Finland and Sweden outrage Russia as they move closer to NATO membership

BRUSSELS — Finland will release an official assessment Wednesday of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed its security environment, beginning a process that is expected to culminate in a request to join NATO.

The assessment, known as a white paper, will not advocate for or against membership, according to the Finnish Foreign Ministry, but will be used as a starting point for parliamentary debate as the country weighs a historic shift in its defense posture.

Finland and neighboring Sweden are officially nonaligned militarily, but Russia’s aggression has led to a dramatic shift in public sentiment — so much so that both countries are now expected to request membership in the coming months.

Their potential accession would reshape European security and draw outrage from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin used NATO expansion as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Now, his brutal war there may bring the military alliance ever closer to his door.

Wednesday’s white paper marks the start of the process for Finland, where support for joining NATO has jumped to 68 percent, according to a recent poll.

“We will have very careful discussions, but we will also not take any more time than we have to in this process because the situation is of course very severe,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told reporters last week, suggesting a decision could come by late June.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats, who have traditionally opposed NATO membership, have also said they will be rethinking their position in the coming months — although the exact timing and level of support remain unclear.

The question of expanding the alliance was discussed last week at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. Both NATO and US officials stressed that it is up to the countries to decide whether they want to join — while signaling that they will be welcomed if they apply.

Sweden and Finland already have deep ties to the alliance. Both have worked with NATO on military interoperability, have trained with alliance forces and meet NATO standards when it comes to “political, democratic, civilian control over the security institutions and the armed forces,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week.

“There are no other countries that are closer to NATO,” Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, told reporters in Brussels.

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Washington has also signaled support. In a briefing last week, Julianne Smith, the American ambassador to NATO, said the United States would “welcome” both countries if they want to join the alliance.

“We’ve exercised; we’ve trained with them. They bring very capable militaries,” she said. “They are some of our closest allies in Europe, and so I can’t imagine a situation where there would be tremendous resistance to this idea.”

As Helsinki and Stockholm mull whether to make it official, a key question is whether and how they will be protected from potential Russian aggression in the period between expressing interest and actual membership, which could take many months.

Russia has warned of “serious military-political consequences” and “retaliation” should join the two countries. Although Finnish leaders have mostly downplayed the threat, the country is preparing for a range of possible responses from Russia, from serious to mostly symbolic, said Henri Vanhanen, a foreign policy expert and advisor to Finland’s National Coalition Party.

Vanhanen expects that NATO will find ways to “signal that Sweden and Finland are protected” in the interim, such as making a political commitment to ensuring safe accession or stepping up military cooperation in some way.

“If they give us the signal that we are welcome, it is in their interest that this happens as smoothly as possible,” he said. “It would be a huge blow to NATO if their open-door policy is undermined.”

Stoltenberg said last week he was “certain that the alliance will find ways to address concerns about the period between potential application and ratification,” but he declined to offer specifics on what is being discussed.

“I think it’s not helpful if I start to speculate in the public exactly how we’ll do that,” he said. “But I am confident that if they apply, we will sit down, and we’ll find a way to address that issue.”

Putin’s war moves Finland and Sweden closer to joining NATO

Even without NATO protection, Finland and Sweden should theoretically have some measure of collective security. Article 42.7 of the European Union treaty states that if a member is a victim of armed aggression, other members must come to its aid.

Finland’s Marin and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson wrote a letter last month to European Council President Charles Michel drawing attention to “the heightened role of the EU’s solidarity and commitment to the mutual defense clause” in Europe’s new security environment.

In a meeting with the Swedish leader last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the country “can count” on the EU if Russia lashes out.

Ryan reported from Washington.

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