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Explained: Amid Ukraine invasion, why Russia is objecting to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership

Amid its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has said that if Sweden and Finland become members of the NATO, the move “would have serious military and political consequences”. A look at the larger historical background at play here

Along with Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, Finland and Sweden are two EU states that are not members of NATO yet. (Photo: Reuters)

On the sidelines of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the ongoing developments in Nordic Europe, related to and in response to the invasion, may just lead to further instability in the region.

On Friday, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova announced that if Sweden and Finland were to become members of NATO, the move “would have serious military and political consequences”.

Russia’s response came following NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s invitation to Sweden and Finland to attend a virtual summit regarding the situation in Ukraine. We take a look at the larger historical background at play here, one that is becoming increasingly important given the ongoing crisis.

Why is Russia objecting to Finland & Sweden’s NATO membership?

Along with Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, Finland and Sweden are two EU states that are not members of NATO yet. Since the end of the Second World War, both countries remained militarily neutral.

The two countries had also consciously remained politically neutral in the 1990s, but that stance changed when they joined the European Union in 1995. This is, in part, due to their policies of military non-alignment, but over the past few years, increase in what both countries view as Russian aggression, have prompted discussions of a potential NATO membership.

In a statement, Zakharova said, “All OSCE member states in their national capacity, including Finland and Sweden, have reaffirmed the principle that the security of one country cannot be built at the expense of the security of others.”

The OSCE or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, is the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization with an observer status at the United Nations. “Obviously, the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, which is primarily a military alliance as you well understand, would have serious military and political consequences, which would require our country to make response steps,” Zakharova had added.


How have Sweden & Finland responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Finland has taken a strong stand against the invasion of Ukraine and several top officials of the country have openly condemned Moscow’s aggression. Sweden has followed suit.

Days before the invasion started this year, Finland’s President compared Russia’s current treatment of Ukraine to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to threaten and divide his country before invading in 1939, a Reuters report said.

At a security conference in Munich, President Sauli Niinisto said, “All what happens in Ukraine, all what happens in the Western world at the moment, reminds me of what happened in Finland….”Stalin thought that he will split the nation and it’s easy to go and invade Finland. Totally the opposite happened. People united, and we see the same in Ukraine.”


Although Sweden does not share a border with Russia, its location in the region and the spill-over of the conflict may impact its interests. A particular bone of contention between Sweden and Russia is the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, which often becomes a target of Moscow’s military action.

While Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stopped short of labelling the Russian aggression as an “invasion” on February 22, that changed two days later when she tweeted: “Sweden condemns in the strongest terms Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s acts are also an attack on the European security order. It will be met by a united and robust response in solidarity with Ukraine. Russia alone is responsible for human suffering.”

Both Finland and Sweden have offered various kinds of assistance to Ukraine. Hours after the invasion started, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke with President Niinistö, who allocated $50 million in aid on behalf of Finland.

Finland’s foreign ministry used the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries to reaffirm support for Ukraine. “Today we celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations between #Finland and #Ukraine. Finland’s support to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is firm. Wishing courage and strength to the leaders and the people of Ukraine during this difficult time,” the Finnish MFA tweeted.

What is the historical context?

It is necessary to note that both Finland and Sweden have deep historical, cultural and economic ties with Russia. Prior to its independence in 1917, Finland was a part of, what are now, the territories of Sweden and Russia.

Until 1809, for close to 700 years, Finland was a part of Sweden. Following the Finnish War of 1809, Finland became an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, write Robin Forsberg & Jason C. Moyer in a report for the Wilson Center.

But two wars — the Winter War of 1939 and the Continuation War of 1941-1944 — changed the relations between Finland and the Soviet Union. “The foreign policy approach adopted by President Paasikivi and President Kekkonen, the Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine, positioned Finland as a neutral country during the Cold War while maintaining good relations with its neighbor to the East,” the authors write.


This treaty would serve as the main instrument in the Finland-Soviet relations from 1948 to 1992. The Forsberg-Moyer report adds that to honour the treaty and to not provoke the Soviet Union, Finland also declined funding from the Marshall Plan.

“It is widely held that this treaty was signed under pressure from the Soviet Union, but it granted Finland enough freedom to become a prosperous democracy,” the report says. Despite its difficult history with Russia, Finland did not join the western security alliance.


The Wilson Center report has some interesting insight into Sweden’s historical relations with Russia too: “Sweden has not joined a military alliance or participated in any war since 1814, a peace spanning over 200 years. After World War II, Sweden was at a crossroads in its defense policy as traditional powers fell and new powers arose. Rather than joining the U.S. side of the Cold War but with no interest in aligning with the Soviet Union, Sweden sought a third way to ensure its defense and regional stability.”

In 1948, when Sweden’s attempts to create a neutral Scandinavian Defense Alliance failed with Norway and Denmark choosing to align with NATO, it was compelled to return to its policy of neutrality, the report added.


What is the modern political context?

In 2018, Estonia’s former President Toomas Hendrik Ives wrote a paper on the Finnish-NATO membership. Hendrik’s writings indicate that much has been dependent domestically and how much the countries’ citizens want that membership, more than political circles. When the paper was published in 2018, Hendrik wrote that “in Finland, popular opinion (was) against membership; in Sweden it (was) up to now positive but insufficient.”

When Hendrik was writing the paper, there was “a view among those opposed to Swedish/Finnish membership in NATO at (that) time, that we will join “if things get serious”. In 2018, Hendrik explained that the security environment did not call for joining NATO but the sentiment was that if the situation were to change, both the countries would join.

In January this year, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin had told Reuters that Finland did not plan to join NATO in the near future but would be ready to stand with its European allies and the United States by imposing tough sanctions on Russia if it were to attack Ukraine. “It would have a very substantial impact and the sanctions would be extremely tough,” Marin had said.

At the same time, Marin had also stated that Finland would continue to remain firm on its stance that it has the right to join NATO if it chooses at some point to do so in the future. “Nobody can influence us, not the United States, not Russia, not anyone else,” Marin had told Reuters.

Do Finland & Sweden have domestic support?

To be granted NATO membership, the countries would need to demonstrate substantial public support for the move.

In a poll conducted recently by Finland’s largest daily Helsingin Sanomat, approximately 28% of respondents wanted Finland to join NATO, while 42% were against and the rest were unsure, according to Reuters. The figures suggested that there was an 8 percentage point rise in numbers of those in favour from the last poll that had been conducted in 2019.

According to a report by The Local (Sweden), public support for the country joining NATO has increased over the past few years. In December 2020, a Swedish parliamentary majority was in favour of readiness to join NATO as a possible security policy option emerged for the first time, Reuters had reported.

However, the Swedish government remained opposed to such a move. At that time, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde had said that the government had no such plans. “These kinds of sudden changes based on fairly weak majorities, it’s not good. It undermines the credibility of Swedish security policy,” Linde had said.

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First published on: 27-02-2022 at 12:12:15 pm
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