STOCKHOLM ( Associated Press) – Key decision-makers in non-aligned Finland and Sweden are set to announce their positions on NATO membership this week, which could deal a serious blow to Russia as its military struggles to gain decisive gains in Ukraine.
If Finland’s president and the Social Democrats who govern both countries ignore Moscow’s warnings and come out in favor of a merger, NATO could soon have two new members at Russia’s doorstep.
Such an expansion by a Western military alliance would leave Russia surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic, as well as representing a serious setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin cited NATO’s previous expansion in Eastern Europe – and the possibility of Ukraine joining the coalition – among the reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. On Monday, they marked Victory Day – the holiday when Russia commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War I. II – without being able to celebrate any major success in Ukraine.
Joining NATO would be a historic development for the two Nordic countries: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland has adopted neutrality after its defeat by the Soviet Union in World War II.
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NATO membership in Stockholm and Helsinki was never seriously considered until Russian forces invaded Ukraine more than 10 weeks ago. Almost overnight, the conversation in both capitals “why should we join?” transferred from To “How long does it take?”
Along with harsh Ukrainian resistance and widespread Western sanctions, it is one of the most significant ways in which an attack on Putin has backfired.
“There’s no going back to the status quo before the invasion,” said Heli Hautala, a Finnish diplomat previously stationed in Moscow and a research fellow at a new US security center in Washington.
Finnish President Souli Niinisto, the Western leader who had the best relations with Putin before the Ukraine war, is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership on Thursday. The governing Social Democratic parties in both countries are set to present their positions later this week.
If their answer is “yes”, there will be a strong majority in both parliaments for NATO membership, paving the way for the immediate start of formal application processes.
The Finnish Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, are likely to join other parties in Finland to support the NATO application. The situation in Sweden is not as clear.
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The Swedish Social Democrats have always been committed to non-alignment. But the party’s leader, Prime Minister Magdalena Anderson, has said there is a clear “before and after 24 February”.
Anderson and other top Social Democrats are believed to be leaning towards NATO membership, but several subgroups of the party have come out against it, including a women’s faction led by Climate and Environment Minister Annika Strandhall.
“We believe that being non-aligned militarily serves our interests best,” Strandhall told Swedish broadcaster TV4. “Traditionally, Sweden has been a strong voice for peace and disarmament.”
Neither Finland nor Sweden is planning a referendum, fearing it could become a prime target of Russian interference.
Sweden and Finland have sought and received assurances of support from the US and other NATO members during the application period for membership.
Both countries feel they will be vulnerable in the interim, before they are covered by the coalition’s one-for-all security guarantee.
The Kremlin has warned of “military and political repercussions” if Sweden and the Finns decide to join NATO.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said last month that it would force Moscow to strengthen its military presence in the Baltic region.
However, analysts say military action against the Nordic countries seems unlikely, given how Russian forces are trapped in Ukraine.
Hautala said several Russian troops stationed near the 1,300-kilometre (830 mi) border with Finland were deported to Ukraine and suffered “significant losses” there.
She said possible Russian retaliatory measures could include weapons systems closer to Finland, propaganda campaigns, cyberattacks, economic retaliation and steering migration towards the Russian-Finnish border, as happened last year on Poland’s border with Belarus. .
There are signs that Russia has already turned its attention to Sweden and Finland, with several airspace violations by Russian military aircraft reported in recent weeks and Nazi sympathies to Sweden, with an apparent campaign in Moscow. As are the posters depicting Putin used similar tactics against Ukraine’s leaders before the Kremlin launched its “special military operation”.
See more: Analyzing Russia’s views on Ukraine, NATO and the use of nuclear weapons
After decades of standing firmly against membership, public opinion changed sharply in both countries this year. More than 70% of Finns and almost 50% of Swedes are now in favor of joining.
The shocking scenes going on in Ukraine led the Finns to conclude that “this could happen to us,” said Charlie Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, while Sweden already had a tradition of neutrality by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But both countries built strong military-based armed forces to counter any Soviet threat. Sweden also had a nuclear weapons program but ended it in the 1960s.
The threat of a conflict escalated in October 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground off the coast of southwestern Sweden. Eventually the sub was pulled back into the sea, ending a tense standoff between the Swedish army and the Soviet rescue fleet.
As Russia’s military power declined in the 1990s, Finland kept its guard high, while Sweden, seeing the potential for conflict with Russia, reduced its military and shifted its focus away from regional defense to the conflict. Shifted towards peace missions in the areas.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted Sweden to re-evaluate the security situation. They began recruiting again and rebuilding defensive capabilities, including the strategically important Baltic Sea island of Gotland.
Defense analysts say Finland and Sweden have modern and capable armed forces that will significantly enhance NATO’s capabilities in northern Europe. Finnish and Swedish armies train with NATO so often that they are essentially interchangeable.
Adding new members typically takes months, as those decisions need to be approved by all 30 NATO members. But in the case of Finland and Sweden, the accession process could be done “in a couple of weeks”, according to a NATO official, who informed journalists on the condition that they would not be identified as no application was made by the two countries. Is.
“These are not normal times,” he said.
Lorne Cook contributed to this Brussels report.