The Finnish government officially announced its intention to join NATO on Sunday, as Sweden’s ruling party was to hold a decisive meeting that could pave the way for a joint application.
Less than three months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the move is a stunning reversal of Finland’s policy on military non-alignment dating back more than 75 years.
Sweden, which has been militarily non-aligned for more than two centuries, is expected to follow suit with a similar announcement, possibly on Monday.
“Today, the President of the Republic and the Government’s Foreign Policy Committee have jointly agreed that Finland will apply for NATO membership, after consulting parliament,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Sunday.
“This is a historic day. A new era is opening”, Niinisto said.
Despite last-minute objections by Turkey, NATO members are on “good track” in their discussions on welcoming Sweden and Finland into the Western military alliance, Croatia’s foreign minister, Gordan Grlic Radman, said as he arrived for talks with NATO counterparts in Berlin.
Finland’s parliament will convene to debate the membership proposal on Monday.
“We hope the parliament will confirm the decision to apply for NATO membership during the coming days. It will be based on a strong mandate”, premier Marin said.
An overwhelming majority of Finnish MPs back the decision after Marin’s Social Democratic Party on Saturday said it was in favour of joining.
“Hopefully, we can send our applications next week together with Sweden,” Marin had said on Saturday.
The two Nordic countries broke their strict neutralities after the end of the Cold War by joining the EU and becoming partners to NATO in the 1990s, solidifying their affiliation with the West.
But the concept of full NATO membership was a non-starter in the countries until the war in Ukraine saw public and political support for joining the alliance soar.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, has been leading the charge, while Sweden appears anxious at being the only non-NATO country around the Baltic Sea.
Finland is also Sweden’s closest defence cooperation partner.
Many Swedish politicians have said their support is conditional on Finland joining.
On Saturday, the Finnish head of state phoned his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin to inform him of his country’s desire to join NATO, in a conversation described as “direct and straightforward”.
“Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto said in a statement after the call.
But Putin responded by warning that joining NATO “would be a mistake since there is no threat to Finland’s security”, according to a Kremlin statement.
Moscow has repeatedly warned both countries of consequences if they join NATO.
Niinisto said Sunday that while Helsinki expects Russia to respond to its decision, “little by little, I’m beginning to think that we’re not going to face actual military operations.”
“After the phone call with Putin, I think so even more.”
– No other choice –
According to recent polls, the number of Finns who want to join the alliance has risen to over three-quarters, almost triple the level seen before the war in Ukraine.
In Sweden, support has also risen dramatically, to around 50 percent — with about 20 percent against.
Sweden’s Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, were meeting Sunday to decide whether the party should abandon its historic stance against joining, last reaffirmed at the party’s annual congress in November.
A green light from the party would secure a firm parliamentary majority in favour of joining.
While the party’s leading politicians have seemed ready to reverse the decision, critical voices within have denounced the change in policy as rushed.
But analysts say it is unlikely that the party will oppose the move.
NATO membership needs to be approved and ratified by all 30 members of the alliance.
While Finland and Sweden claim to have received favourable signals from Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday expressed hostility to the idea.
Turkey’s objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be the countries’ leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations.
Niinisto said Sunday he was “prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised”.
At NATO’s meeting in Berlin, Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said he was “absolutely certain that we will find a solution”, while Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said “the signs don’t look bad” for Sweden and Finland.
Five things to know about Finland and Sweden joining NATO
Stockholm (AFP) May 15, 2022 –
After decades of staying out of military alliances, Finland on Sunday officially announced it would apply for NATO membership, with neighbouring Sweden expected to follow suit soon.
The two Nordic countries have expressed a desire to act in unison and submit their applications jointly, in a move seen as a deterrent against aggression from Russia.
– Historic U-turns –
For decades, a majority of Swedes and Finns were in favour of maintaining their policies of military non-alignment.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 sparked a sharp U-turn.
The change was especially dramatic in Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia.
After two decades during which public support for NATO membership remained steady at 20-30 percent, polls now suggest that more than 75 percent of Finns are in favour.
During the Cold War, Finland remained neutral in exchange for assurances from Moscow that it would not invade. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Finland remained militarily non-aligned.
Sweden, meanwhile, adopted an official policy of neutrality at the end of the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century.
Following the end of the Cold War, the neutrality policy was amended to one of military non-alignment.
– Close NATO partners –
While remaining outside NATO, both Sweden and Finland have formed ever-closer ties to the Alliance. Both joined the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 and then the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997.
Both countries are described by the Alliance as some of “NATO’s most active partners” and have contributed to NATO-led peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sweden’s and Finland’s forces also regularly take part in exercises with NATO countries and have close ties with Nordic neighbours Norway, Denmark and Iceland — which are all NATO members.
– Sweden’s military –
For a long time, Swedish policy dictated that the country needed a strong military to protect its neutrality.
But after the end of the Cold War, it drastically slashed its defence spending, turning its military focus toward peacekeeping operations around the world.
In 1990, defence spending accounted for 2.6 percent of gross domestic product, shrinking to 1.2 percent by 2020, according to the government.
Mandatory military service was scrapped in 2010, but reintroduced in 2017 as part of Sweden’s rearmament following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Combining its different branches, the Swedish military can field some 50,000 soldiers, about half of whom are reservists.
In March 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden announced it would increase spending again, targeting two percent of GDP “as soon as possible”.
– Finland’s military –
While Finland has also made some defence cuts, in contrast to Sweden it has maintained a much larger army since the end of the Cold War.
The country of 5.5 million people now has a wartime strength of 280,000 troops plus 600,000 reservists, making it significantly larger than any of its Nordic neighbours despite a population half the size of Sweden’s.
In early April, Finland announced it would further boost its military spending, adding more than two billion euros ($2.1 billion) over the next four years. It has a defence budget of 5.1 billion euros for 2022.
– Memories of war –
While Sweden has sent forces to international peacekeeping missions, it has not gone to war for over 200 years.
The last conflict it fought was the Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814. It maintained its neutral stance through the two World Wars.
Finland’s memories of warfare are much fresher. In 1939, it was invaded by the Soviet Union.
Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, which took place during one of the coldest winters in recorded history.
But it was ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of its eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.
A 1948 “friendship agreement” saw the Soviets agree not to invade again, as long as Finland stayed out of any Western defence cooperation.
The country’s forced neutrality to appease its stronger neighbour coined the term “Finlandization”.
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Will Finland and Sweden join NATO? Five things to know
Stockholm (AFP) May 10, 2022
After decades of staying out of military alliances, Finland and Sweden are about to decide whether to apply to join NATO, as a deterrent against aggression from Eastern neighbour Russia.
The Nordic neighbours are expected to act in unison, with both expressing a desire for their applications to be submitted simultaneously if they decide to go that route.
– Historic U-turns –
For decades, a majority of Swedes and Finns were in favour of maintaining their policies of military non-alignment. … read more