Sweden and Finland’s NATO Membership Process from an Ontological Security Perspective

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The February 24, 2021 Russia-Ukraine War has led to a major change in the entire international system, especially in these two actors. The war has changed the threat perception, priorities and policies of many countries. At the same time, this situation has also caused concerns among various actors. Among the actors experiencing these concerns, Sweden and Finland were the two countries that stood out with the steps they took. These two countries, which had been in the system with their neutral status for many years, changed their defense strategies in the face of Russian aggression and applied to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

This situation is very important in terms of showing the change that war has brought about in the security policies of countries. At the same time, it is possible to say that many actors have become concerned about ontological security. The effects of the change in the routines of Sweden and Finland and the factors that led them to take this decision are also important. In this context, the decision taken by these countries can be considered as a reflection of the search for ontological security.

Ontological security is characterized as the security of the self, identity and existence. It is a phenomenon that can be addressed in terms of individuals, societies and states. Especially in terms of states, the relations, partnerships, collaborations or hostile relations that countries establish with each other constitute the routines of the relevant actors.

Routines are also seen as a reflection of the actors’ identity. The point that constitutes or expresses identity is embodied in the biographical narratives created by actors. Therefore, it is assumed that the maintenance of routines provides ontological security for states. The continuation and protection of existence is ensured through routines, identity and biographical narratives. Biographical narratives are also a reflection of the historical memory of the state in question.[1]

A prominent point in terms of ontological security is the state of anxiety. Although it has been analyzed in many different ways, in the context of Sweden and Finland, it is seen that the anxiety in these states mobilizes them in the name of the future and in order to maintain their existence or to exist more securely. The actor whose routines change will endeavor to create new discourses for new routines; in other words, biographical narratives. It can be stated that this is the case in the Swedish and Finnish examples.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has raised existential concerns in Helsinki and Stockholm, and the NATO membership process has brought about a change in the principle of neutrality. This means a transformation of a long-standing routine in the two countries.

Both countries want to be part of NATO’s collective defense and come under the NATO umbrella under the security guarantees of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. However, this would raise the threshold for NATO’s use of military force in the Baltic Sea region, leading to a change of routine at the regional level. At the same time, the biographical narratives of Sweden and Finland will change. With NATO membership, these countries will also gain a NATO identity. Therefore, they will develop new discourses and narratives.

As it is known, the two Baltic states applied for membership on May 17, 2022. The statements used by the Finnish side before and after the application process are noteworthy in terms of showing the beginning of the change at the discursive level. In January 2022, when Russia started to mass forces on the borders of Ukraine, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin made statements emphasizing that it was “very unlikely” for her country to join NATO during her tenure.[2] In less than three months, Finland’s NATO membership was under discussion and the application was submitted. Marin’s statement that “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was” can be read as an indication that the Finnish-Russian relationship routine has changed.[3]  However, it should be noted that this was not a sudden change. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Stockholm, which maintained its neutrality during the Cold War, increased its relations and closeness with the West.

From the Swedish perspective, the government’s assessment is that NATO membership is the best way to protect the country’s security. On the other hand, the attitudes of NATO member states and developments in the dynamics of relations with these countries also influence the decision to join. Not all NATO members have yet approved the membership. The routines that countries develop in their bilateral relations and their policies in this context affect and are affected by the membership process.

As it can be understood, the decision to apply for membership not only changed the routine of Sweden and Finland, but also brought about a multiple change. It is foreseeable that such developments will continue to occur with the membership process. However, it can be said that the change in Sweden and Finland’s routine of relations with all NATO members is not at a level that will have an impact on the identity dimension.

From Russia’s point of view, the statement made by Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zaharova after the declaration of joining NATO reveals the change in the routines of the Moscow administration. Zaharova stated that if Finland and Sweden join the alliance, the good neighborly relations between the Nordic countries and Russia will deteriorate and the Baltic Region will turn into a conflict zone.[4]

On the other hand, the inclusion of Helsinki and Stockholm in NATO is likely to intensify Russia’s Arctic policy. This can be interpreted as a harbinger of new competition and conflict dynamics in Arctic geopolitics.

To summarize briefly, Sweden and Finland’s application for NATO membership can be characterized as a critical “change of routine” in terms of ontological security, as these two countries break with the principle of neutrality, which has become an element of national identity. Moreover, this change is likely to trigger changes in the routines of other actors. Time will tell to what extent this step, taken out of concern for ontological security, with the aim of gaining a NATO identity and making their existence more secure, will change national identity narratives, how it will be reflected in the routines of other NATO member states, and most importantly, what impact it will have on the self-narratives of the Moscow administration. However, it seems that Moscow’s ontological security concerns will rise with the realization of membership, and this may manifest itself in the form of “escaping to history” and awakening historical memory rather than changing its self-narratives.

[1] Catarina Kinwall, “Globalization and Religious Nationalism: Self, Identity, and the Search for Ontological Security,” Political Psychology 25 (5), 2004, 741.

[2] “Finland is Hurtling Towards NATO Membership”, The Economist,, (Date of Accession: 14.03.2023).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Moscow: Finland, Sweden in NATO will Become A Space for Struggle between Alliance, Russia”, Tasnim News,, (Date of Accession: 14.03.2023).

Şeyma KIZILAY, 2016 yılında Erciyes Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Yüksek lisans derecesini, 2019 yılında Kırşehir Ahi Evran Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda sunduğu ‘’Uluslararası İlişkilerde Ulus İnşası Bağlamında Irak Örneği” başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Doktora eğitimine Uludağ Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda devam eden Kızılay, tez aşamasındadır. Başlıca çalışma alanları; güvenlik, terörizm, Afganistan ve Pakistan’dır. Kızılay, iyi derecede İngilizce ve orta seviyede Arapça bilmektedir.