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Finland, Sweden Apply for NATO Membership, Breaking Decades of Neutrality

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/18/2022 Sune Engel Rasmussen
© Juuso Westerlund/INSTITUTE for The Wall Street Journal

Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on Wednesday, a move that, if approved, would fundamentally transform the security landscape of Northern Europe and give the alliance a valuable edge against Russia following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The two Nordic countries’ bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization breaks with a decadeslong defense doctrine that has seen them balance political and security partnerships with other Western nations while staying out of formal military alliances.

Finnish Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen and his Swedish counterpart Axel Wernhoff personally handed the applications to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Wednesday morning, according to live footage broadcast on Finnish television.

“This is a good day at a critical moment for our security,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “Every nation has the right to choose its own path.”

Finland and Sweden are already NATO’s closest allies, cooperating on missions and exercises. But their official accession would fill the largest remaining gap in NATO’s map of Europe, and do so in an increasingly volatile part of the continent. With Arctic ice melting and shipping increasing near the North Pole, air and naval activity in the region has increased over recent years. The Baltic Sea—Russian vessels’ shortest route to the Atlantic Ocean—would become overwhelmingly controlled by NATO allies.

The announcement was expected after the Finnish and Swedish ruling parties over the weekend gave their support for NATO applications, capping weeks of swift political decision making and a significant pivot in public opinion among Finns and Swedes who now overwhelmingly support joining the alliance, hoping such a move will deter Russia from any aggression on their soil.

Achieving NATO membership, even for countries as well suited as Finland and Sweden, is a multistep process. After stating its intent to join, an applicant country will meet teams of NATO experts in Brussels to ensure the preconditions for membership have been met.

Then it is up to all current member states to ratify accession protocols that permit the invited countries to become parties to the so-called Washington Treaty, which forms the legal basis for NATO. Most countries require parliamentary approval to ratify the protocols, and even though many nations have said they are willing to quickly accept Sweden and Finland as members, political circumstances in individual countries could slow the process down.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he isn’t in favor of Sweden and Finland joining NATO due to the presence of alleged Kurdish militants in the two countries. Turkish officials have in recent days demanded that the Nordic countries crack down on networks they claim are connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged a long-running insurgency against the Turkish state and is labeled a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the U.S.

Mr. Erdogan told members of his party on Wednesday that he had concerns about what he said was Sweden’s alleged refusal to hand over alleged terrorists.

“NATO’s enlargement is meaningful to us to the extent that it respects our sensitivities,” he said. “We are one of the top countries that actively support the activities of the [NATO] alliance, but this does not mean that we will say ‘yes’ to every proposal without question,” Mr. Erdogan said.

Turkey is blocking the start of the accession talks for Finland and Sweden, according to a European diplomat familiar with the issue. All of NATO’s 29 other members support a quick start to the talks, according to diplomats.

The Turkish government has also sought in recent months to leverage its role in backing Ukraine militarily while facilitating Russian-Ukrainian peace talks to pressure Western countries into offering concessions. Turkish officials hope that President Biden will push Congress to approve the sale of a new fleet of F-16 warplanes requested by Ankara.

“We’re confident that at the end of the day, Finland and Sweden will have an effective and efficient accession process and that Turkey’s concerns can be addressed,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday. “Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey to do this, but we’re also talking to the Turks to try to help facilitate.”

The Swedish and Finnish leaders will meet Mr. Biden at the White House Thursday to discuss the path forward and compare notes on efforts to support Ukraine, Mr. Sullivan said.

Video: Finland's leaders call for NATO membership 'without delay' (Associated Press)

“Two nations with a long tradition of neutrality will be joining the world’s most powerful defensive alliance, and they will bring with them strong capabilities and a proven track record as security partners,” he told reporters.

The fastest accession process so far was four months, for Greece and Turkey, in 1952, when the alliance had 12 members, according to NATO.

Finnish officials say they expect the process to take between four and 12 months.

“This is something we have to be prepared for,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said in an interview.

Adding Finland and Sweden would cap an eight-year rejuvenation of NATO, which rediscovered its purpose after Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, and could herald a new, stronger era for the alliance.

“This is a return in the West from a 30-year Cold War hangover—a strategic slumber—to the realization that the world is a horrible place where people will try to kill you, and the more you can defend yourself, the better,” said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research institute in London.

Finland, despite being a close partner of NATO, has insisted on remaining nonaligned, largely to placate Russia, with which it shares an 830-mile border and has fought a bloody war eight decades ago that remains a bitter memory for the country.

“This is a watershed moment in Finnish history,” said Matti Pesu, an expert on Northern European security with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. “It is the first formal military alliance in Finnish history.”

Sweden’s opposition to NATO membership has been more ideological, rooted in an ambition to be a global peacemaker and a vocal proponent of nuclear disarmament. Sweden hasn't fought a war at home for two centuries, since Russia invaded the country in 1808, launching a war that ended with the annexation of what would later become Finland.

Still, both countries are well-prepared for NATO membership. Since 1995, their forces have participated in NATO operations and ensured their military equipment can function with the alliance’s gear.

Unlike the 14 countries that joined NATO after the end of the Cold War, neither Finland nor Sweden need significant adaptation to meet the alliance’s requirements. The Nordic countries already have advanced militaries, well-trained forces and developed arms industries. Finland this year raised its military spending to meet NATO’s target of 2% of gross domestic product on defense by 2024, as only eight current members now do. Sweden, which has recently raised its spending plans, says it can reach that target by 2028.

Finland has one of Europe’s largest armed forces per capita, with nearly a million reservists in total, from a population of 5.5 million, and Western Europe’s largest artillery force comprising about 1,500 cannons.

Their membership of the EU, which also has defense cooperation, has only tied the countries closer to NATO. But without membership, they have no formal influence on NATO’s defense planning.

When Finland is invited to serious discussions at NATO, “we feel that we have a seat at the children’s table, and then when the adults carry on talking about adults’ business—territorial defense, nuclear weapons or whatever, they send us to sleep,” said Janne Kuusela, director general for defense policy at Finland’s Defense Ministry. “So it will be a big change for us to have a seat and voice in NATO’s discussions and decision-making.”

The two new members would significantly boost NATO’s operational capabilities by allowing the alliance to treat the Nordics, Baltics and the Arctic as one coherent area, said Jyri Raitasalo, head of the strategic planning sector at the Finnish Defense Command who also works at the Finnish National Defense University.

Membership would also change the military balance in Northern Europe. In case of war, Russia might seek to penetrate Finland and Sweden on its way to northern Norway to get its submarines into the upper reaches of the North Atlantic, said Martti J. Kari, a former assistant chief of Finnish military intelligence.

“If Finland and Sweden join NATO, it’s comprehensive,” said Mr. Kari. “It’s like a Nordic fortress.”

Finland’s Russia border—250 miles from St. Petersburg—runs close to the Kola Peninsula, where Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet is based. With Finland among its ranks, NATO could force Russia to spread its forces more thinly, analysts say.

“All we have to do is have an exercise with 100,000 troops in Finland, and our friend to the east would have to amass forces on the other side of the border,” said Mr. Alberque.

While Finland and Sweden go through the application process, they are at heightened risk of Russian retribution, of which Moscow has warned in the past. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday said he did not have an issue with Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO, as long as they didn’t station NATO bases and weapons there. The U.K. last week signed declarations with both countries “to reinforce their security and fortify Northern Europe’s defenses.”

Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said that during the interim before the formal accession, Sweden and the U.S. plan naval patrols near the Baltic Sea.

Mr. Hultqvist, who met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused a “fundamental change in the security environment” across Europe.

“We have to live with that for many, many years,” Mr. Hultqvist told The Wall Street Journal in Washington. “Russia has a low threshold for using military resources to fulfill political goals.”

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at


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