NATO Countries Begin Ushering Finland and Sweden Into the Fold

The U.K. and several Nordic countries have offered security guarantees to what could be NATO’s newest members.

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Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson address a news conference in Stockholm on May 16.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson address a news conference in Stockholm on May 16.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson address a news conference in Stockholm on May 16. HENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

A group of NATO allies have offered Finland and Sweden interim security guarantees after the two Nordic countries announced they intend to join the alliance to protect against any possible Russian aggression. Finland and Sweden, which have for decades adhered to a policy of military nonalignment, rapidly reversed their policies after Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February sent shock waves throughout Europe. 

After months of speculation, both countries formally announced their intent this week to join NATO, eliciting criticism and vague warnings of a “military-technical response” from Moscow, the former Cold War rival of NATO. 

Since then, Western officials have raised alarm bells about the possibility, however unlikely, of Russian reprisals against Finland and Sweden during the interim period between the announcement of their bid to join NATO and their formal acceptance as new NATO members, thereby falling under the alliance’s umbrella of mutual defense. Norway, Denmark, and Iceland—all NATO members—issued a joint statement in support of Sweden and Finland’s decision, pledging to support the two countries’ rapid accession into the alliance and aid them against any possible retaliatory action.

A group of NATO allies have offered Finland and Sweden interim security guarantees after the two Nordic countries announced they intend to join the alliance to protect against any possible Russian aggression. Finland and Sweden, which have for decades adhered to a policy of military nonalignment, rapidly reversed their policies after Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February sent shock waves throughout Europe. 

After months of speculation, both countries formally announced their intent this week to join NATO, eliciting criticism and vague warnings of a “military-technical response” from Moscow, the former Cold War rival of NATO. 

Since then, Western officials have raised alarm bells about the possibility, however unlikely, of Russian reprisals against Finland and Sweden during the interim period between the announcement of their bid to join NATO and their formal acceptance as new NATO members, thereby falling under the alliance’s umbrella of mutual defense. Norway, Denmark, and Iceland—all NATO members—issued a joint statement in support of Sweden and Finland’s decision, pledging to support the two countries’ rapid accession into the alliance and aid them against any possible retaliatory action.

“Finland and Sweden’s security is a matter of common concern to us all,” they said in the joint statement. “Should Finland or Sweden be victim of aggression on their territory before obtaining NATO membership, we will assist Finland and Sweden by all means necessary.”

Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also signed similar security agreements with both countries and vowed to back them in the event of a possible attack. With these pacts, “in the event of a disaster, or in the event of an attack on either of us, then we will come to each other’s assistance, including with military assistance,” Johnson said. The exact type of assistance, he added, would “depend on the request of the other party.”

Several U.S. and European officials told Foreign Policy that the prospect of Russia making any overt military moves against either Finland or Sweden is remote, but they could see the Kremlin carrying out retaliation in the form of hybrid tactics, such as economic retaliation, cyberattacks, or disinformation campaigns. Some Finnish officials believe Russia is too politically and militarily overstretched in Ukraine to focus on interrupting Finland’s path to NATO membership. 

“Since Russia has been vocally against Finland’s NATO membership for years now, the moderate reactions could be surprising,” said Henri Vanhanen, foreign-policy advisor to Finland’s center-right National Coalition Party, which supports NATO membership. “On the other hand, Russia is undeniably stretched in Ukraine now which limits its capabilities to interfere with Finland’s process.”

Finnish and Swedish leaders have nonetheless issued warnings to their populations about any potential moves by Russia to try to interfere with the process of joining NATO. 

“Russia has said that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said. “We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us.”

Adding a new member to NATO requires approval from all 30 current NATO members—a process that could take months as parliaments across the alliance have to approve the plan for NATO expansion. At least one member state, Turkey, has expressed having cold feet about the new members.

In the United States, adding Finland and Sweden would require the Senate to pass a so-called resolution of ratification. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, visiting Finland on Monday, said the United States could ratify Finland’s NATO application before August. But such a move is contingent on the Biden administration providing reports to the Senate on NATO expansion to kick-start the process. Several lawmakers who have opposed NATO expansion in the past, including Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee, could delay the Senate process, but adding both new members ultimately has widespread bipartisan support.

Nearly all 30 NATO members have signaled strong support for adding Finland and Sweden to the alliance. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threw a wrench into what could have otherwise been an easy glide path to NATO expansion when he cast doubt on whether Turkey would support Finland’s and Sweden’s membership bids. Erdogan argued that Helsinki and Stockholm aren’t doing enough to crack down on Kurdish groups that Ankara has deemed terrorist organizations. He also cited Sweden and Finland’s 2019 decision to put an arms embargo on Turkey over its incursion into Syria. Several European officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity speculated that this could be a blunt negotiating feint from Erdogan, and they anticipated Turkey would ultimately support Finland and Sweden joining NATO after diplomatic negotiations. 

“The issue with Finland and Sweden should be seen through the bilateral lens, rather than through the NATO framework,” said Galip Dalay, an associate fellow with Chatham House who specialized in Turkish politics. “I don’t anticipate Turkey wielding a veto at this stage.”

With the Russian military bogged down in Ukraine and going nowhere fast, any attempts by Moscow to rattle Finland or Sweden are more likely to take the form of nonmilitary hybrid threats.

“What I would really focus on is cyberattacks on infrastructure, interference attempts, and just general harassment,” said Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and columnist at Foreign Policy. For Sweden, the accession period comes at a politically sensitive time ahead of parliamentary elections in September, “making it vulnerable both information-wise and technology-wise” to Russian interference, Braw said. 

So far, however, the response from the Kremlin has been relatively subdued, despite Moscow warning Stockholm and Helsinki for years against joining NATO and characterizing NATO expansion as an existential threat to Russia. 

This expansion poses “no immediate threat to Russia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday, while warning that it may “trigger a response,” without offering further details as to how Moscow may react. Other Russian officials have been less discreet, with the deputy chair of the Russian parliament’s defense committee warning that Moscow could strike the United Kingdom and Finland using its RS-28 Sarmat nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. 

Finland’s and Sweden’s accession into the alliance is expected to move briskly. Both countries have cooperated closely with NATO for years, and their equipment and training are already nearly aligned with NATO standards.

“These are two quality militaries, these are two great nations with strong democratic values, and they would be in a whole host of ways magnificent additions to our alliance,” said Philip Breedlove, a retired four-star U.S. Air Force general who served as supreme allied commander of NATO forces.

While most observers expect both countries to be net contributors to the alliance, they also bring new questions regarding NATO’s defense posture. Both Sweden and Finland are Arctic nations, a region in which Russia has been investing heavily militarily, while Finland’s accession would double the amount of shared border between NATO and Russia. “That’s a pretty serious implication of at least Finland joining. So what that means militarily is going to be something to look closely at,” said Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe program.

Once Helsinki and Stockholm have submitted their applications, the decision moves to the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s principal decision-making body, for consideration. It then falls to the parliaments of individual member states to ratify the accession of new members. 

“That can take up to a year, which is why mutual defense pacts in between now and then are going to be really important,” Rizzo said.

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

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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