Crucial NATO decisions expected in Finland, Sweden this week

STOCKHOLM (AP) — To participate or not? The NATO issue comes to a head this week in Finland and Sweden, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered the long-held belief that staying out of the military alliance was the best way to avoid trouble with their giant neighbor.

If the Finnish president and the ruling Social Democrats in both countries come out in favor of accession in the coming days, NATO could soon add two members right on the doorstep of Russia.

That would be a historic development for the two Scandinavian countries: Sweden has avoided military alliances for over 200 years, while Finland assumed neutrality after being defeated by the Soviet Union in World War II.

NATO membership was never seriously considered in Stockholm and Helsinki until Russian forces attacked Ukraine on February 24. Pretty much overnight, the conversation in both capitals changed from “Why should we join?” to “How long will it take?”

Along with tenacious Ukrainian resistance and far-reaching Western sanctions, it is one of the main ways the invasion appears to have backfired on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

If Finland and Sweden join the alliance, Russia would be completely surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic.

“There is no going back to the status quo before the invasion,” said Heli Hautala, a Finnish diplomat previously stationed in Moscow and a research associate at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, the Western leader who appeared to have the best relationship with Putin before the war in Ukraine, is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership on Thursday. The ruling social democratic parties in both countries will present their positions this weekend.

If their answer is “yes”, there would be firm majorities in both parliaments for NATO membership, paving the way for the formal application processes to start right away.

The Finnish Social Democrats led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin are likely to approve a NATO application along with other parties in Finland. The situation in Sweden is not so clear.

Sweden’s Social Democrats have always been unwavering in favor of non-alignment, but party leader and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has said there is a clear “before and after 24 February”.

The party’s women’s faction, led by Climate and Environment Minister Annika Strandhall, has spoken out against NATO membership.

“We believe that our interests are best served by being militarily non-aligned,” Strandhall told Swedish broadcaster TV4. “Traditionally, Sweden has been a strong voice for peace and disarmament.”

Neither Finland nor Sweden are planning a referendum, fearing it could become a prime target for Russian interference.

Sweden and Finland have requested – and received – guarantees of support from the US and other NATO members during the application period, should they wish to join.

Both countries feel they would be vulnerable in the meantime, before being covered by the alliance’s one-of-a-kind security guarantees.

The Kremlin has warned of “military and political consequences” if the Swedes and Finns decide to join NATO.

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who is deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said last month it would force Moscow to strengthen its military presence in the Baltic region.

However, analysts say military action against the Scandinavian countries seems unlikely, given the stalled Russian troops in Ukraine.

Many of the Russian troops stationed near the 1,300-kilometer border with Finland were sent to Ukraine and suffered “significant losses” there, Hautala said.

She said possible Russian countermeasures could include bringing weapons systems closer to Finland, disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks, economic countermeasures and directing migration to the Russian-Finnish border, similar to what happened at Poland’s border with Belarus last year. Russia.

There are signs that Russia has already increased its focus on Sweden and Finland, with several airspace violations by Russian military aircraft reported in recent weeks and an apparent campaign in Moscow with posters depicting famous Swedes as Nazi sympathizers. Putin used similar tactics against Ukraine’s leaders before launching what the Kremlin called its “special military operation.”

After decades of staunchly opposing membership, public opinion in both countries quickly changed this year. Polls show that more than 70% of Finns and about 50% of Swedes are now in favor of accession.

The shocking scenes that took place in Ukraine led the Finns to conclude that “this could happen to us,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO so as not to provoke the Soviet Union, while Sweden already had a tradition of neutrality dating back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But both countries built robust military forces to face any Soviet threat. Sweden even had a nuclear weapons program, but scrapped it in the 1960s.

The threat of conflict flared up in October 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground off the coast of southwestern Sweden. The submarine was eventually towed back to sea, ending a tense standoff between Swedish troops and a Soviet rescue fleet.

As Russia’s military might waned in the 1990s, Finland kept its guard up, while Sweden, deeming a conflict with Russia increasingly unlikely, downsized its military and shifted its focus from territorial defense to peacekeeping missions in distant conflict zones.

The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 prompted the Swedes to reassess the security situation. They reintroduced conscription and began rebuilding defensive capabilities, including on the strategically important Baltic Sea island of Gotland.

Defense analysts say Finland and Sweden have modern and competent military forces that would significantly increase NATO capabilities in Northern Europe. Finnish and Swedish troops train with NATO so often that they are essentially interoperable.

Adding new members usually takes months, as those decisions must be ratified by all 30 NATO members. But in the case of Finland and Sweden, the accession process could be completed “within weeks,” said a NATO official who informed reporters on the condition that he not be identified because the two countries did not apply.

“These are not normal times,” he says.

Lorne Cook contributed to this report from Brussels.

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