Finland and Sweden could soon join NATO, moves that would likely infuriate Moscow and which officials say would further underscore Russia’s strategic error in invading Ukraine.
NATO officials have told CNN that discussions about Sweden and Finland joining the bloc have become extremely serious since the Russian invasion, and senior US State Department officials have said that the issue was raised at the meeting of NATO foreign ministers this week, which was attended by foreign ministers from Stockholm and Helsinki. .
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Officials said the talks underscore how Vladimir Putin’s invasion only served to reinvigorate and unify the NATO alliance – the exact opposite of Putin’s stated goals before the start of the war. war.
The Russian president had demanded that NATO stop expanding eastward and admitting new members, accusing the bloc of threatening Russian security.
Instead, NATO has increased its support for Ukraine and is preparing to welcome new members.
Significant shifts in public opinion
Public opinion in both countries regarding joining the defensive alliance has changed significantly as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, with a former Finnish prime minister telling CNN that the decision to join “was pretty much done on February 24, when Russia invaded.”
“If you look at public opinion in Finland and Sweden, and how their views have changed dramatically over the last six weeks, I think that’s another example of how this has been a strategic failure.” , a senior US State Department official said this week.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Friday that her country’s parliament was set to discuss possible NATO membership “in the coming weeks”, adding that she hopes those talks will be completed “before midsummer”.
“I think we will have very careful discussions, but we are also not taking any more time than necessary in this process because the situation is, of course, very serious,” she said.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson did not rule out the possibility of membership during an interview with SVT at the end of March.
Sweden is undertaking a security policy analysis which should be completed by the end of May, and the government is expected to announce its position following this report, a Swedish official told CNN.
They said their nation could go public with its position sooner, depending on when neighboring Finland does.
Finland’s Ambassador to the United States, Mikko Hautala, told CNN the two nations were in close coordination, but each country would make its own decision independently.
“Rethinking the fundamentals”
A Finnish official said on Friday that his country would not seek to join NATO out of “desperation” for the defense of the 30-member alliance.
On the contrary, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have forced Finland “to rethink the fundamentals”.
“And we understand that our relationship with this Russia that now exists cannot be the same as before because of these Russian actions,” the official said.
Alexander Stubb, who served as Finland’s prime minister in 2014-15, echoed that sentiment, telling CNN there has long been a tension in the country between idealism – wanting to be able to work with Russia, with whom it shares a boundary – and realism. , which required Finland to maintain a strong standing army in case Russia ever invaded.
This idealism has now largely evaporated following the Russian attack.
“Finns think that if Putin can slaughter his sisters, brothers and cousins in Ukraine, as he is doing now, there is nothing stopping him from doing it in Finland. We just don’t want to be left alone anymore,” Stubb said, recalling the Soviet-Finnish Winter War, which lasted from November 1939 to March 1940.
Possibility of a Kremlin response
The Kremlin said on Thursday it would have to “rebalance the situation” if Sweden and Finland joined NATO.
“We will have to make our western flank more sophisticated to ensure our security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Sky News.
Finland was hit on Friday by two cyberattacks and an airspace violation by a Russian state-owned aircraft.
Both Stubb and the Finnish official said Helsinki expects such types of attacks, and they downplayed the potential for a harsh response from Moscow if Finland – which shares a border of more than 800 miles with Russia – joined NATO.
However, some NATO countries are considering the possibility of Russia carrying out an attack before Finland falls under the protection of the alliance, according to a European official.
“We will be very aware of the possibility that Russia tries to do something before joining the alliance,” the official said.
And the Finnish official acknowledged that they “have to be prepared, if our country decides to apply or even if they don’t, the situation is not safe, stable. … We have a war, we have all kinds of possibilities.
They said other countries had signaled they would offer support if there were security issues between applying for and ratifying NATO membership.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week that “on the interim period, I am sure we will find ways to address any concerns they may have about the period between potential candidacy and final ratification. “.
The Pentagon said Friday there had been no requests for help from either country, but “if a country calls and asks for support from the United States, we will definitely take that into consideration.” .
“A member without being a member”
Stoltenberg said that Sweden and Finland “can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply”, noting that they “have worked together for many years, we know they meet NATO standards when it comes to interoperability, democratic control of armed forces.”
The Finnish official noted that their country is essentially already “a member without being a member.”
Privately, NATO and US officials say they would be happy to see Finland and Sweden join the bloc.
These countries already have extremely close relations with NATO and would be a huge asset, NATO officials told CNN, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing.
While the level of intelligence sharing between Finland, Sweden and NATO has increased dramatically since the start of the war, a NATO official said, it is not at the level it would be if the countries were members of the bloc.
A European official noted that Finland and Sweden, if they joined, would both be “net contributors” to NATO, given their supply of advanced fighter jets. Finland already operates Boeing F/A-18s and has ordered 64 Lockheed Martin F-35s.
Some officials even ironically commented that it would be one of the best things Putin has done to boost European security.
“Imagine in a few months going from a 30-member strong NATO alliance to a 32-member one,” another senior State Department official told reporters after the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
“How can this be anything other than a massive strategic mistake for Putin? It was a topic of conversation and multiple sessions over the past two days.