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Upsetting the Neighbors

The Signal
Borderlands
What’s at stake in Finland and Sweden joining NATO? Susan Colbourn on how the war in Ukraine has reset security calculations in Europe.
Victor Jules Levasseur
Victor Jules Levasseur
Finland and Sweden are “like guesthouses for terror organizations,” according to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Wednesday, as Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they faced Turkey’s opposition—with Erdoğan accusing them of harboring members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a militant organization committed to its region’s separation from the Turkish state. The objection to Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO was impossible to ignore—given that support from all 30 of the alliance’s existing member states is required to admit new countries—but it was also more a diplomatic hurdle than a barrier for the alliance, with the two Nordic democracies now almost certain to join. It’s a priority for them and for the alliance as a whole. But it’s also a major historical shift, after decades—in Sweden’s case, two centuries—of non-alignment. What’s happening?
Susan Colbourn is a NATO historian and the associate director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. According to Colbourn, Finland and Sweden’s actions represent a huge shift with a complex history—and the latest illustration of how Moscow’s invasion has led to acute unintended consequences for President Vladimir Putin and his country. Although Putin is likely to seize on the prospect of NATO expansion to continue his longstanding rhetorical assaults on the alliance, his practical options to respond are limited—especially given Russia’s weakened global position following the Ukraine invasion. As Colbourn sees it, the extension of NATO to Finland and Sweden is transformative—and uncertain, raising new questions as to how Putin will respond, as well as how the alliance will navigate a new era for European security.
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Graham Vyse: Finland and Sweden went through the Cold War, and the decades since, without joining NATO. Why is that?
Susan Colbourn: When NATO was formed in 1949, in the early years of the Cold War, it was designed by the United States, Canada, and Western European leaders, from the perspective of how they saw the threat posed by the Soviet Union. At that time, it had been a decade since Finland had fought the Winter War against the Soviets—who invaded their country three months after the outbreak of World War II—and managed to avoid being entirely taken over. But the Soviet Union forced Finland to sign a treaty promising to adhere to a policy of military neutrality. As a result, throughout the Cold War, Western leaders and analysts would refer to “Finlandization” as a distinctive brand of neutrality—and a warning of what the Soviets might hope to achieve elsewhere in Europe.
Sweden’s non-alignment stance dates back all the way to the early 19th century. The last war Sweden fought was in 1814, part of the many coalitions against Napoleon Bonaparte. At various points, officials within NATO discussed the possibility of Sweden joining, but these talks never really went anywhere. Geography helps explain it: If Sweden had opted to join NATO in 1949, it would have given the Soviets an excuse to exert even greater pressure on Finland, which was already neutralized by its treaty. And so, from the vantage point of Swedish security, NATO membership might not have made things more stable or secure.
Non-alignment really became embedded in Swedish identity, so we’re talking about decades, if not centuries, of foreign-policy traditions being changed right now. Now, despite their long-standing traditions of non-alignment, Finland and Sweden have both been actively working with—and had close ties to—NATO. The two countries joined the Partnership for Peace in the 1990s, using it as a way to deepen cooperation with the alliance. And that relationship deepened after Russia first initiated its war against Ukraine in 2014. Sweden and Finland both, for instance, already signed host-nation support agreements—agreements that would make it easier for the two countries to host NATO forces, if necessary.
On the one hand, Sweden and Finland applying for membership in NATO is a huge shift from old patterns in foreign policy. But on the other, it’s also not so surprising; it’s entirely consistent with the direction of their relationship with the alliance over recent decades.
Vyse: With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being the immediate reason why these countries are finally joining NATO, how do you understand their decisions overall?
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Colbourn: The attack on Ukraine fundamentally changed the security situation across Europe, including how the leaders of Finland and Sweden think about their own security. In press conferences over the past few days, officials from both countries described a sea change: They believe non-alignment may have served them well in the past, but they need to be part of NATO going forward. It’s all quite predictable, though it’s been striking how much Finland and Sweden have been working together toward membership. The thinking is that it may be harder for Russia to put pressure on them if they’re working together closely. These are two countries with very different domestic political landscapes and foreign policy traditions, yet they’ve been coordinated on this issue. It shows how seriously they’re taking it.
Vyse: When you say they’ve changed their thinking about their own security, you mean they’re now worried about Russian aggression toward them?
Colbourn: It’s a good question and a hard one to answer. The biggest unknown, at the moment, is what Putin might be willing to do. Though some people might be skeptical that he’d ever move against Finland, which shares a lengthy border with Russia, it’s clear that NATO membership and protection can deter Russian aggression, and Finland and Sweden recognize that. It’s not that there’s a specific nightmare scenario about Russia invading Finland or Sweden; it’s just that they now want the most ironclad guarantee of preserving peace.
Philip Myrtorp
Philip Myrtorp
More from Susan Colbourn at The Signal:
There’s some ambiguity about how long the ratification process will take. Many of the leaders involved want to see the process move quickly, because they don’t want to give Moscow the opportunity to meddle or discourage Finland or Sweden from joining. But the process is time-consuming. Each of NATO’s 30 member countries will need to ratify what are called accession protocols, accepting Helsinki and Stockholm as parties to the treaty. That will play out differently in each of the countries. It sometimes involves parliamentary approval. It’s likely this process will take in the end between nine months and a year.”
It’s nearly impossible to overstate how much public opinion has changed since late February, when the Russian offensive in Ukraine began. A poll done in March in Finland indicated that 62 percent of respondents supported their country joining NATO. A comparable poll in 2017 put that number at 21 percent, so that’s a huge shift. It’s been somewhat less dramatic in Sweden, where there’s long been a broader base of support for possible NATO membership. But there, too, Russia’s invasion has convinced many more Swedes that it’s the best course of action. We’ve seen polls showing 60 percent support or even close to 70 percent.”
There’s a tendency to talk about the admission of new members as resulting simply in NATO’s protective blanket covering more people, but it’s important to understand that Finland and Sweden bring a lot to NATO. They have much to offer the alliance with respect to its overall security, including well-supported, well-funded armed forces. We’re going to see a lot of new thinking about security in the Baltics and what role NATO can play there. There will also be opportunities for the other allies to tap into expertise from Finland and Sweden on subjects like information warfare. Take a look at a map. If you want to build a military posture to deter Russian aggression, having Finland and Sweden in NATO can be a huge asset.”
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