Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
Russia’s renewed attack on Ukraine has forced European countries to think about their own safety rather than grand designs for pan-European security architecture. Anything that makes it harder for Putin to threaten more European countries should be seen as useful.
For Finland and Sweden, even if Russia emerges from the current war capable of mounting further assaults on its neighbors (questionable, given the scale of its losses), NATO membership will make them more secure. Meanwhile, Finnish and Swedish membership will strengthen the alliance militarily and geographically.
Though Finnish and Swedish forces have been working alongside NATO for some years, they have not been able to count on NATO’s Article 5 defense guarantee and NATO has not been able to count on their availability in a crisis. They can now be integrated in NATO plans for defending the Baltic region, and they can benefit from the alliance’s deterrent posture.
For NATO, guaranteed access to Finnish and Swedish territory in a crisis would ease concerns about reinforcing the Baltic states and reduce the chances of a successful Russian attack. The only party to lose out will be Putin: Russia’s position in northeastern Europe will be significantly weakened. In itself, that is a good thing for European security.
Kate Hansen BundtSecretary General of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee
Finnish and Swedish NATO membership will be a geopolitical gamechanger. It will strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defense by adding democratic, wealthy, and relatively strong military countries in a strategically vital region to the alliance.
Currently the Nordic region is characterized by a “strategic gap.” With Finland and Sweden in NATO, all five Nordic countries will be unified in a capable defense community providing mutual defense guarantees as well as a strategic depth that will improve the security and ability to collectively defend, not least the small Baltic states.
To give an example, the Nordic states’ collective airpower will, in a couple of years, consist of 150 F-35 combat aircrafts and 72 operational Swedish JAS Gripen fighter jets. If we add Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, Northern Europe will have almost 250-300 F-35 plus Swedish JAS. This will create a robust regime of deterrence in NATO’s northern flank. It will also improve NATO’s ability to protect the transatlantic maritime link in the North Atlantic against the Russian anti-access strategy. This is crucial in ensuring that U.S. reinforcement can reach Europe in the event of a major crisis.
The two memberships will probably increase tension with Kremlin in the short run, but both states will, as Norway has done, provide different measures of reassurance related to foreign bases and nuclear weapons in peacetime. And in fact, both Finland and Sweden are already deeply integrated within NATO. They are already quasi-members and would only require small adjustments and deepen an already comprehensive regional defense cooperation institutionalized in the Nordic Defence Cooperation and other subregional bodies of cooperation.
Andrea ChristouPhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly provided an impetus for Sweden and especially Finland to join NATO. Changing public opinion in both countries certainly reflects the urgency of this development since the invasion has shifted the existing discourse in favor of NATO membership and mobilized citizens in both countries.
The pursuit of NATO membership would indeed provide guarantees for both countries’ security, but it may also prove beneficial for the security architecture of Europe. It may not only strengthen the European pillar vis-à-vis NATO but also increase the alliance’s capabilities, providing it with resources and strategic access to the northern region of Europe.
Nevertheless, whether Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership will be useful for European security depends on Europe’s willingness to use this greater political weight to provide a more unified voice and pursue effective joined-up action against common threats. Europe must remain united, even if this means strengthening NATO capabilities instead of Europe’s own strategic autonomy. So long as Europe and its allies act in unity, Russia will be unable to capitalize on divisions in the West and escalate the crisis further.
Olivier de FranceSenior research fellow at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs
Despite their longstanding national traditions of neutrality, Sweden and Finland are two EU members whose military, industrial, and financial weight is anything but negligible. For NATO, the additional clout would certainly not go amiss at the present juncture. But the underlying shift it would represent in the long-term gravity of European security is also interesting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has by now forgone all pretence of sharing Europe’s normative aspirations but also any attempt at placating them—which is even more telling. He has nudged both NATO and the EU back toward collective security and in doing so has forced Europeans to shed the illusions they still clung on to about the world they live in.
In this context, one might hope that Stockholm’s and Helsinki’s debate on membership—together with Denmark’s landmark referendum on joining the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy—herald a period in which the geographical and strategic overlap between NATO and the EU ensures their institutional jostling finally becomes a sideshow.
A French philosopher once suggested that all human activity is designed with the sole purpose of avoiding the outside world. But Marilyn Monroe thought that gravity catches up with all of us. Europe should heed the latter, not the former.
Caroline de GruyterEurope affairs correspondent at NRC Handelsblad
Yes, it definitely is. Finland and Sweden are already integrated in the defense plans of their neighbors, be it through NATO, the Nordic Defence Cooperation, or the EU. From this perspective already, their membership of NATO would be an obvious choice. But it would also have to do with the reasons they have not joined NATO thus far.
Finland has been reluctant to join the alliance because it would irk its large neighbor. To have Russia as a neighbor is risky. But fear is the wrong foundation for a country’s strategic positioning. By joining NATO, Finland would show that there is only that much Russia can achieve through intimidation. The fear of its victims encourages the bully.
Sweden has a tradition of neutrality. But neutrality is evolving, as the current debate in Switzerland shows. It is increasingly difficult to use neutrality as a fig leaf. Nowadays, it can smell like complicity. Sweden joining NATO while sticking to its principled foreign policy would send a powerful message about Europe. Deep security goes hand in hand with freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and these are best promoted and protected as part of a group of like-minded countries that respect and help each other. Putin would hate it. That is a sign that it is the right thing to do.
Justyna GotowskaCoordinator of the Regional Security Program in the Center for Eastern Studies, Warsaw
The membership of Finland and Sweden in NATO is of strategic value for military and political reasons. Militarily, the accession of both countries would raise the level of security in the Baltic Sea region and in the High North. It would also prevent Russia from taking advantage of their non-alignment status by attempting to use parts of their territories to conduct military operations against NATO allies.
Finland and Sweden would be fully integrated in NATO’s defense plans and operations. Their military capabilities would change the existing regional imbalance in the Baltic Sea region, which is currently beneficial for Moscow, also giving a strategic depth to the defense of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Politically, Finnish and Swedish membership would strengthen the eastern flank countries caucus in NATO for years to come, even when the effects of the current Russian invasion on Ukraine fade away. Sweden and Finland would then be able to contribute to critical discussions on relations with Russia in NATO. Their accession would also make arguments of those favoring European strategic autonomy in defense less sustainable as one of the arguments has been that some EU countries—including Finland and Sweden—are not covered by Article 5 guarantees.
Gustav C. GresselSenior policy fellow with the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
Sweden and Finland would be an asset to NATO.
Their bid for NATO membership is a clear result of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and the way it was prepared. Both countries have long claimed that despite being non-aligned, they insist on the freedom to choose an alliance if necessary and on their full sovereignty in defense matters. Russia’s “proposal” of a new security arrangement from December 17 that foresaw a de facto rollback of NATO’s enlargement process and forced neutralization of these countries was just the opposite of it.
Furthermore, the United States is clearly and unambiguously the leader of the rally to assist Ukraine in withstanding the Russian assault. The cautious approach of European powers, in contrast, clearly shows the difference in value between any military alliance led by the United States compared to whatever Article 42.7 of the EU treaty may mean.
The fact that both Finland and Sweden have aimed at defending themselves also means they both command capable armed forces. In particular, Finnish total defense concepts have been a role model for other NATO states and, most recently, Ukraine in how to organize territorial defense forces and civil-military cooperation in resisting an aggressor.
The way Ukraine is fighting Russia is also a validation of Finnish or Scandinavian military thought. Integrating them into NATO and institutionalizing military cooperation is of mutual benefit.
Again, the war in Ukraine shows that although Russia commands ample deep-strike weapons, it has problems designating targets beyond the immediate rear of the frontline. Placing NATO’s own aircraft, drones, and deep-strike assets into disguised bases in the rear would protect them from Russian intelligence and enable their operations over the Baltics. There are hardly better places to hide them than Scandinavian woodlands.
Instead of falling for Russian fearmongering, Europeans should embrace Finland and Sweden’s bid for NATO as it also serves their own security interests.
Eva MichaelsBeatriu de Pinós research fellow at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals
Straight yes, both for the short and long run. Finnish and Swedish membership would send a clear message to Russia: it is being punished for its war against Ukraine and faces the consequences it was seeking to avoid.
Being part of NATO makes European states less vulnerable to external aggression and helps them balance against Russia, which is the only viable option to achieve a more peaceful Europe over the longer term.
Will this push Russia more into a corner? No, Russia has pushed itself into the corner by waging an unprovoked and brutal war and might well do so again. Finnish and Swedish membership would suggest that Europeans are becoming more serious in their efforts to counter a major threat while also reaffirming the security benefits of a strong transatlantic link.
Although many questions will need to be addressed about any new physical changes associated with NATO membership (for example, will NATO deploy additional battlegroups to help protect an extended border with Russia or possibly create a new headquarters?), there can be little doubt that both countries’ ability to deter future aggression will be enhanced by NATO’s Article 5, which is widely viewed as a superior collective defense commitment than the EU’s Article 42.7.
Hanna OjanenResearch director at the University of Tampere
Overall, yes. It would enlarge and strengthen but eventually also change NATO, giving it a more regional touch with a new Nordic group ready to benefit NATO as a whole, and with a new model of a deepening bilateral defense arrangement between Finland and Sweden.
NATO membership would absorb quite some energy for the years to come. Finland might have used that energy for EU security and defense. In the longer term, however, it might also make EU security and defense policy stronger.
A possibility is that Finland becomes less constrained in its views on the development of EU defense. Up until now, Helsinki has seemed hesitant about anything that might imply weakening NATO. This could be a position that one might not expect from a non-NATO member to start with, but for Finland, the so-called policy of a “NATO option” seems to have implied avoiding positions that could harm the way it is seen from within the alliance.
For now, however, the two countries seem to be firmly in favor of strengthened cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom. A purely EU European defense arrangement would therefore look like the second-best option for them.
Lucia RybnikárováJunior research fellow at the Centre for Global Europe, GLOBSEC
There is no doubt that Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO will contribute to the European Security. It will support the defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The alliance will improve the security situation in the Baltic region and acquire a greater capacity to control the Baltic Sea. From the geostrategic point of view, the Swedish island of Gotland could serve as an advanced base for defending the Baltic states.
Public opinion in the two Nordic countries has grown rapidly in favor of joining the alliance—a noticeable shift.
In Slovakia public perception has shifted with two thirds now seeing Putin as a threat not only to Ukraine but also to other countries. After the NATO meeting earlier this month, the Slovak foreign minister expressed support for Finland and Sweden joining the alliance. Yet there is an uncertainty over the position coming from Hungary’s newly reelected Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the stance he might take.
Central Europe, which has been at the forefront of the war, could benefit from the unique set of assets and capabilities the two countries would bring to the alliance. Both states have advanced defense capabilities that are already highly interoperable with NATO forces—even more so than some of the former Warsaw Pact states that are currently members of the alliance.
Ester SabatinoResearch analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
Sweden and Finland are already contributing to European security through regional cooperative frameworks such as the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) and Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), the collaboration with EU and transatlantic partners, and the partnership with NATO.
Thanks to the latter, the operational integration of both Finnish and Swedish militaries into NATO structures will require little work to solve remaining operational differences with the potential allies, meaning that an effective contribution of both countries to NATO operations will be possible soon after joining. Moreover, they will bring additional interoperable capabilities to the pool of available ones, like the 64 F-35s fighter jets ordered by Finland or the Swedish Patriot missile systems—thus improving the deterrence and defense capabilities of the European security framework and streamlining the reaction to potential hostile activities in the northern flank.
To what extent their potential membership will change the equilibrium inside NATO remains to be seen. The northern flank would gain much more political weight, as would the EU’s NATO pillar more generally. Nonetheless, this does not translate automatically into an improved European security, which would be reached if all European states—not only Sweden and Finland—decide to engage seriously in training and equipping themselves to ensure European security.
Monika SusAssociate professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences
This is certainly the case, for three reasons—beyond the important element of symbolism where the West is uniting and strengthening cooperation in the face of the threat from Putin:
Firstly, it will boost NATO’s military potential. The two countries are complementary in terms of military resources: Sweden leads when it comes to air defense and maritime security, and Finland—a country with mandatory military service—when it comes to land defense. Of course, these two countries have cooperated with NATO in the past, but their eventual integration into the territorial defense structure will strengthen the military power of the alliance.
Secondly, the membership of Finland and Sweden will strengthen NATO’s hitherto relatively weak northern and northeastern flank. It will thus contribute to raising the level of security in a region that is most vulnerable to hybrid—and not only hybrid—threats from the Russian Federation.
And thirdly, the decision of these two countries’ governments to join NATO demonstrates that the organization’s role in ensuring Europe’s territorial defense is absolutely crucial. NATO’s increased credibility contributes to enhanced European security and is especially important for the allies in close geographic proximity to Russia.
Benjamin TallisPractice fellow at the Hertie School’s Center for International Security
Yes, enormously so and in several ways. Most importantly, it bolsters the ideals that are both the underpinnings and key goals of European security including the right to self-determination for all democratic societies, not just great powers. It is a major demonstration of standing up to the bully and resisting Putin’s strategy of reflexive control, which relies on stoking unfounded fears to get us to deter ourselves from taking the right course of action and properly challenging Russia. Finland and Sweden are really kicking back against that—and it’s great to see.
Integrating Sweden and Finland would significantly boost military capabilities on the northern flank and bring more of Europe’s population under NATO’s protective umbrella. That’s a win-win. It will also make it easier to find the right division of labor with the EU, allowing the latter to focus on capability development but otherwise leave hard security to NATO. The EU provides security in different, more transformative ways (championed by Finland and Sweden) like civilian aspects of the Common Security and Defense Policy and closer integration with the Eastern neighbors, including Ukraine. Overall, it complements the new, hard-edged geopolitical idealism emerging in Central and Eastern EU states and substantiates the “NATO to survive, EU to thrive” motto.
Ben TonraProfessor of International Relations at University College Dublin
It’s certainly a gain for Swedish and Finnish security, but for Europe, the picture is perhaps messier.
Certainly, it blows the old Cold War “Nordic Balance” out of the water. Certainly, too, Russia will insist on its destabilizing effect and they have already threatened a revision in their nuclear and conventional deployments as an inevitable consequence.
The problem for those who argue the “destabilization” effect of NATO enlargement is that the responsibility for this rests no place other than Moscow. European security has been destabilized—indeed shattered—by Russia. All European states must reassess their security needs in the light of Russia’s egregious betrayal of multiple formal treaty obligations and international norms.
In such a light, the stabilization of European security is in fact reinforced by these two states adding their weight to NATO’s northern flank, adding their values and experience to NATO’s policy deliberations, and extending the Venn diagram of the intersection between the EU and NATO.
The pieces of the European security puzzle were thrown to the four winds by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Finland and Sweden are among the first to determine their own rightful place in the new European security picture.
Anna WieslanderDirector for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council
In 1995, Sweden and Finland abandoned neutrality and joined the EU. While remaining military non-aligned, they cooperated closely with NATO, first in international missions, such as the Balkans, and in recent years, on defense in the Baltic Sea region. As a result, Sweden and Finland are as interoperable as most allies and widely considered as security providers. Hence one might ask: why change a winning concept?
The problem is two-fold: first, the Russian threat has exceeded all expectations. Few had anticipated a full-scale invasion of a sovereign country. Secondly, the European security order as we knew it after the Cold War is not only damaged but gone. When trust was broken after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it was still considered as repairable, but not anymore.
As this new situation is assessed, both Finland and Sweden are moving toward joining NATO, which would add value to European security. Informal arrangements are insufficient when the threat level is high and the underlying order has fallen. Sweden and Finland are EU members, solid democracies with strong defenses. Having them as allies would solidify the West and strengthen the transatlantic link.
This blog is part of the Transatlantic Relations in Review series. Carnegie Europe is grateful to the U.S. Mission to the EU for its support.