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Explained: NATO expansion & Russia

Finland and Sweden have applied for membership of NATO. What has been their stand on the alliance over the years, what obstacles do they face, and what would their joining mean for geopolitics around Russia?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chennai |
Updated: May 20, 2022 12:09:11 pm
NATO, NATO allies, nato news, Express exclusive, Express Explained, Sweden, Finland, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia Ukraine, Russia Ukraine Crisis, Russia-Ukraine tension, Ukraine, Ukraine Crisis, Explained, Indian Express Explained, Opinion, Current AffairsUS House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (centre) with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto (left) and Sweden’s PM Magdalena Andersson at the Capitol  on Thursday.  Reuters

After nearly three months of debate within the two countries, Finland and Sweden have formally applied for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the US-led security alliance forged during the Cold War to defend its members from Soviet expansion.

Transforming Europe

The war in Ukraine has already changed the geopolitics of Europe and the world. The admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO would bring about a transformation in the continent’s security map by giving NATO a contiguous long frontier in western Russia —Finland and Russia share a 1,300-km border — and doubling it from the present 1,200 km, parts of it in northern Norway, Latvia and Estonia, and Poland and Lithuania.

In addition, Sweden’s island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea would give NATO a strategic advantage. Furthermore, when Sweden and Finland join NATO, the Baltic Sea — Russia’s gateway to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean — would be ringed entirely by members of the western security alliance – Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Neutrality history

In seeking NATO membership, Sweden and Finland have abandoned their long history of neutrality, when their foreign policy and security priority was to stay out of superpower rivalry during the Cold War, and maintain cordial ties with both blocs.

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Post-war Finland sought to carve out neutrality from a defence alliance with the Soviet Union called the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance that also gave the superpower a base on its territory. Finland also stayed out of the Marshall Plan, the US aid programme for Europe’s post-World-War-II recovery. From the perspective of Finland — whose capital Helsinki is situated just across the Gulf of Finland from St Petersburg (Leningrad) — the treaty protected it from being attacked or incorporated into the USSR like the Baltic and eastern European states. It allowed the country to pursue the path of democracy and capitalism while staying out of the conflict between the great powers.

After the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Finnish neutrality was manifest in its decision to stay out of NATO, even as it entered the European Union in 1995. In recent years, the Finland model, or “Finlandisation”, was advocated by some including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as the way forward for Ukraine’s relations with Russia.

Swedish neutrality traces back to the early 19th century, and largely held through WWII, though it has face questions about its assistance to Hitler’s Germany. Sweden’s neutrality is often described as the other side of its social welfarism and as the two pillars of its national identity. But the official policy of neutrality or non-alignment was not without contradictions.

Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme’s anti-Vietnam war stand had angered the US; at the same time, it was during his tenure that Sweden entered into a secret defence pact with the US. Sweden’s neutrality has helped it play the role of a pacifist country that preached disarmanent, in spite of its flourishing armaments industry.

Sweden all but shed its neutrality in the 1990s as it became involved with NATO in its international missions in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Libya. It joined the EU in 1995 at the same time as Finland, and in 2010, became part of the the European Common Security and Defence Policy.

Joining NATO

Although the debate over joining NATO was ongoing in both countries for nearly three decades, Russia’s annexation of Crimea pushed both towards NATO’s “open door” policy. Still, there was little political consensus in either country, especially in Sweden where the Social Democrats have long been against the idea.

“February 24 changed everything,” former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt said in a conversation with The Indian Express last month during a visit to Delhi, referring to the date on which Russia invaded Ukraine. In Finland, the leadership was at one with the growing public clamour for admission to NATO, while in Sweden, where elections are due later this year, the ruling Social Democrats came under pressure from opinion polls that showed that a majority were in favour.

Some may see an expanding NATO and the growing role of the US in European security as winding the clock back to a time on the continent where war was an ever-present threat, a worse situation than even during the Cold War when the US and the Soviet Union met regularly to reduce the risk of war, especially nuclear.

However, Bildt dismissed the concerns that NATO’s expansion would add to the tensions on the continent. He said instead “strengthening NATO and EU” would act as a deterrent against Russia. “That’s the key thing, because as long as [Russian President] Mr [Vladimir] Putin is in power, we have no guarantees that he won’t start anything of this sort again.”

Russian response

If Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was meant to deter NATO’s eastward expansion, the war has had the opposite effect. If admitted, Sweden and Finland will become its 31st and 32nd members. The alliance had 12 founding members in 1929.

Back in March, the possibility of the two Nordic nations applying for NATO membership had evoked a threatening response from Russia, which said it would take retaliatory measures by stationing its nuclear and hypersonic weapons close to the Baltic Sea. In his first remarks after Finland and Sweden officially announced their intention to join, Putin did not sound as threatening.

“Russia has no problems with Finland and Sweden, and … [NATO’s] expansion at the expense of these countries does not pose a direct threat to us,” he said. “But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly provoke our response.”

Sweden had already said it would not allow NATO bases or nuclear weapons on its territory. Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Thursday that her country is opposed to NATO deploying nuclear weapons or setting up military bases on its territory if admitted to the alliance.

Membership process

At the moment the main obstacle to their applications is Turkey, a member since 1952 and which has NATO’s second largest army after the US. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has objected to their applications on the ground that the two countries had provided safe haven to the leaders of the Kurdish group PKK, an armed movement fighting for a separate Kurdistan, comprising Kurdish areas in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

“Neither of these countries have a clear, open attitude towards terrorist organisation. How can we trust them?” Erdogan said. Further, both Sweden and Finland joined an arms embargo against Turkey in 2019.

Membership of NATO is open to all European nations that fulfil certain criteria that include “a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; fair treatment of minority populations; a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully; an ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions”.

New members are admitted with the unanimous consent of all members. Erdogan has said he would not entertain delegates from either country who may hope to change his mind. Provided this opposition can be overcome, the seven-step membership process could take from four months to a year, raising concerns in both countries of a potential Russian attack before they are covered by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s legal framework, which pledges collective defence for all members. The UK, Denmark and Norway have promised to come to their aid if this happens.

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