‘Thanks, Putin’: Finnish and Swedish Lawmakers Aim for NATO Membership

Politicians who have long called for Finland and Sweden to join NATO seem poised to finally get their wish.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
NATO meeting in Brussels.
NATO meeting in Brussels.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde speak at a press conference after their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 24. John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Finnish and Swedish opposition leaders traveled to Washington this week to meet with U.S. officials as their countries kick-start debates on joining NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Petteri Orpo, the chair of Finland’s center-right National Coalition Party, and Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the opposition in Sweden’s parliament and head of the country’s Moderate Party, met with senior Biden administration officials and congressional staffers during their visit to push for swift U.S. support of expanding NATO, should both Finland and Sweden formally make bids to join the alliance. The prospect of the two Nordic countries joining NATO represents a significant shift in their foreign policies after decades of military nonalignment, spurred by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Orpo said “it’s clear” that Finland’s parliament will decide to apply to join NATO in the next month, and Kristersson said that after a separate debate in Sweden, his country is likely to follow suit.

Finnish and Swedish opposition leaders traveled to Washington this week to meet with U.S. officials as their countries kick-start debates on joining NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Petteri Orpo, the chair of Finland’s center-right National Coalition Party, and Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the opposition in Sweden’s parliament and head of the country’s Moderate Party, met with senior Biden administration officials and congressional staffers during their visit to push for swift U.S. support of expanding NATO, should both Finland and Sweden formally make bids to join the alliance. The prospect of the two Nordic countries joining NATO represents a significant shift in their foreign policies after decades of military nonalignment, spurred by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Orpo said “it’s clear” that Finland’s parliament will decide to apply to join NATO in the next month, and Kristersson said that after a separate debate in Sweden, his country is likely to follow suit.

Orpo’s and Kristersson’s parties have both advocated for their countries to join NATO for more than a decade, but that policy platform never gained traction due to widespread opposition from the public and other political parties. That all changed after Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

“In Finland, the debate changed after Russia’s attacks against Ukraine almost in one day,” said Orpo, who previously served as deputy prime minister. “For 16 years, we have supported NATO membership, and now it’s possible. Thanks, Putin.”

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, public support for NATO membership in Finland shot up from around 20 percent before the war to nearly 70 percent, and in Sweden, support for NATO membership has reached a historic high of 57 percent. Both Finland and Sweden have joined other Western countries in sending military aid to Ukraine to help repel the Russian invasion and coordinated on devastating new international sanctions against Moscow.

Kristersson said he wants to cooperate closely with the ruling center-left Swedish Social Democratic Party on applying for NATO membership ahead of the country’s upcoming general elections in September, but he will push for it regardless of what the Social Democrats ultimately decide.

“My basic plan is to make that decision this spring, together with the government,” he said. “But I certainly don’t rule out—if they refuse, if Finland applies, if there is a majority in Sweden [supporting joining NATO], I certainly will not let them have a veto on the Swedish membership.”

Adding a new member to NATO requires unanimous consent from all current 30 NATO members. In the United States, this requires treaty ratification in the Senate. Eight separate U.S. and European officials told Foreign Policy that they are confident that every NATO member is widely supportive of adding Finland and Sweden to the alliance’s ranks and none would oppose the move. Most expect Finland’s parliament to vote to approve NATO membership by mid-May and Sweden to announce its decision by the end of May. NATO is expected to make the formal announcement on both countries joining at its upcoming summit in Madrid in June.

In Washington, Orpo and Kristersson met with President Joe Biden’s top envoy for Europe, Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried, and the top National Security Council official for Europe, Amanda Sloat. They also met with a bipartisan group of senior congressional staffers, including Robert Karem, the national security advisor for Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who served as a senior Defense Department official during the Trump administration. The senior Senate staffers would play important behind-the-scenes roles in shepherding new treaties to approve Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership through the Senate and on to the White House.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have publicly supported Finnish and Swedish membership. The Senate overwhelmingly voted in support of NATO expansion ahead of the last time the alliance added a new member—North Macedonia in 2020—by a vote of 91 to 2.

A NATO expansion in Northern Europe could have significant geopolitical and military impacts for the alliance in its showdown with Russia, U.S. national security and defense officials said. Adding Finland would double NATO’s direct borders with Russia and could likely further inflame tensions with Russia, which has warned both Finland and Sweden against NATO membership. But in addition to adding two new advanced militaries to the alliance that already cooperate closely with NATO, Finland’s and Sweden’s membership could also strengthen the alliance’s grip over the Baltic Sea and bolster the alliance’s deterrence and defense posture for its vulnerable Baltic member states.

Orpo and Kristersson sought to allay concerns that their countries joining NATO could undermine the alliance’s security. In short, Orpo said, Finland can hold its own against Russia.

“Finland is a security provider, not a user. And if something bad will happen, we are not going to be the first ones here to knock on the door to ask for help,” Orpo said. “This is an important message to the United States and all the other NATO countries. Because together with Sweden, we can take our share. We can guarantee our border line.”

Top Russian officials have warned that they would consider deploying nuclear weapons to the Baltic region, including possibly the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast, if Finland and Sweden join NATO. “In this case, There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic,” Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council and former president, said in a social media post this month.

Kristersson said Russian warnings were counterproductive and strengthened the argument that both countries need to join NATO sooner rather than later. “The more Russia would speak against this, the more decisive the countries will be to really take this step,” he said.

“There is a very big consensus in Europe, and in NATO, that we need to protect ourselves from a much more dangerous Russia,” he added. “You can argue that we both, the two countries, should have drawn this conclusion before. But now it’s obvious what we have to do.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.