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Ruling parties in Sweden, Finland back NATO membership in historic shifts

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/15/2022 John Hudson, Loveday Morris, Victoria Bisset, Miriam Berger
Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Finland's President Sauli Niinisto arrive to attend a joint news conference on Finland's security policy decisions at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, May 15, 2022. © Lehtikuva/Via Reuters Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Finland's President Sauli Niinisto arrive to attend a joint news conference on Finland's security policy decisions at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, May 15, 2022.

BERLIN — Sweden’s ruling party dropped the country’s historic military nonalignment on Sunday and agreed to join NATO, shortly after Finland’s leaders officially announced they would do the same.

The moves were major steps in ending decades of military neutrality for the two Nordic nations, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued to dramatically shift security considerations in Europe.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said their accession would be a “turning point for security” in Europe. “Their membership in NATO would increase our shared security, demonstrate that NATO’s door is open, and that aggression does not pay.”

“We’re now facing a fundamentally changed security environment in Europe,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said. “And when we navigate in this new environment, the fundamental question for us is: How do we best protect Sweden? And the Kremlin has shown that they are prepared to use violence to achieve their political objectives and that they don’t hesitate to take enormous risks.”

“Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is not only illegal and indefensible, it also undermines the European security order,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said. While the country’s “200-year-long standing policy of military nonalignment has served Sweden well,” the nation now faced a “fundamental change,” she said. “As a member of NATO, Sweden not only achieves more security, but also contributes to more security.”

Speaking at a news conference earlier in Helsinki alongside Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto described Sunday as a “historic day.”

The decision still needs to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries, but that is considered largely a formality. Once formal requests are submitted, each of NATO’s 30 member nations must approve, a process that could take months or longer.

NATO is a “collective self-defense” alliance, binding member countries to come to the aid of any other NATO nation under assault. At the heart of the organization is Article 5, which says that “an armed attack against one or more” members “shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Among Russia’s preinvasion demands was a rollback of NATO’s “open door” policy, under which countries once part of the Soviet Union have joined the alliance. Instead of a rollback, the Russian invasion appears to be producing further expansion, right on Russia’s roughly 800-mile border with Finland.

Sweden had been closely coordinating with Helsinki on its decision to join the military alliance.

Russia is furious that Finland is joining NATO but can’t do much about it

While giving a green light, Sweden’s Social Democratic Party noted in a statement its opposition to deploying nuclear weapons or permanent bases on Swedish soil as part of the military alliance.

Both decisions represent a seminal shift in military thinking on the continent following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Amid threats from Moscow over NATO’s eastern expansion, Finland had held back from joining NATO since it was formed in 1949.

But since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in late February, support for joining NATO has surged among the Finnish public. Meanwhile, with Russia bogged down with the war in Ukraine, calculations over Moscow’s ability to retaliate have also shifted.

“Finland will maximize its security,” Niinisto said.


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

“In Finland, we still have the parliamentary process ahead of us,” Marin said, “but I trust the Parliament will debate this historic decision with determination and responsibility.”

From neutral to NATO: How Finland, Sweden shifted over Russia invasion

The announcements came as NATO foreign ministers and those of Finland, Sweden and Ukraine met in Berlin to discuss the Nordic countries’ path to membership and military assistance to Kyiv.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “very confident” that NATO would reach consensus on admitting Sweden and Finland to the military alliance. “I heard almost across the board very strong support” for adding the Nordic countries, he said.

Blinken did not offer a timeline for their accession, noting that the organization has a “process.”

Finland’s leaders said Thursday that the countries should join NATO without delay, but the formal decision came Sunday after the president and a committee on foreign and security policy finalized a report on Finland’s accession to the alliance. The report will be submitted to Parliament on Monday.

Sweden’s course was also advanced last week, when the ruling party leadership presented a paper exploring the pros and cons of NATO membership.

In Finland, the war in Ukraine has resurfaced memories of its own military history with Moscow, notably the Soviet Union’s 1939 invasion in what became known as the “Winter War.” Then, vastly outgunned Finnish forces inflicted heavy losses on Soviet troops, using molotov cocktails to destroy advancing tanks. Still, the war resulted in the loss of about 10 percent of Finnish territory.

When NATO was formed with the intention of balancing the security threats from the Soviet Union and its allies, Finland and Sweden chose instead to adopt a position of neutrality and nonalignment.

For Putin, the two countries’ shift represents a significant blowback from his invasion.

“Russia has created what the Russian president always wanted to prevent,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Sunday. Two countries that did not intend to join NATO before the Feb. 24 invasion are now “very likely” to do so, she said.

NATO requires unanimity on the approval of new members, and Turkey has expressed skepticism over admitting Finland and Sweden to the alliance. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized the countries as “home to many terrorist organizations.”

The comments — referring mainly to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization known as the PKK — were seen as a threat by Turkey to veto any NATO expansion.

U.S. officials are hoping to smooth out differences within the alliance, and Blinken spoke to Turkey’s foreign minister on Sunday but said he did not want to “characterize” those discussions.

In response to questions about whether Turkey will block or significantly delay membership for the Nordic countries, Stoltenberg expressed confidence that NATO would move swiftly.

“Turkey has made it clear: Their intention is not to block membership. Therefore, I am confident we’ll be able to address the concerns that Turkey has expressed in a way that doesn’t delay the accession process,” he said, without offering a specific timeline.

Baerbock also said the two countries could join “very quickly” if they made that decision.

“Our doors are more than open, and if their parliaments and their societies are going to decide to join NATO, this will make us even stronger,” she said. Germany is prepared to do everything it can for a “quick ratification process,” she added.

During the Berlin meeting, Blinken also met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to discuss military aid for Ukraine and the continuation of food exports to the developing world.

“More weapons and other aid is on the way to Ukraine,” Kuleba tweeted after the meeting. “We agreed to work closely together to ensure that Ukrainian food exports reach consumers in Africa and Asia.”

The State Department said Blinken discussed “details regarding the latest tranche of U.S. security assistance to bolster Ukraine’s defenses” and potential solutions to exporting Ukraine’s grain to international markets. The ongoing fighting in Ukraine, a major food exporter, has been linked to rising food prices and inflation in the developing world.

President Biden is expected to sign a $40 billion security package for Ukraine in the coming days after passage in the Senate.

Bisset reported from the United Kingdom.

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