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Finland, Sweden expect rapid domestic debate on joining NATO

April 13, 2022

The Finnish and Swedish prime ministers gave a joint press conference in Stockholm as the war in Ukraine has prompted both countries to reevaluate traditional positions of neutrality that lasted throughout the Cold War.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, left, and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin give a press conference ahead of a meeting on whether to seek NATO membership, in Stockholm
Sweden and Finland are expected to apply for NATO membership by June according to analysts and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, left, has said this is the likely intentionImage: Paul Wennerholm/AP Photo/picture alliance

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson met in Stockholm on Wednesday to discuss regional security matters in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

At a joint press conference afterwards, Marin said she could not give a timetable for a decision on whether Finland would join NATO but nonetheless said the decision was weeks, not months away.

Andersson said Sweden would not rush a decision, but the country's assessment of the security situation would be thorough but expedient.

Svenska Dagbladet reported Andersson said the country would likely seek to join by June. 

Finland's parliament will hear from a range of security experts in the weeks ahead as the country moves towards a decision "before midsummer," Marin has said. Analysts and security experts believe an application is likely sometime in June.

What is the process if Finland and Sweden seek to join NATO?

All 30 members of NATO would need to ratify each country's membership — which could take anywhere from a few months to a year. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the door for membership remains open.

While many analysts expect a joint application from the two countries, the leaders of both countries stress Finland and Sweden could ultimately reach separate conclusions on whether to join the military alliance.

In Sweden, Russia's war against its neighbor Ukraine has also provoked anxiety, as well as a political about face on the country's question of military non-alignment.

Russia has repeatedly said NATO expansion is a thorn in its side, while NATO maintains the alliance is defensive in nature.

What is the debate in Finland?

On Wednesday, a Finnish government-commissioned report examining the "fundamentally changed" security environment in Europe following Russia's war on Ukraine, was released. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the report will then make its way through parliament with an opening debate planned for next Wednesday.

In the so-called white paper, the Ministry of Defense assessed that "Should Finland and Sweden become NATO members, the threshold for using military force in the Baltic Sea region would rise, which would enhance the stability of the region in the long term."

Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia. In 1917, Finland declared independence from Russia as the country descended into chaos amid the Russian revolution.

Finland also fought the Winter War in 1939 following an invasion by what was then the Soviet Union. It lost roughly 10% of its territory but managed to inflict heavy losses on the Red Army and maintain control of its capital and state.

During the Cold War, Finland was formally neutral to prevent Russia from invading. Finland referred to its position as "active neutrality," although more critical voices said that Moscow's views and values did creep into the country's political process, with the more pejorative term "Finlandization" coined in West Germany in 1960s.

Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister of Finland who has long advocated for the country's membership in NATO, now believes it is "a foregone conclusion." However, as recently as January the current prime minister Sanna Marin called the possibility "very unlikely."

Russia's decision to invade Ukraine has led to a spike in public support from 20-30% in favor of Finland formally joining the alliance to over 50% of the population now.

What does the debate look like in Sweden?

Sweden does not share a border with Russia, but the strategic island of Gottland in the Baltic Sea could make Sweden vulnerable should a conflict erupt in the region.

Robert Dalsjo, the research director at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, said Swedes have realized "that they might find themselves in the same position as Ukraine: a lot of sympathy but no military help."

Sweden's ruling Social Democrats changed their mind on their long-held opposition to joining NATO this week.

During the Second World War, Sweden was formally neutral and has not fought a war in over 200 years.

Where do things stand at present?

Finland already cooperates heavily with the US and NATO forces, though is not protected by the mutual defense part of the treaty known as Article Five.

The Helsingen Sanomat daily polled the country's lawmakers and found half of the 200 members of parliament approve, with only 12 firmly opposed. Others have said they will announce later where they stand after detailed discussions.

Atti Kaikkonen, Finland's minister of defense, said the country needed to prepare should circumstances on the border change but that for now, the situation is stable.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said if Finland joins NATO, Russia would seek to "rebalance the situation."

ar/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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