Finland, Sweden move closer to NATO membership decision

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Finland and Sweden are hastening toward a decision on whether to join NATO, as Russia’s war in Ukraine deepens security fears across the region. 

Opinion polls show surging public support in both countries for abandoning their long-held neutrality and joining the military alliance. Momentum among politicians is growing for membership applications to be submitted as early as June, when NATO leaders hold a summit in Madrid. 

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Wednesday that her country will make a call on NATO membership within “weeks rather than months.”

Speaking at a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, Marin made the announcement as the Finnish government submitted a report to parliament on changes in the security environment, formally kicking off a debate on NATO membership.

“The security situation in Europe and in Finland is more serious and more difficult to predict than at any time since the Cold War,” the government said in its report. 

“The change in the security situation,” according to the Finnish authorities, “is expected to be long-lasting” while “Russia’s demands and military actions that purport to change the European security architecture also affect Finland’s room for manoeuvre in foreign, security and defence policy.” 

Reports in Swedish media this week suggested that both the Marin and Andersson governments favor NATO membership. But at their press conference in Stockholm on Wednesday, the two leaders declined to address the substance of that speculation head-on. Instead, they emphasized that a thorough analysis is needed before a decision is made. 

Andersson said the process “should not be rushed” but that she also sees “no point in delaying” — especially given that Sweden is scheduled to hold an election in September. A report analyzing Sweden’s security options is due to be put before lawmakers in Stockholm by the end of May, but could be completed sooner, Andersson said.  

The Finnish report did not make any concrete policy recommendations, but did outline both the benefits and risks of NATO membership. 

“The deterrent effect of Finland’s defence would be considerably stronger than it is at present, as it would be based on the capabilities of the entire Alliance,” the report said. It also noted that “if Finland were a NATO member country and became a target of military force, it would defend itself with the support of the Alliance based on collective defence arrangements prepared and rehearsed in advance.”

Nevertheless, the report warned that “if Finland applied for NATO membership, it should be prepared for extensive efforts to exercise influence and risks that are difficult to anticipate, such as increasing tensions on the border between Finland and Russia.”

In a sign of what could be to come, several government websites went down during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to the Finnish parliament last week, while Russian planes have violated both Swedish and Finnish airspace over recent weeks.

Russia prompts rethink

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told reporters on Wednesday there were three reasons why the NATO debate has arisen now: “Russia is ready to take higher risks than earlier,” the Kremlin “is capable of concentrating more than 100,000 soldiers in one spot against one country,” and there is more “loose argumentation about unconventional weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons.” 

NATO officials have said that Finland and Sweden would be welcomed with open arms and that integrating the two countries into the alliance would be a smooth process.

“It is for Finland and Sweden to decide whether they would like to apply for membership or not and we will respect that decision,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters last week. 

“If they decide to apply, I expect that all allies will welcome them,” he said, adding that “we have worked together for many years, we know that they meet the NATO standards when it comes to interoperability, democratic control over the armed forces. We know that they can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply.”

The prospect of two more of its western neighbors joining NATO has prompted warnings from Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that Russia would have to “rebalance the situation” with its own measures were Sweden and Finland to take such a step. 

That has raised the question in the minds of officials of what kind of security guarantees applicant countries could receive in the time between the submission of their application and their formal membership. 

“The timing of possible accession and the speed of the accession process,” the Finnish report noted, “are of particular importance in the current situation.”

Accession talks require first a unanimous decision from NATO members and a ratification process in allies’ capitals — a process that has in the past taken more than a year. 

Stoltenberg said last week that he is “certain that we will find ways to address concerns they may have regarding the period between the potential application, and the final ratification.” 

Asked about possible security guarantees during the application period, Finnish Minister Haavisto said he has been discussing the application process with NATO allies. 

The “gray zone — which is after the application … before you are really a member of NATO — it should be as short period as possible,” Haavisto said.

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