February. A March poll indicated that up to 62 percent of Finnish citizens are now in favour of joining the alliance, with only 16 percent opposing the move. A recent survey shows that the sentiment is quite the same among the Finnish parliamentarians, with major parties who traditionally opposed NATO membership now reconsidering their positions.
Traditionally, the Swedish people had a more positive view of the possibility of joining NATO. The past decade’s polls show consistent support ranging between 31 and 37 percent in favour. The number instantly rose to 59 percent with the start of the war. The long-governing Social Democrats, who currently lead Sweden, have historically opposed NATO membership but are now supporting the membership, as well as the center-right opposition parties.
Finland and Sweden would bring substantial capability and expertise to NATO by adding highly advanced militaries and civil defense capacities. With an army of 280,000 soldiers and 900,000 reservists, Finland already spends more than 2% of its gross domestic product on defense, which is the NATO target that the majority of its members fail to meet. It is also one of the few countries in the European Union that requires all men to serve in the military (or perform other national services) when they turn 18.
Sweden reintroduced military conscription in 2017, a decision that was highly influenced by Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. In the 2021-2025 defense budget, Sweden committed to one of the largest military expansions since the end of the Cold War: it raised its military spending by 40 percent, increased the number of the military personnel from 60,000 to 90,000, and added a fifth submarine to its navy. In recent years it has strengthened its bilateral security cooperation with both Finland and the United States and has drawn closer to NATO than ever before.
The two countries have said that the decision for entering NATO has to be a matter of weeks, not months, with the respective parliaments that are already running on the discussion. The fear is what Russia will do during the time window between the application and the effective entrance into the alliance.
Whether and when to apply for NATO’s membership is up to the individual nations. Article 10 of its founding document establishes the alliance’s “open-door policy” declaring: “ NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area”. Accession depends on the consensus of existing NATO members who may, “by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.”
The accession process requires several steps but there is no set timeline for this process. It is simply a matter of whether the aspirant country already meets NATO’s criteria and the need for a unanimous vote of all 30 current members. Neither is in dispute for Finland or Sweden. As NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has said, “We know that they can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply.” The process within NATO could therefore happen quickly and even be accelerated.
When the two most recent NATO members joined the alliance there was an active attempt to obstacle it: in Montenegro, a coup attempt that has been tied to Russia sought to overthrow the government and install an anti-NATO leadership. And when North Macedonia was working on a referendum that would allow NATO membership, Russian influence campaigns were well underway.
It seems that Russia is already behaving aggressively in Finland. The Finnish citizens have lately launched two petitions to vote if Finland should or not enter NATO. During the second initiative, Finland’s largest banks were the target of a massive DDoS attack (a malicious attempt to disrupt the normal traffic of a targeted server). Because Finns generally use their banking IDs for digital services (like signing the petition), some experts said the attack was an attempt to block the initiative.
On March 16 the Russian embassy in Finland reports “cases of violation of rights, discrimination and incitement of hatred against citizens of the Russian Federation and native speakers of the Russian language to the consular department of the embassy by email”. Those are exactly the same kind of incidents used to justify the invasion of Ukraine, and Russia has already used Russian-speaking minorities in other countries in the past as a pretext for military action. In recent years Russian aircraft were also often responsible for violating Finnish airspace, the last time in the Gulf of Finland at the beginning of April.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said that if his neighbour were to join NATO, Russia would have to strengthen its land, naval and air forces in the Baltic Sea, deploying nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles. It is important to note that this is something that has already been done since the Russian enclave region of Kaliningrad is already hosting those kinds of missiles.
Given the extent the Russian military has struggled in Ukraine it is unlikely that it will have the strength to put military pressure on Finland and Sweden, if they officially announce that they will join NATO. It is most likely that Russia’s response would come in many forms from cyber or economic action, the expulsion of Finnish diplomats and limited military operations.
[Photo by U.S. Embassy in U.K., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Matteo Pes has studied International Relations at the University of Turin and he is a freelance writer living between Berlin and South America.