BRUSSELS (AP) — This could be the fastest NATO expansion ever and will redraw the security map of Europe. Finnish leader announced on Thursday They think Finland should join the world’s largest military organization because Russia’s war in Ukraine. Sweden may soon follow.
If they apply to join, the move would have far-reaching implications for Nordic and transatlantic security.
It will no doubt anger their big neighbor Russia, too, which blames its war in Ukraine at least in part on NATO’s continued expansion into its borders. It is unclear how Russian President Vladimir Putin might retaliate. The Kremlin said on Thursday that it would certainly not improve security in Europe.
Below is a brief overview of Finland and Sweden’s membership in the 30-nation NATO alliance, with the Nordic partners expected to announce their intention to join within days.
Finland and Sweden
Unlike Switzerland, Finland and Sweden traditionally consider themselves “non-aligned” militarily.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine and Putin’s apparent desire to create a Moscow-centered “sphere of influence” have fundamentally shaken their notions of security. Just days after he ordered the February 24 invasion, public opinion changed dramatically.
Finnish support for joining NATO has hovered around 20-30% for many years. It is now over 70%. The two countries are NATO’s closest partners, but maintaining good relations with Russia has been an important part of their foreign policy, especially for Finland.
Now they want the security support of NATO countries — mainly the United States — in case Moscow retaliates. Britain pledged on Wednesday to help them.
The two countries, joining NATO and joining regional neighbors Denmark, Norway and Iceland, will formalize their joint security and defense efforts in a way that the Nordic Defense Cooperation Agreement does not.
NORDEFCO is known to focus on collaboration. Working within NATO means placing forces under joint command.
Joining will strengthen Nordic strategic control of the Baltic Sea – Russia’s sea route to the city of St Petersburg and its Kaliningrad enclave.
Finland and Sweden have joined them, along with Iceland, at the center of a triangle formed by the North Atlantic and Arctic seas, to which Russia projects military power from the north of the Kola Peninsula. NATO’s comprehensive military planning will become simpler, making the region easier to defend.
Finland and Sweden are NATO’s closest partners. They contributed to coalition operations and air policing.
Most importantly, they already meet NATO membership criteria, including well-functioning democracies, good-neighborly relations, clear borders, and armed forces aligned with allies. After the invasion, they formally increased their exchange of information with NATO and participated in every meeting on war issues.
Both sides are modernizing their armed forces and investing in new equipment. Finland is procuring dozens of high-end F-35 fighter jets. Sweden has the best quality fighter Gripen.
Finland says it has met the NATO defense spending guideline of 2 percent of gross domestic product. Sweden is also increasing its military budget, which it expects to hit by 2028. NATO’s average last year was estimated at 1.6 percent.
Putin demanded that NATO stop expanding and blamed the war on the West in a May 9 speech.
But public opinion in Finland and Sweden suggests he has pushed them into the arms of NATO.
If Finland joins, it would double the length of the alliance’s border with Russia and increase Moscow’s defenses by another 1,300 kilometers (830 miles).
Putin promised a “military, technical” response if they joined. But Western officials said many troops from Russia’s western regions close to Finland were sent to Ukraine, and those troops suffered heavy casualties.
So far, Moscow has taken no apparent steps to dissuade the pair — except perhaps for a few incidents of Russian planes entering its airspace. The Kremlin said on Thursday that its response could depend on how far NATO infrastructure moves toward the Russian border.
Some in NATO fear Russia could deploy nuclear weapons or more hypersonic missiles to the Kaliningrad enclave, which straddles the Baltic Sea and is sandwiched between allies Poland and Lithuania.
Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.