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Russia’s War with Ukraine Prods Nordic Nations to NATO

Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. This escalation of war between the two countries caused many to rethink the state of security in Eastern Europe. Not least among them were the governments of Sweden and Finland, two Nordic countries with a history of conflict with Russia. They have sought NATO membership.

The Russian Invasion, Sweden, and Finland

SAAB JAS 39 Gripen fighter. Credited to Creative Commons. Sourced from 19FortyFive Article.

Sweden and Finland had previously been pursuing a policy of “nonalignment”. The two countries maintained this policy throughout the Cold War and after joining the European Union. Hans Binnendijk and Conor Rodihan, writing for the Atlantic Council, presented how the possibility of NATO membership became a consideration in the two countries following Russia’s “annexation” of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014. Despite this change, Sweden and Finland lacked any political will for ending nonalignment and joining NATO.

The Russian invasion has changed their calculus. The decision of Sweden and Finland to pursue membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was swift. The two countries “simultaneously handed in their official letters of application to join NATO […] on 18 May 2022.”

Sweden and Finland’s Reasoning

Finland joins NATO, Sweden pending. Credited to Al Jazeera article.

The Brookings Institution held a dialogue with the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the United States on May 23rd, 2022, regarding their countries’ applications. During the dialogue, Michael O’Hanlan of the Institution inquired as to their respective countries’ reasonings for joining NATO.

Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter of Sweden described how she and her government were concerned by the Russian military buildup in 2021 prior to the invasion of Ukraine. She noted that Sweden considered that buildup a threat and communicated with Finland and other governments. The ambassador stated that “when the attack really came, that really changed it for” Sweden. This was due to the resultant destruction and the fundamental change of the state of security in the region.

Ambassador Mikko Hautala of Finland laid out three reasons. First was Putin’s attempt during the Russian buildup to deny neutral countries the option of seeking NATO membership through threats. Hautala also argued that “the attack in February was merely a trigger” on a conflict which had broad security implications.

Finally, Finland had maintained an official stance since 2004 that if the state of affairs changed, their government would reconsider NATO membership, and had also maintained close ties to the alliance. The ambassador noted that the Russian invasion had resulted in the question “if this does not constitute the needed change […] then what does” in Finland’s debate on membership.

Russian Response

In May 2022, President Vladimir Putin stated that he had “no objection” to Sweden and Finland joining NATO as they “pose no direct threat” to Russia. However, he stated that “the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory” by NATO would “certainly provoke” Russia militarily. Such statements would seem to imply a steady yet reasoned response to the Nordic countries joining the alliance.

This stance appears contrary to one of Putin’s stated justifications for the invasion of Ukraine, namely NATO expansion eastward. The Russian leader employed this justification at length in his speech regarding the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. At one point, he declared that NATO’s “military machine is moving and […] coming close to our borders” through expansion.

Turkiye and Hungary Oppose NATO Membership

President Erdogan of Turkiye and Prime Minister Orban of Hungary. Credited to DW article.

On May 13th, 2022, President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkiye made clear his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO. First, he compared the entry of the Nordic countries to that of Greece during the Cold War. The president implied that he expected similar hostile attitudes from Sweden and Finland toward his government and Turkiye. More specifically, he claimed that Nordic nations were “guest houses for terrorist organizations [and] members of PKK […] [and] DHKPC are hiding in Sweden and the Netherlands”, and those organizations were considered hostile to the government in Ankara.

Turkiye “extracted concessions from both Sweden and Finland” in exchange for approving their NATO applications during the 2022 Madrid Summit. However, by October, Turkiye again opposed NATO membership for the two countries, claiming that its demands had not been met.

Hungary’s government delayed approving this NATO expansion as well. This was done to apply pressure on the European Union, according to Daniel Hegedus of the German Marshall Fund. In September 2022, the EU “Commission proposed to freeze 7.5 billion euro in EU funds for Hungary” over claims of corruption. The European Parliament passed a resolution in agreement, and this was upheld by the European Council. Hegedus argued that Orban and his allies in the Hungarian parliament wanted to pressure the EU into perhaps releasing some of the funds or other favorable measures.

Approval of NATO Membership

Finnish Flag Raising Ceremony NATO. Credited to NATO Energy Security Center of Excellence.

Hungary’s parliament approved of Finland’s entry to NATO on March 27th, 2023, being followed by Turkiye’s a few days after. On April 4th, NATO officially announced that Finland had become the thirty-fist member nation of the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke at the flag raising ceremony.

“I am deeply proud to welcome Finland as a full-fledged member of our Alliance and I look forward to welcoming Sweden as soon as possible,” Stoltenberg said, continuing by declaring, “Joining NATO is good for Finland, it is good for Nordic security and it is good for NATO as a whole. […] Instead of less NATO, […] [Putin] has achieved the opposite; more NATO and our door remains firmly open.”

Secretary General Stoltenberg, President Erdogan of Turkiye, and Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson “met at the NATO Summit in Vilnius” on July 10th, 2023. At this meeting, Erdogan agreed to put Sweden’s accession to NATO membership before Turkiye’s legislature. According to NATO’s official press statement, “Sweden has amended its constitution, changed its laws, significantly expanded its counter-terrorism cooperation against the PKK, and resumed arms exports to” the other nation. A couple days later, Erdogan claimed that the legislature would not be able to ratify Sweden’s accession until October.

Hungary agreed to lift its veto on Sweden on July 11th. “Completing the ratification process is now just a technical matter,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto assured.

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