By Emily Rauhala
Wednesday May 18, 2022
BRUSSELS — Finland and Sweden submitted letters Wednesday
formally applying to join NATO, a historic moment for two countries that held
fast to military nonalignment until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended their
thinking about security.
The delivery of the letters to the alliance’s Brussels
headquarters marks the start of an accession process that could take months but
is expected to result in an expansion of NATO from 30 to 32 members, remaking
Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture.
“I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join
NATO,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference in Brussels
with ambassadors from each country. “You are our closest partners, and your
membership in NATO would increase our shared security.”
Stoltenberg called the applications a “historic step” and
said allies will now consider next steps.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish
President Sauli Niinisto of Finland are scheduled to appear Thursday at the
White House, where President Biden is expected to show his support.
NATO officials and several allies have signaled that Finland
and Sweden could expect protection in the period before their membership is
fully ratified and they are part of NATO’s collective defense pact, known as
A big question is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin
will retaliate. European officials and diplomats said Finland and Sweden are
prepared for hybrid or clandestine attacks.
Putin cited the threat of NATO expansion among the
rationales for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Kyiv is not on track for
NATO membership, but Putin’s war has resulted in a reinvigorated alliance that
is now poised to double its land border with Russia.
The two new members would bring NATO’s full force to the far
north and bolster its presence in the Baltic Sea region. The alliance would
gain two sophisticated militaries with deep experience operating near Russia’s
frontier. Sweden also holds the strategically important island of Gotland, just
200 miles from the Russian military in Kaliningrad.
Finland and Sweden didn’t consider themselves neutral before
now. Militarily, they have been close NATO partners. Politically, they are
members of the European Union.
But thinking of themselves as nonaligned militarily has been
an important part of their self-conception. Before Russia’s invasion of
Ukraine, a majority of people in both countries said it was safer to be outside
NATO. But the past months have seen a dramatic swing in public opinion.
“We are leaving one era and beginning another,” Sweden’s
Andersson said Monday, announcing the decision.
“This is an extraordinary development given where we were in
February,” said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic
Council think tank.
“Russia wanted to turn back time, to go back to the Cold
War, to fragment and weaken the West,” she continued. “Now, in May, we are
After receiving the applications, NATO will convene its
decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, to decide whether to move
forward with the request. Then there will be accession talks, said a NATO
official who spoke on the condition of anonymity according to the alliance’s
This first phase of the accession process is expected to be
swift, largely because both countries are already close NATO partners. From
there, it could take “months” for each member state to ratify the decision, the
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced skepticism
last week about Sweden and Finland’s accession, but NATO officials and analysts
say Turkey will fall in line. “We are determined to work through all issues and
reach rapid conclusions,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday.
Russian officials have warned of “consequences” at every
step but have offered more muted rhetoric in recent days.
Putin said Monday that Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO
did not represent an imminent danger to Russia, but he warned that a military
buildup in either country could change that assessment.
“Russia has no problems with Finland and Sweden, and in this
sense, expansion at the expense of these countries does not create an immediate
threat for us,” he said in televised remarks on Monday. “But the expansion of
military infrastructure into this territory will certainly provoke our
“What it will be, we will look at based on the threats that
will be created for us,” he continued. “We will respond accordingly.”
In a weekend telephone call, Putin told Finland’s Niinisto
that the decision to join NATO was “wrong” and could have “a negative effect”
on Russian-Finnish ties, but he did not make specific threats, according to
accounts of the call.
NATO and European officials have for the most part downplayed
the risk of significant Russian aggression.
The country’s military remains tied up in heavy fighting in
Ukraine and has lost soldiers and equipment. Russia also withdrew troops from
the border with Finland to fight in Ukraine, leaving Moscow with a reduced
capacity to target the border militarily.
Given widespread support for the Nordic countries’ NATO
accession, it will be difficult for Russia to influence their populations.
“There is no place to intervene, there is no ground to make
people change their minds,” said Henri Vanhanen, a foreign policy expert and
adviser to the center-right National Coalition Party in Finland. “This is the
democratic resilience we have against Russia.”
“It is out of Russia’s reach right now to try to stop
Finland and Sweden from joining NATO,” he said. “It has to come to terms with
If Putin does try anything, allies have pledged support.
Britain, Denmark, France, Iceland and Norway are among countries that have
promised military support should either Finland or Sweden come under attack.
“Whoever would seek to test European solidarity by threatening or attacking
their sovereignty, through whatever means, must be certain that France will
stand shoulder to shoulder with Finland and Sweden,” according to a French statement