On 18 May, Finland and Sweden applied to join Nato. There are very few countries in the world that can plausibly claim to have tried to conduct a principled form of foreign policy. Two of them are now seeking to join a military alliance composed of states with long histories of aggression and war crimes. If completed, the Nordic expansion of Nato would leave only three states of any size – Ireland, Austria and Switzerland – to keep up the tradition of European neutrality.
The reaction from Russia has so far been limited. At first Vladimir Putin said the expansion poses ‘no direct threat for Russia’. But there has been vague talk of retaliation. On 20 May the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said Russia would increase the military presence in its western regions in response to the Finnish and Swedish applications, as well as to US strategic bomber flights over Europe.
Before this year, the chances of either Finland or Sweden joining Nato seemed remote. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine it is now the clear preference of the majority of the Finnish population. The prime minister, Sanna Marin, opposed joining Nato in her 2019 election campaign, though she claims to have changed her mind even before the Russian invasion. With the war’s cruelties on display, even left-wing politicians such as Erkki Tuomioja and Li Andersson have moved towards favouring Nato membership, with reservations. This is a remarkable volte face. Asked what the Russians would make of it, President Sauli Niinistö said they should ‘look in the mirror’.
In Sweden the situation is not so clear. As recently as early February, the foreign minister, Ann Linde, had said that ‘Sweden’s interests are already well served being outside of Nato’ and ‘this issue is just not on the table right now.’ Two weeks into the invasion, the prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, was saying a Swedish Nato application would ‘further destabilise this area of Europe and increase tensions’. Polls conducted by the public broadcaster SVT after the Russian invasion found that only 41 per cent of Swedish citizens supported joining the alliance.
Evidence of Russian war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere didn’t make much difference. A few days before the governing Social Democratic Party decided to apply for membership, Dagens Nyheter was reporting ‘no stable majority for Sweden to join Nato’. The Swedish elite, however, are in favour. In Dagens Nyheter, the veteran journalist Bengt Lindroth put the case for joining. He said it would serve the wider goal of European integration, and, bizarrely, that it would ‘reduce dependence on the US’.
Through the Cold War, Sweden and Finland’s studied neutrality was seen as an important part of their defence policy. Non-alignment never meant taking a position equidistant between the US-dominated west and the Soviet Union, but it wasn’t empty rhetoric either. When the 1958 Finnish parliamentary election produced a coalition government that discomfited Soviet leaders, the withdrawal of the Soviet ambassador contributed to the dissolution of the cabinet. A new government was formed that was more to Moscow’s liking.
In the mid-1990s Finland and Sweden joined Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme as well as the European Union. There has been increased military co-operation over the past decade. Sweden made modest contributions to American-directed training missions in Iraq. Both countries signed Host Nation Support agreements with Nato in 2014. Both joined the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force and have participated in the Nato military training exercise Cold Response in Norway alongside US forces. In January, Finnish F-18s conducted refuelling exercises with US Stratotankers.
The US has been interested in a Nordic expansion for some time, but to satisfy American planners Finland and Sweden will have to show they are not net burdens to the alliance, given Finland’s long land border with Russia. Finland’s most recent military budget was much larger than usual, perhaps above the minimum levels desired by the US. But over the past twenty years it has averaged about 1.4 per cent of GDP. The Swedish average is around 1.2 per cent. For Finland, the fact that a large part of the male population goes through conscript infantry training, and is therefore available as a reserve, changes the picture. But the US will want more from both countries to free its hand for projects further east.
Should Finland and Sweden join Nato, there will be more purchases of American military equipment, larger military budgets and probably less social spending. This has already started. In December, Biden praised Finland’s decision to buy 64 F-35 fighter jets and said the $11 billion deal would pave the way for closer US-Finnish ties.
In the Baltic Sea, formal alliances with Finland and Sweden might be useful to American power. A 2019 RAND Corporation report commissioned by the Department of Defense noted ‘the potential to entice Russia into costly investments’ in the Baltic. Finnish and Swedish corvettes and fast-attack craft outnumber Russia’s small Baltic surface fleet. They also have more submarines there. For its part, the UK would welcome more enthusiastic partners in what British security planners refer to as ‘high north’. At Nato’s summit in Madrid on 15 May, Liz Truss spoke of the alliance taking ‘a global outlook protecting Indo-Pacific as well as Euro-Atlantic security’.
Russia has inflicted many strategic defeats on itself during its adventure in Ukraine. The taste for co-operating with American designs has never been greater among European elites. Disputes between the European Commission and Poland have been shelved. The US can again describe itself as the ‘arsenal of democracy’ even though, in the Middle East at least, it would be better described as ‘the arsenal of military dictatorship’. Finland and Sweden joining Nato might be another blow to Russia. But the expansion is by no means assured.
New members must be approved by existing members, including Turkey, that noted defender of democracy. Sweden in particular has attracted Turkey’s displeasure by opposing its brutal campaign of oppression in the majority-Kurdish south-east, where as recently as 2016 the Turkish army was destroying historic cities. Turkish diplomats are demanding that Sweden change its policies towards Kurdish political movements, and that it extradite thirty members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey calls a terrorist organisation. The US is trying to finesse the dispute but Nato’s structure allows Erdoğan to hold up the Nordic expansion indefinitely.
An irony of the Finnish/Swedish decision is that, while ostensibly based on the need to defend against Russian aggression, their applications have been made just when the threat from Russia appears diminished. During the Cold War, when the threat from Moscow was indisputably greater, real protection demanded neutrality. It is only after the Russian army has demonstrated its incompetence in Ukraine that Swedish and Finnish leaders feel secure enough to join an apparently defensive Nato.