May 20, 2022

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Ukraine war brings Sweden, Finland even closer to NATO

Ukraine war brings Sweden, Finland even closer to NATO

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended the status quo in traditionally non-aligned Finland and Sweden, ushering in an “historic” surge in support for NATO, “exceptional” arms exports and defiance to Moscow’s demands.

Stockholm and Helsinki have ruled out applying to join the NATO military alliance for the time being but the two countries have never been so close to taking the plunge, analysts say.

“Anything is possible at the moment and the signal from NATO countries is that a membership application can be processed in a very short time-span,” said Zebulon Carlander, defence analyst with the Society and Defence organisation in Sweden.

“So I think it’s very much a political decision that rests in the capitals — Stockholm and Helsinki,” he told AFP.

The two countries are officially non-aligned, although they have been NATO partners since the mid-1990s and ended their neutral stance at the end of the Cold War.

Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, said Tuesday that the mindset of citizens and politicians towards joining the alliance “is changing” following Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

The NATO debate “is in full swing and will certainly intensify,” Marin said, after party leaders met to consider how to respond to a public petition calling for a referendum on NATO membership.

But Marin cautioned against drawing conclusions at this stage.

The petition garnered the 50,000 signatures needed to refer the matter to the parliament in less than a week, and will be considered as part of a wider debate on the Ukraine crisis.

For the first time, a majority (53 percent) of Finns are in favour of joining NATO, according to a poll published Monday by public broadcaster Yle.

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That is almost double the number a month ago, when Helsingin Sanomat newspaper put support at just 28 percent.

“(This is) a completely historic and exceptional result,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs told AFP.

Support for joining NATO is historically high in Sweden, too — at 41 percent according to a poll by public broadcaster SVT last Friday.

Russian warnings

In another radical change, the two countries have broken with tradition by exporting weapons to a country in active conflict.

Sweden is sending 5,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine alongside helmets and body armour, while Finland is sending 2,500 assault rifles, ammunition and 1,500 single-use anti-tank weapons.

For Sweden, this is unprecedented since the Winter War of 1939, when it sent assistance to Finland to counter an invasion by none other than the Soviet Union.

“This is probably just the beginning of reassessments in Swedish defence security policy,” Carlander said.

Both countries are also seeing a surge in applications to their army reserves.

Experts expect the two countries to act in concert on whether to join NATO.

If they did, it would further heighten tensions between Russia and the West, since the eastward expansion of the alliance is the prime security grievance of the Kremlin.

Last Friday, Russia’s foreign ministry warned that if the Nordic countries were to join NATO it would “have serious military and political repercussions”.

Helsinki shrugged this off as a warning it had heard before.