Neutrality defied: NATO in Eastern Scandinavia


On 15th May, both the Finnish and Swedish parliaments announced that they would submit bids to join NATO after weeks of speculation about their intention to accede. Both countries share a long history of neutrality and have thus remained non-members since its creation in 1949. Finland has refrained from joining NATO out of fears of provoking Russia, which it fought in the 1939-1940 Winter War. Sweden’s neutrality policy began over two hundred years ago as a result of its losses during the Napoleonic Wars. Since the Cold War, however, Sweden has followed Finland’s lead in defence policy, refraining from joining NATO over concerns that doing so would motivate Russia to rebalance by drawing Finland into its sphere of influence. 

While the nature of Finland’s neutrality is pragmatic, Sweden’s also has moral dimensions. Sweden became known for its human-rights-centred foreign policy during the Cold War which kept both the U.S. and Soviet Union at a distance. Prime Minister Olof Palme, who served from 1969 to 1986, for instance, participated in a demonstration against the Vietnam War with the North Vietnamese ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1968. Former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt often called Sweden a “humanitarian superpower” during his tenure in the latter position from 2006 to 2014.  

By April, a vast majority of Swedes said they favoured accession

While both countries are rooted in a history of neutrality, the late February Russian invasion of Ukraine shifted public opinion in both Helsinki and Stockholm in favour of NATO accession. While just 28% of Finnish supported NATO membership in January 2022, by May, 76% were in favour of joining the alliance. The shift in Sweden was less dramatic, with a plurality of Swedes supporting NATO membership before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Nonetheless, by April, a vast majority of Swedes said they favoured accession, reflecting the impact of the war on public attitudes toward joining the alliance. This shift in public opinion is an important factor in both states’ decisions to pursue NATO membership. Departing from a policy that guided both Swedish and Finnish defence policy for decades without sufficient public support would be risky for both governments, especially for Sweden’s Social Democrats, which face elections in September. 

Finland and Sweden’s announcements were met with disapproval from Moscow, which has opposed NATO’s expansion for decades, arguing that the alliance threatens Russian security. The war in Ukraine was caused in part by this opposition and an accompanying fear that Kyiv would pursue NATO accession. Before the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a redrawing of the European security map and demanded that NATO expand no further. Upon hearing the of both Finland’s plan to join NATO, President Putin stated accession is a “grave mistake since there is no threat to Finland’s security.” 

Moscow warned that accession would be met with an expansion of Russian military presence in the Baltic

Russia is likely to take retaliatory steps in response to both countries joining NATO. Before Stockholm and Helsinki’s announcements, Moscow warned that accession would be met with an expansion of Russian military presence in the Baltic and the deployment of more nuclear warheads to the region. There are also fears that Sweden and Finland will be targeted by a greater number of Russian cyberattacks as a result of their accession. 

Both countries will make considerable contributions to the strength of the NATO alliance. The Swedish and Finnish armed forces are both known to punch above their weight. Former U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of all American forces in Europe from 2014 to 2018 said that both militaries are modern, capable, and have expertise in arctic warfare. Finland will contribute 64 F-35 fighter jets, Western Europe’s largest artillery battery, and a renowned cyber defence. Its accession will double the length of NATO’s border with Russia. Sweden will contribute a fleet of Gripen fighter jets, American-made Patriot missiles, and the strategically important island of Gotland, which lies in the Baltic Sea just 200 miles northwest of Russian Kaliningrad. The accession of both countries also sends a clear message to Moscow that the West is united against Russian revisionism and aggression.

Image: Office of the Vice President of the United States via Wikimedia Commons

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