A "side effect" of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine is that Finland and Sweden may soon join NATO. What seemed an unthinkable prospect just a few months ago now looks increasingly concrete. In Finland, by 2019, over half of the population opposed joining NATO. Now, 62% are in favor (with an additional 11% since the start of the war), with the Finnish parliament potentially deciding to join as early as mid-June.
The same trend can also be observed in Stockholm: for the first time in history, the majority of Swedes support joining the North Atlantic Alliance (with an additional 9% since January). Considering the general election scheduled for September, the number of political forces open to this possibility is growing.
Nevertheless, should the two northern countries join NATO? Would their membership deter or provoke Russia? How would this process impact the conflict in Ukraine and the wider region? Minna Ålander (SWP) and Dmitry Stefanovich (IMEMO) weigh in.
Should Finland and Sweden join NATO?
YES, THEY SHOULD.
Minna Ålander, Research Assistant, Research Divison EU/Europe, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
The main reason restraining Finland and Sweden from full-fledged NATO membership has been maintaining good relations with Russia. That consideration entirely lost its meaning when Russia attacked Ukraine on the 24th of February. Now, it simply makes sense for Finland and Sweden to have a seat at the table where decisions are taken that impact their national security.
The strongest argument for joining is obvious: neither country has been truly neutral since joining the EU in 1995 and both have a close partnership with NATO. However, only as full-fledged members would Finland and Sweden have the security guarantee secured by Article 5: collective defence. Already NATO’s Enhanced Opportunity Partners, the Finnish and Swedish armed forces’ high level of interoperability with NATO would enable an almost instant operational readiness.
Beyond strictly national considerations, the two Nordic countries should join NATO because it would enhance the wider Baltic Sea region’s security and unlock new potential for the Nordic defence cooperation framework (NORDEFCO), which has been particularly intensifying since 2014. Currently, NORDEFCO is a maze made up of different structures: Norway and Iceland are part of NATO but not the EU; Finland and Sweden are in the EU but not NATO; while Denmark is a member of both but with an opt-out option in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. Hence, Finland and Sweden joining NATO would make all Nordic countries members of the alliance and thus facilitate deeper cooperation in security and defence within their most natural reference group.
NO, THEY SHOULDN’T.
Dmitry Stefanovich, Research Fellow, Sector of Military Economy and Innovations. Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO)
The debate around Sweden and Finland joining NATO is not new. Obviously, they have a full right to consider the ongoing developments and look for long-term arrangements to guarantee their own security. However, in this case, a deep analysis of advantages and disadvantages that will accompany such a decision ought to be made.
While collective security under the NATO umbrella would provide protection by the most powerful military machine in the world — the US — it could also lead to increased threats. While these countries’ main current concern is Russia, Moscow does not threaten them right now. However, should they become NATO members and/or provide territory to host US forces or other infrastructure (i.e., radar stations, airfields for strike aircraft, forward-based air/missile defense assets, or naval bases), they would become targets by default – at least as long as NATO designates Russia as an adversary. Their own capabilities (e.g., JASSM family cruise missiles in Finland) would also be seen as part of NATO’s overall threat – with relevant change in Russian targeting and strike prioritization.
Moreover, it is worth highlighting that the European Union also provides for collective defense: in this case, it might be a more viable solution to pursue increased capabilities within this format without inviting direct threats from Russia.
Finally, all these security issues can (and should) be solved through joint mechanisms, including something like a “NATO-Russia Founding Act 2.0” or more conventional arms control regimes to ultimately create a foundation for Europe’s new and inclusive security architecture. That would entail a hard process and significant political capital by all sides; however, the alternatives would be far more dangerous.