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As a consequence of the war in Ukraine, Sweden and Finland have been considering changing their geo-political position towards NATO, as Russia´s invasion has abruptly changed the security balance in Europe. For many years, both Finland and Sweden have maintained a neutral stand in world politics. What might be the cause for this position? Why may it be changing now? And what could be the implications of both countries joining NATO?

Sweden and Finland’s neutrality statute

Both Sweden and Finland’s geopolitical neutrality strategy is largely explained by their long historical relationship with Russia. In Sweden’s case, from the 12th century until the 19th, the country fought several wars with Russia. During the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden lost significant territories and Russia gave the country support against the French invaders. All these events led to a Russian superiority over Sweden, which resulted in the emergence of Swedish neutrality in the 19th century, as a means to ensure independence. Therefore, after the Napoleonic Wars, King Karl XIV Johan altered the foreign policy position of Sweden from one of military engagement to a policy of neutrality – Policy of 1812 – that exists to this day. As a result, more than a hundred years later, during the Cold War, Sweden chose to stay neutral, and, despite having joined the EU in 1995, it has significantly reduced its military capabilities, continuing to remain a non-aligned state.

Similarly, Finland also has a long historical relationship with Russia. However, unlike Sweden, and similar to Ukraine, Finland shares a 1287km border with Russia, which makes Finnish much more vulnerable to Russian aggression. From the early 19th century until 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland was ruled by Russia, before gaining its independence. Even so, years later, during the Second World War, Finland had to fight again for its sovereignty against the Soviet Union, losing 10 percent of its territory to Moscow. This repression along the centuries, reinforced by the Soviet invasion during WWII, resulted in Finland adopting a neutral foreign policy in 1955, a consequence of the treaty signed with Moscow in 1948, where it assured not to join either NATO or the Warsaw Pact, to ensure Finnish sovereignty. Since then, Finland has remained a neutral state, even after the Cold War, whilst developing strong relationships both with the West and Russia.

How has the War in Ukraine impacted this neutrality statute?

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both the Swedish and Finnish public opinion had long been in favour of their country’s neutrality. This is because, until that moment, it had ensured peace and independence.

However, after Russia’s Ukraine assault, public opinion in both countries has rapidly changed in favour of joining NATO, since the independence ensured by neutrality was no longer that certain.

A recent poll from the 20th of April has shown that a majority of Swedes (57%) wanted to join NATO, while 21% were against it. A more drastic result was obtained, in March, from a survey that found that 60% of Finnish people supported Finland joining NATO. This shows a massive and rapid shift in Finland’s public opinion, as a previous similar study from 2021 showed that only 34% supported the membership.

EVA survey on Finnish people’s opinion on NATO membership
Demoskop opinion poll on Swedish people: “Should Sweden join NATO?”

In Finland’s case, there is already the support of 96 out of the 200 lawmakers for the country to join NATO, whilst only 14 are against it. Furthermore, the Finish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, commented on the conflict by saying that “Russia is not the neighbour we thought it was”, while also clarifying that the decision regarding NATO membership would only be made in the spring. Two weeks later, the Finish Government unveiled a security-policy report that stated that the mutual defence clause of NATO would be very beneficial to Finland’s security.

Regarding policy makers’ point of view, in early March the Swedish Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson, rejected calls for Sweden to join NATO by telling reporters that “If Sweden were to choose to send in an application to join NATO in the current situation, it would further destabilize this area of Europe and increase tensions”. However, the Prime Minister has in the meantime reversed her position by stating that she does not rule out NATO membership “in any way”. The Social Democrats, the ruling party, who have consistently rejected calls to join NATO, arguing that military non-alignment has served the country well, have also stated that, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will review their international security policy. On the other hand, the main opposition party – Moderate Party – has announced more clearly its position regarding Sweden’s neutrality, by making NATO membership one of its 5 pledges for the 2022 upcoming elections.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (on the left) welcoming Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (on the right) prior to a meeting on whether to seek NATO membership

In response, NATO has already told Sweden and Finland that the organization would welcome their applications, highlighting the fact that the four largest military powers of the alliance (US, UK, Germany and France) supported the inclusion of both Sweden and Finland in NATO.

Implications of Sweden and Finland joining NATO

If Sweden and Finland were to join NATO, they would be much less vulnerable to Russian attacks, under the protection of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, where it is stated that an armed attack against one or more of the Parties shall be considered an attack against them all. At the same time, these two memberships would largely facilitate NATO and difficult Russian operations in the Baltic Sea, as all the countries on the Baltic Coast, apart from Russia, would be part of the Western alliance.   

Nevertheless, from the moment Sweden and Finland file membership applications until their acceptance, both countries will be especially vulnerable to Russian attacks. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has already said that, should Sweden and Finland join NATO, then Russia would have to strengthen its land, naval and air forces in the Baltic Sea – where Russia has its Kaliningrad exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the right, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, on the left

As matter of fact, Russia’s effective attack options are currently limited, since it would not be able to spare many troops to the Nordic borders while the war in Ukraine still grinds on. Still, other options such as cyberattacks on Finnish and Swedish governments, submarine incursions or fighter jet intrusions in both countries’ territories are most likely to happen. Nonetheless, the bigger concern arises with regards to Russia’s most destructive military weapons, which Putin may choose to use if, aligned with Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, the war in Ukraine begins to look like a defeat for Moscow. In fact, on the 14th of April, Medvedev explicitly raised the nuclear threat, by saying that “there could be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic” if Sweden and Finland were to join NATO. However, Russia was the one responsible for these countries to question their neutrality statute, when it decided to invade Ukraine in the first place.

Sources: EVA, Demoskop, TIME, Aarhus Universitet, Deutsche Welle, Reuters, The Economist, The Guardian

André Rodrigues

Maria Mendes Silva

João Sande e Castro

Natalie Enzelmüller

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