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Finland and Sweden’s NATO Membership and Stance of Russia

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As it will be recalled, on May 18, 2022, Finland and Sweden decided to formally apply to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The day before, the Finnish Parliament approved the idea of joining NATO. While 188 deputies voted in favor, only 8 deputies voted against it. Afterwards, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden Ann Linde signed the NATO application, which will be submitted on May 18, 2022, along with Finland’s application. In the following process, many states took positive decisions in their parliaments regarding the membership processes of the countries concerned. Currently, it is seen that Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership process is continuing.

However, Sweden has announced that it will not deploy nuclear missiles and foreign military bases in the country by placing reservations to the applications to join the alliance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the accession of two new countries to NATO will not fundamentally change the situation in the region, because the alliance has already been expanding militarily to the east for many years and in this sense operates on the territory of Finland and Sweden.[1]

Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed that the decision taken by the Helsinki and Stockholm administrations does not threaten Russia alone, since Moscow do not have any problems with these states, nevertheless, the expansion of military bases in this region will certainly be retaliated against and the extent of this reaction will determine according to the threat. According to Putin, the expansion of NATO is a problem, and this issue is being deliberately manufactured by the US.[2]

According to Spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova, NATO is dragging European countries into its orbit in a manner contrary to the national interests of these states, and is doing so through pressure and intimidation against the states concerned. Moreover, according to Zaharova, the principles of neutrality established by Finland and Sweden are being destroyed by the alliance.[3]  Zakharova also suggested that if Finland and Sweden join the alliance, good neighborly relations between the Nordic countries and Russia will deteriorate and the Baltic region will turn into an area of conflict.[4]

As is known, for many years, both Sweden and Finland have firmly adhered to the idea of non-alignment. In fact, neutrality has become an element of the national identity of these countries.  At this point, it is necessary to establish a historical framework.    

Up to 200 years ago, Sweden was one of the great European powers.  Afterwards, it turned from a great power into a state focused on creating a comfortable life for its citizens. This process lasted more than two hundred years, and the country first entered the First and Second World Wars, then it witnessed a harsh Cold War period.

Finland’s neutrality, on the other hand, has developed in a very different way. The country, which was connected to the Tsarist Russia in the past, gained its independence in 1917. It has sought balance with its powerful neighbors, especially Russia/the Soviet Union.  It was only after World War II that it chose to develop “special relations” with the world. In the West, this has been called “Finlandization.” This situation includes the case of “protection of sovereignty in exchange for self-restraint.” However, it should be noted that, in the middle and second half of the 20th century, this policy gave Finland a special reputation.

However, after the end of the Cold War, the idea that the issue of neutrality has lost its importance has begun to prevail. Finland and Sweden began to cooperate effectively with NATO in observer status in 1994 under the “Partnership for Peace Programme.” These countries also participate in the non-military part of the alliance’s maneuvers in the Baltic Sea.

The accession of both countries to the EU has also institutionalized Western society, which sets the course for enlargement both in Europe and across the Atlantic. In this period, the spread of Western institutions was accepted as the only possible way to improve the security system and the understanding of “NATO equals security” began to dominate. Although the countries have entered into a close relationship with the Western alliance, it has not been on the agenda for them to officially join the alliance.

To return to the present, Russia’s initiation of negotiations in December 2021 by requesting security guarantees from the US and NATO and the withdrawal of NATO elements from Eastern Europe prompted Finland and Sweden to take action. Despite this, however, the two Northern European countries remained undecided on the point of applying for NATO membership.

After February 24, 2022, that is, following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, discussions about the possibility of abandoning the neutrality policy came to the fore in both Helsinki and Stockholm. Thus, Sweden and Finland have turned to seeking their security not in the “status of neutrality”, but under the security umbrella of a concrete alliance. In fact, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who explained that Ukraine is unlikely to be admitted to NATO in the near future, stated that the alliance is open to Scandinavian countries and that these countries may join the organization in the near future. This statement, on the other hand, has given a new dimension to both the balance of power and the security environment in Northern Europe. Because the accession process of the relevant states is also progressing much faster than expected. The situation has brought about various discussions in Russia regarding the security of the country.

Considering the relationship that the two Scandinavian countries have developed with NATO for many years, according to Russia, the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO alone will not significantly change the military-political situation in Europe.

The reaction of Russia to the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO also depends on the conditionality of the membership of these countries. Unlike Poland and the Baltic countries, Sweden’s refusal to allow the establishment of a NATO base by being content with membership alone will give Moscow some comfort. However, once becoming a member, this policy can always change, which is something that Russian decision-makers take into account. In fact, The Russia-NATO- Founding Act signed in 1997 also stipulated that military bases should not be established in the newly admitted Eastern European member countries of the alliance. However, the tension in relations over time led to the suspension of this agreement, and it was decided to deploy military bases in Eastern European countries.

One of the factors determining the reaction of Russia to the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO is the situation in Ukraine. Russia’s concentration of its military forces in Ukraine leads to the inability of the Scandinavian countries to prevent its accession. The Kremlin expresses that it is uncomfortable with the membership of these countries, but is aware that it cannot prevent it. It seems that Russia will further arm the Finnish borders, the Kaliningrad region and the Baltic Sea in order to prevent this development or to respond to the new balance of power that will occur in the region. Russia has already delivered this message by deploying aircraft capable of carrying hypersonic missiles and conducting exercises around Kaliningrad, where nuclear war simulation is used. Therefore, Moscow is not strong enough to prevent the membership of both countries. However, developments indicate that military militarization in the Baltic Sea will increase and that the new playing field of the Russia-NATO struggle will be the Baltics.


[1] “Лавров: НАТО уже учитывает территорию Финляндии и Швеции при военном планировании”, Vzglyad, https://vz.ru/news/2022/5/17/1158844.html, (Date of Accession: 18.05.2022).

[2] Леонид Цветаев, “«Проблема создается на голом месте». Путин заявил об ответной реакции на расширение НАТО”, Gazeta.Ru, https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2022/05/16/14862242.shtml, (Date of Accession: 18.05.2022).

[3] “Захарова: НАТО затягивает европейские страны в альянс вопреки их интересам”, BelRos, https://belros.tv/news/politika/zakharova-nato-zatyagivaet-evropeyskie-strany-v-alyans-vopreki-ikh-interesam/, (Date of Accession: 18.05.2022).

[4] “Захарова: Вступив в НАТО, Финляндия и Швеция станут пространством борьбы альянса и России”, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, https://rg.ru/2022/05/04/zaharova-geopoliticheskaia-konfrontaciia-s-rossiej-sut-sushchestvovaniia-nato.html, (Date of Accession: 18.05.2022).

Dr. Sabir ASKEROĞLU
Lisans öğrenimini Ankara Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde tamamlayan Dr. Sabir Askeroğlu, yüksek lisans derecesini Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda almıştır. Doktora eğitimini İstanbul Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Siyaset Bilimi ve Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda tamamlayan Dr. Askeroğlu, çeşitli düşünce kuruluşlarında görev yapmıştır. Başlıca ilgi alanları, Avrasya çalışmaları ve Rus dış politikası olan Dr. Askeroğlu, iyi derecede Rusça ve İngilizce bilmektedir.