Important NATO decisions are expected in Finland and Sweden this week

STOCKHOLM (AP) – To join or not to join? The NATO issue comes to a head this week in Finland and Sweden, where Russia is invading Ukraine has shattered long-held beliefs that staying outside the military alliance was the best way to avoid trouble with their giant neighbor.

If Finland’s President and the ruling Social Democrats in both countries vote in favor of membership in the next few days, NATO could soon be there Add two members right on Russia’s doorstep.

That would be a historical development for the two Nordic countries: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland has adopted neutrality after being defeated by the Soviet Union in World War II.

Until Russian forces attacked Ukraine on February 24, NATO membership was never seriously considered in Stockholm and Helsinki. Virtually overnight in both capitals, the conversation went from “Why should we join?” to “How long will it take?”

Coupled with stubborn Ukrainian resistance and sweeping Western sanctions, this is one of the key ways the invasion appears to have backfired on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

If Finland and Sweden join the alliance, Russia would be completely surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and Arctic.

“There is no going back to the pre-invasion status quo,” said Heli Hautala, a former Finnish diplomat in Moscow and a research fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, the Western leader who appeared to have the best relationship with Putin before the war in Ukraine, is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership on Thursday. The ruling social democratic parties in both countries will present their positions at the weekend.

If the answer is yes, there would be robust majorities in favor of NATO membership in both parliaments, paving the way for formal application processes to begin immediately.

The Finnish Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, are likely to support a NATO proposal along with other parties in Finland. The situation in Sweden is not so clear.

Sweden’s Social Democrats have always been firmly committed to non-alignment, but party leader and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said there was a clear “before and after February 24”.

The party’s women’s faction, led by Climate and Environment Minister Annika Strandhall, has spoken out against NATO membership.

“We believe that our interests are best served when we are militarily non-aligned,” Strandhall told Swedish broadcaster TV4. “Sweden has traditionally been a strong voice for peace and disarmament.”

Neither Finland nor Sweden are planning a referendum, fearing it could become a prime target for Russian interference.

Sweden and Finland have solicited – and received – pledges of support from the US and other NATO members during the application period should they seek membership.

Both countries, meanwhile, feel vulnerable before being covered by the alliance’s one-for-all, all-for-one security guarantees.

The Kremlin has warned of “military and political consequences” should Sweden and Finland decide to join NATO.

Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said last month this will force Moscow to increase its military presence in the Baltics.

But analysts say military action against the Nordic countries looks unlikely given how deadlocked Russian forces are in Ukraine.

Many of the Russian troops stationed near the 1,300-kilometer border with Finland were sent to Ukraine and suffered “significant casualties” there, Hautala said.

She said possible Russian countermeasures could include bringing weapons systems closer to Finland, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, economic countermeasures and directing migration towards the Russian-Finnish border, similar to what happened on the Poland-Belarus border last year.

There are signs that Russia has already increased its focus on Sweden and Finland, with several airspace violations by Russian military aircraft reported in recent weeks and an apparent campaign in Moscow with posters depicting famous Swedes as Nazi sympathizers . Putin used similar tactics against Ukraine’s leaders before launching what the Kremlin called his “military special operation.”

After decades of vigorously campaigning against membership, public opinion in both countries changed rapidly that year. Polls show that more than 70% of Finns and around 50% of Swedes support accession.

The shocking scenes that unfolded in Ukraine made Finns conclude that “this could happen to us,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.

During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO so as not to provoke the Soviet Union, while Sweden already had a tradition of neutrality that stretched back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But both countries built robust conscription-based armed forces to counter any Soviet threat. Sweden even had a nuclear weapons program but scrapped it in the 1960s.

The threat of conflict flared in October 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground off the coast of south-west Sweden. Eventually, the submarine was pulled back out to sea, ending a tense standoff between Swedish forces and a Soviet rescue fleet.

As Russia’s military power waned in the 1990s, Finland maintained vigilance while Sweden, increasingly unlikely to see conflict with Russia, downsized its military and shifted its focus from territorial defense to peacekeeping missions in distant conflict zones.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted the Swedes to reassess the security situation. They reintroduced conscription and began rebuilding defense capabilities, including on the strategically important Baltic Sea island of Gotland.

Defense analysts say Finland and Sweden have modern and competent armed forces that would greatly increase NATO’s capabilities in northern Europe. The Finnish and Swedish Armed Forces train with NATO so often that they are essentially interoperable.

Adding new members usually takes months, as these decisions have to be ratified by all 30 NATO members. But in the case of Finland and Sweden, the accession process could be completed “in a couple of weeks,” according to a NATO official who briefed reporters on condition not to be identified because no application was made by the two countries.

“These are not normal times,” he said.

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Lorne Cook contributed to this report from Brussels.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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