Sweden is on the verge of applying for NATO membership after its Scandinavian neighbour Finland said it would open a debate on joining the security alliance.
Sweden’s prime minister Magdalena Andersson is understood to be eager for the country to join the trans-Atlantic alliance by June, to the fury of Vladimir Putin who invaded Ukraine in part for its desire to join to the pact.
The application is expected to be submitted by the NATO meeting in Madrid on June 29-20, Swedish reports say.
Similarly, Finland is hoping to start its application process ‘within weeks, not within months’, with a decision expected soon on the country’s security.
A Finnish government report released today that examines the ‘fundamentally changed’ security environment will now make its way through parliament, followed by a debate next week, and is expected to form the basis of their decision.
Today, Andersson hosted her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin in Stockholm for a meeting on their prospective memberships of the alliance.
Marin said: ‘There are different perspectives to apply (for) NATO membership or not to apply and we have to analyse these very carefully.
‘But I think our process will be quite fast, it will happen in weeks.’
The assault on Ukraine sparked a dramatic U-turn in public and political opinion in Finland and neighbouring Sweden regarding their long-held policies of military non-alignment.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (left) and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin walk together prior to a meeting on whether to seek NATO membership today
Rattled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland will kickstart a debate that could lead to seeking NATO membership, a move that would infuriate Moscow
Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (pictured with European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on April 7) is understood to be eager for the country to join the trans-Atlantic alliance by June this year
Attempting to join NATO would almost certainly be seen as a provocation by Moscow, for whom the alliance’s expansion on its borders has been a prime security grievance.
Former prime minister and long-time NATO advocate Alexander Stubb said he believes Finland making a membership application is ‘a foregone conclusion’.
Finland has a long history with Russia. In 1917 it declared independence after 150 years of Russian rule.
During World War II, its vastly outnumbered army fought off a Soviet invasion, before a peace deal saw it cede several border areas to the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, Finland remained neutral in exchange for guarantees from Moscow that it would not invade.
So the turnaround in sentiment on NATO would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
As recently as January, Marin said membership was ‘very unlikely’ during her term.
But after two decades of public support for membership remaining steady at 20-30 per cent, the war caused a huge surge.
Recent surveys by a Finnish market research company put 84 per cent of Finns as viewing Russia as a ‘significant military threat’, up by 25 per cent on last year.
Finland is hoping to start its application process ‘within weeks, not within months’, with a decision expected soon on the country’s security
Andersson hosted her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin in Stockholm for a meeting on their prospective memberships of the alliance
Andersson is understood to be eager for the country to join the trans-Atlantic alliance by June
Former prime minister and long-time NATO advocate Alexander Stubb (pictured) has said he believes Finland making a membership application is ‘a foregone conclusion’
In response, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov euphemistically warned the move would ‘not improve’ the security situation in Europe, and Moscow lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov added more bluntly it would mean ‘the destruction of the country’.
‘We have repeatedly said that the alliance remains a tool geared towards confrontation and its further expansion will not bring stability to the European continent,’ Peskov said.
Public statements gathered by newspaper Helsingin Sanomat suggest half of Finland’s 200 MPs now support membership while only 12 oppose.
Others say they will announce a position after detailed discussions.
The government said it hopes to build a parliamentary consensus over the coming weeks, with MPs due to hear from a number of security experts.
Marin expects a decision ‘before midsummer’, with many analysts predicting Finland could submit a bid in time for a NATO summit in June.
Any membership bid must be accepted by all 30 NATO states, a process that could take four months to a year.
Finland has so far received public assurances from secretary general Jens Stoltenberg that NATO’s door remains open, and several members’ support.
Russia has threatened a similar response to Finland as the horrors seen in Ukraine if it seeks to join NATO
A view of a residential building destroyed as a result of shellfire in Ukraine, which Russia has threatened on Finland
Unlike Finland, Sweden shares no land border with Russia and the two countries have not been at war for two centuries.
Nonetheless, pro-NATO sentiment is also rising among Swedes who ‘are realising that they might find themselves in the same position as Ukraine, a lot of sympathy but no military help,’ said Robert Dalsjo, research director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency.
Many commentators expect Sweden and Finland will act in tandem on whether to join, but their leaders stressed they may reach differing decisions.
Sweden’s ruling party this week announced a review of its long-held opposition to joining NATO.
‘For the Social Democrats in Sweden to change opinion [on NATO] is like changing religion,’ former Finnish PM Alexander Stubb said. ‘And I’m not talking Protestant to Catholic, I’m talking Christian to Muslim.’
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto said Russia’s response could include airspace, territorial violations and hybrid attacks, which Finnish NATO proponents believe the country is well prepared to withstand.
‘Russia will most certainly huff and puff,’ Dalsjo said, but added: ‘I don’t think they will do anything violent.
‘However, in the mood that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is right now, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely.’