Finland and Sweden, moving toward possible NATO membership, brace for Russian backlash

Last Wednesday in Stockholm, the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland, countries where neutrality and military non-alliance are deeply woven into their cultures, shocked the world by issuing a joint statement that, thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they were considering applying for membership in NATO.

“There is a before and after Feb. 24th,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalana Andersson told reporters in reference to Russia’s latest military incursion in Ukraine. “The security landscape has completely changed.”

“We have to be prepared for all kinds of actions from Russia,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said, adding that Finland would decide on applying to NATO in a matter of weeks.

While both countries had already closed off their skies to Russian air traffic, the announcement about NATO membership further risked the wrath of the Kremlin, which has repeatedly threatened both against joining the 30-member military alliance.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin. (John MacDougall/Pool via AP)

Over the last week in Sweden, radios, portable generators and camping stoves are flying off shelves as its 10.4 million citizens begin stocking up on canned food, water, flashlights, and matches in preparation for anticipated acts of Russian sabotage. In Finland, where the government has stockpiled enough grains and fuels in strategic reserves to last at least five months, they’re expecting more cyberattacks like those that hit the ministries of defense and foreign relations on April 8, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Finnish Parliament via video. Like the Swedes, the 5.5 million residents of Finland believe that Russia will soon target its infrastructure, including the internet and electrical grid, and Russian violations of the airspace in both countries are already on the rise.

In response to their public declarations of interest in NATO membership, Moscow has renewed its threats to retaliate and bolster nearby ground and air forces, deploying “significant naval forces in the Gulf of Finland,” according to Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council . “There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic [Sea],” Medvedev added, a threat dismissed by analysts in the region as saber-rattling, since tiny Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic, is widely believed to already hold nuclear weapons.

“If you’re talking about large nuclear weapons, it doesn’t really matter if the bases literally are in the Baltic Sea or the Gulf of Finland, if it is in Kaliningrad, or if they’re 500 miles away,” Charly Salonius -Pasternak, security and defense analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, told Yahoo News.

The addition of Finland and Sweden to the Western military alliance would not only expand NATO territory by 300,000 square miles toward the northeast — in blatant defiance of Putin’s demands last December to shrink NATO’s footprint — it would also roughly double NATO borders with Russia to nearly 1,600 miles. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who called Sweden and Finland “our closest partners,” in early April said he expected that all NATO “allies will welcome them.” He added, “We know that they can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply.”

“These are two really capable military powers, who are far more capable than the size of the countries would suggest,” Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, told Yahoo News with regard to Sweden and Finland. And they would also boost military capabilities in the Baltic Sea, home to three small NATO countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia, whose defense has always posed a problem for NATO, Daalder said.

The likely accession of Finland and Sweden “is a really big deal” for both NATO as well as Finland and Sweden themselves, Daalder added.

“Sweden has been neutral or [militarily nonaligned] since 1814,” he noted. And Finland, which became independent from Russia over a century ago “has never wanted to be part of any alliance, since it became independent in 1917… but for the invasion of Ukraine, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Indeed, even three months ago the prospect of Sweden and Finland joining NATO didn’t appear in the cards. Finnish Prime Minister Marin said in January that Finland was “very unlikely” to join NATO under her watch, a sentiment that was echoed by Sweden’s defense minister. Two weeks ago, however, Marin did an about-face, proclaiming that “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was.”

A few thousand people gather in central Senaatintori Square to show support for Ukraine

On Monday, a few thousand people gathered in Senaatintori Square in Helsinki, Finland, to show their support for Ukraine. (Alessandro Rampazzo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The fact that “Russia seems willing to invade, on completely false pretenses, its neighbors that don’t belong to NATO,” sparked a realization among Finns, who have long tried to placate the Kremlin, Salonius-Pasternak said.

Specifically, when the citizens of Finland, which fought the former Soviet Union after it invaded in 1939, watched Russia’s savage attacks unfold in Ukraine, something fundamental changed in their logic. After Russia’s atrocities in Bucha became clear earlier this month, Finnish public support for joining NATO soared to 68 percent. Local thinking, Salonius-Pasternak said, switched from “if we join NATO, Russia may get annoyed and do something bad to us,” to “they may do something bad anyway, so why not seek a form of deterrence that is completely unavailable to them?”

“What happened,” Salonius-Pasternak added, “was the Finnish population drew some conclusions which forced the hand of the Finnish political elite, and thereby also the Swedish.”

Gunilla Herolf, senior associate research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, agreed that Finland is blazing the trail toward NATO membership. “Finland has been taking the lead,” she told Yahoo News. “After public support for NATO went up so much in Finland, people in Sweden started to realize that it’s very likely that Finland will join, and that made public opinion go up in Sweden as well.” The two countries have a very close relationship, she added, which only intensified in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time, annexing Crimea.

Swedish Army armored vehicles and tanks

The Swedish Army participates in a military exercise in the Arctic Circle, Norway, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, March 25. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Herolf expects that the extensive cooperation of Sweden and Finland with NATO, with which they often perform joint military exercises, and whose forces they fought alongside in the Balkans and Afghanistan, will help speed up the process of applying for NATO membership.

But there’s a risk: While Finland and Sweden are expected to apply in the coming weeks, their acceptance into the military alliance depends on unanimous agreement from all 30 of NATO’s current members, a process that could take several months.

“That invitation needs to be ratified by all 30 current members, and that means that the US Senate will have to ratify it, and 29 parliaments will have to ratify it,” said Daalder. While he doesn’t foresee any problems, he added, “you never know — maybe a parliament gets dissolved and therefore there’s no parliament to ratify it.”

Until their membership is ratified, Finland and Sweden will remain vulnerable. If Russia attacked either before they were admitted to the alliance, neither could invoke Article 5, the NATO clause that states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Another potential snag is the upcoming presidential election in France. Right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, currently trailing incumbent president Emmanuel Macron by at least seven points, has vowed to cut France’s military involvement with NATO.

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. (Julien De Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)

“While the ratification process among the 30 NATO members could happen quickly, said Daalder, “the problem is it needs to go quickly in 30 countries. The real question is, ‘What do you do in the meantime?’” Once Finland and Sweden are officially invited to apply to NATO, Daalder said, even before their membership is approved by member countries, “the president of the United States should make clear that until such time as these countries are formally part of NATO, that we the United States, hopefully with partner countries, are committed to defending their security.”

In the meantime, both Finland and Sweden are boosting their armed forces and ramping up annual spending on civil defense and arms. The Finnish government in February ordered 64 F-35s from Lockheed Martin, with a price tag of over $9 billion. Sweden, where the 2021 defense budget was around $7 billion, is expected to raise that amount to about $11 billion, roughly the 2 percent of GDP required of NATO members.

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What happened last week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

Where are Russian forces attacking Ukraine?  Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

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