Sweden and Finland are preparing for NATO accession, ending decades of neutrality despite Moscow’s threats that their NATO membership will push the region into conflict with Russia.
Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has been ongoing since Feb. 24, triggered Sweden and Finland to rethink their security and to consider ending their opposition to the NATO membership.
Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats will decide on an application to join NATO on May 15, while Finland is expected to announce its support for the bloc membership this week.
The NATO membership application could be made at the alliance’s June summit in Madrid and is most likely to be fast-tracked.
Non-military alliance is a part of Swedish identity, a vital piece of the strategic culture which has formed Sweden since decades, however in Finland it is more of a question of realism and rationality.
Russia warns against NATO membership of Sweden, Finland
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova threatened with “military and political consequences” if the two countries joined the bloc.
Stefan Ring, a former member of Swedish Armed Forces and a military expert, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior in Ukraine was “regarded as very irrational and created a sense of insecurity, especially in Finland.”
He argued that the political process was fast for Finland since it has already had a political option to join NATO.
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“When the Swedish government realized that Finland probably would come to a decision to join NATO, it understood that a scenario where Sweden would be the only country outside NATO could create a negative situation.”
In such a situation, Ring said, “there could be pressure from both Russia and NATO, and the ongoing defense cooperation with Finland would also be at risk.”
But Russia is warning the two Nordic countries against joining NATO, a defense alliance made of 30 nations founded shortly after World War II.
The alliance is largely dominated by the US and its headquarters is in Brussels, Belgium.
Moscow is threatening that the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland would be detrimental to their security and that of Europe.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “the alliance remains a tool geared towards confrontation.”
Peskov warned NATO “is not that kind of alliance which ensures peace and stability, and its further expansion will not bring additional security to the European continent.”
He also threatened that Russia would have to “rebalance the situation” with its own measures if Sweden and Finland decide to go ahead with their NATO membership.
Filing a membership application by itself would not bring the two Nordic countries under the umbrella of NATO’s Article 5, which guarantees that an attack on a member country is an attack on all.
The application process is generally believed to take six months to a year to complete, and many believe that Sweden and Finland are especially vulnerable to Russia’s revenge during the application period when NATO will not be obliged to defend its potential members.
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Gunilla Herolf, a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, argued that it is a serious period because the Russians “are likely to revenge on us in various ways, but we don’t think that they will do it with military means, but surely with cyberattacks, maybe sabotage against electricity, heating systems and so on.”
She continued: “They will violate our borders which they do anyway now and then when they are annoyed with us, so these are kind of things that we believe that we will be able to handle fairly well with some of them already happening.”
Herolf believes that the Kremlin will not use military force.
“We don’t believe it, because we believe if they try to attack us militarily, they can’t know for sure that NATO or NATO countries would come to our help, and that would be a very very large step for Russia,” she asserted.
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Herolf thinks that Russia would not take this lightly and that “most probably they would abstain from that and do the other things that they are very skillful in doing already, and of course continue their information war against us which they always do telling us that we are destroying good relations in the Baltic Sea region.”
According to her, Russia threatened Sweden and Finland as early as December.
“They told us that we will not be allowed to join NATO if we wanted. They also said we will not be able to have exercises with other countries of our own choice and that we will not be able to have exercises in the Baltic countries close to Russian ships,” she said.
Herolf suggested that these early threats by the Kremlin were a contributing factor to the sudden shift in Swedish and Finish politics towards NATO membership.
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They demanded that they would be able to control all our behavior in the Baltic Sea which was of course dismissed by both Sweden and Finland.
This is very serious that another country is trying to limit our own foreign policy and behavior.
“Also, there is a lot of ridiculing of Sweden and Finland on Russian television; they tell their audience that it would be very nice if they could occupy the very strategic island of Gotland for example. They behave like our enemy, I would say,” Herolf added.
Sweden, Finland prepping for military, hybrid attacks
Much of Finland’s focus is on how the 30 NATO member states can ensure Sweden’s and Finland’s security during the application period when the two countries will be exposed to Russia without the NATO guaranties.
British, US, Latvian, and Estonian troops have recently gone on an exercise with a Finnish armored brigade as part of NATO’s so-called Joint Expeditionary Force. The British Defense Ministry said the aim was to “deter Russian aggression in Scandinavia and the Baltic states.”
Henri Vanhanen, a foreign policy adviser to the National Coalition Party, Finland’s main opposition group, said “both (countries) are now preparing themselves for a variety of military and hybrid threats.”
Sweden and Finland have prepared domestically but they are also about to receive security assistance, he added.
“So, I would say that both countries are as safe as they can be under these circumstances, and this is in the interest of all parties at the moment.”
Kremlin views NATO as a threat to Russia’s security as the military alliance expanded closer to Moscow after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
While Moscow controlled all the countries of Eastern Europe in the past, with Russian soldiers stationed in most of them, today it is a different story as nearly all those countries are looking westwards.
Even countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, once part of the Soviet Union, have joined the alliance.
Putin demanded in the past that NATO should pull back from all these Eastern European countries and that no new countries should join the bloc.
Once full members, NATO would guarantee to Sweden and Finland Article 5 collective security, NATO’s nuclear umbrella and common defense planning in Northern Europe.
However, Sweden and Finland are located between the Arctic and Baltic Sea region, hence both countries must be seen as strategically important and can add value to the alliance as they can bring depth to the NATO’s security and defense in Northern Europe. Finland especially is of a great importance to the alliance as it shares a border with Russia.
“It would sort of create this northern bastion, increasing stability and security in Northern Europe, so I think they would be very much welcomed in the alliance and will add value to its collective security in the north,” said Vanhanen.
Over the years neutrality has served Sweden and Finland well, but taking sides and expanding NATO right on Russia’s doorstep could provoke Moscow into starting another military conflict, which many claim could lead to a major destruction in Europe and the world as a whole.
But Venhanen said: “I think Russia has also learned a lesson in Ukraine that adventurism and resorting in wars that have vague goals and vague end game can be risky and challenging, so I believe in the case of Sweden and Finland, it is not going to resort into these means.”
Anadolu with additional input by GVS News Desk