The story so far: With the Russian invasion of Ukraine nearing three months, Sweden and Finland (SweFin), the two Nordic countries that have historically stayed out of military alliances, have formally applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). If President Vladimir Putin ordered the Ukraine attack on February 24, apparently to prevent NATO’s further expansion into Russia’s neighbourhood, he is now facing the prospects of two countries joining the trans-Atlantic military alliance. But their accession into NATO may not be smooth. Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, has said it would oppose the Nordic countries joining the bloc, citing that they harbour “terrorist groups” — a reference to Kurdish insurgent outfits. Put together, these developments — the continuing war in Ukraine, fresh NATO applications, and Turkey’s opposition to SweFin’s bid — have shaken up Europe’s delicate security equilibrium further.
What explains the long-term neutrality of Sweden and Finland?
The last war Sweden fought was in 1814 — the Swedish Norwegian War. Six years earlier Russia had invaded the Gotland Island in the Baltic Sea. While the Swedes drove the Russians out of the island, the latter took Finland away from Sweden while retreating. After the Swedish-Norwegian war, Sweden has adopted neutrality as the cornerstone of its foreign policy as it suited its interests better in an increasingly hostile neighbourhood. It stayed out of the two World Wars and the Cold War.
Finland’s history has been more complicated. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin invaded Finland in 1939, demanding more territories in the Karelian Isthmus, the strip of land situated between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) sat at the southern end of the Isthmus and Stalin wanted a buffer between Finland and the former Tsarist capital. The Finns resisted valiantly in the initial phase of the war denying an outright victory to the Red Army, but eventually agreed to sign the Moscow Peace Treaty as part of which they had to cede more territories of the Isthmus than what Stalin originally demanded. But a year later, the Finns joined hands with the German Nazis and attacked the Soviet Union. Peace returned to the long Soviet-Finnish border only after the Nazis were defeated in the Second World War. Having suffered the after-effects of two wars, Finland did not want to get sucked into another great power contest. Like 19th century Sweden, Finland also adopted neutrality as the centrepiece of its foreign policy.
What triggered SweFin’s NATO application?
In short, Mr. Putin’s Ukraine war. While the Russians may have their explanations for the war, the invasion saw Russia violating the sovereignty of a weaker power in its neighbourhood. It also raised questions on whether Russia would have started the war had Ukraine been a NATO member. Unlike Ukraine, Sweden and Finland do not have any border conflict with Russia. But again, Ukraine didn’t have any major conflict with Russia until the 2014 regime change in Kyiv. So the Russian attack seemed to have altered the security calculus of SweFin. They moved quickly to apply for NATO membership because they hoped the alliance would act as deterrence against potential future attacks. Sweden and Finland have already developed deep ties with the West. Both are members of the European Union. Their ties with NATO are the closest two non-members could get with the alliance. They hold joint military drills with NATO, share intelligence and have supported NATO’s military missions abroad. They did not formally seek membership until now because they did not want to upset the security status quo in Europe. They also feared Russian retaliation. But that status quo has been altered by the Russian invasion. And the possibility of Russian military retaliation is very less now because Russian troops are fighting a seemingly prolonged war in Ukraine. This opened the door for both SweFin and NATO. And they are ready to embrace each other.
What’s Russia’s position?
Since the German reunification in 1990, NATO has seen five rounds of expansions. In 1999, three East European countries — Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland — became NATO members. In 2004, seven more countries — including the three Baltic nations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all sharing borders with Russia — were taken into the alliance. Russia has consistently opposed the bloc expanding its reach towards its neighbourhood, but was not in a position to do anything about it. In 2008, however, when Georgia and Ukraine, both Russia’s neighbours and Black Sea basin countries, were offered membership, Russia responded militarily. Now, with SweFin applying for NATO membership, the bloc is coming further closer to Russia’s border. Finland shares an over 1,300-km border with Russia. Sweden’s Gotland island in the Baltic Sea is some 200 km away from Russia’s Kaliningrad coast. But despite its concerns, Russia would not be able to do much to stop their NATO bids. Mr. Putin has sought to play down the development saying the Nordic countries joining NATO does not pose any immediate threat to his nation, but warned against NATO moving weapons to these countries. While it’s not clear what Russia would do in the long term, its immediate response was to cut electricity exports and gas supplies to Finland.
Why is Turkey against SweFin’s bids?
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said Turkey would oppose SweFin’s NATO bid. Within NATO, decisions are taken unanimously, which means every country in the 30-member bloc holds a veto. Turkey says Sweden and Finland have ties with “terrorist” groups — a reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PKK, which seeks greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, has waged an armed insurgency since the mid-1980s. The YPG is the armed wing of Syrian Kurdistan which controls parts of the Kurdish region in Syria. Turkey faces serious allegations of human rights violations in the Kurdish region. In recent years, Mr. Erdogan’s government has cracked down on Kurdish political groups and leaders, including the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Selahattin Demirtas, a charismatic Kurdish politician who was a former legislator and presidential election candidate, has been in prison since 2016. Turkey has justified its actions, claiming that the PKK, YPG and their associated political groups are “terrorists”.
Turkey says Sweden, and Finland to a certain extent, maintain close ties with Kurdish militias, particularly the YPG. It also alleges that the countries are hosting supporters of the Fethullah Gulen movement, a religious sect led by the U.S.-based Gulen who is accused by Ankara of being the mastermind behind the failed 2016 coup against Mr. Erdogan. Turkish state TV reported last week that Sweden and Finland refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Ankara. Mr. Erdogan calls Sweden “a nesting ground for terrorist organisations” and has ruled out Turkey backing SweFin’s NATO entry in the future either.
When Mr. Erdogan first expressed his opposition, many thought it would be a bargaining tactic. But the repeated comments from the Turkish leadership have raised alarm in NATO capitals. If Turkey walks the talk and blocks the SweFin bid, that would leave the Nordic countries in an awkward spot — they have already given up neutrality, but they won’t be getting NATO’s protection. Even if the application goes through, it would take time for these countries to be formally inducted into the alliance. In the case of NATO’s last expansion, when North Macedonia was admitted into the alliance in March 2020, the process took 20 months. In the case of Montenegro, which became a NATO member in June 2017, the process took 18 months. So the time taken for the process to be completed offers a window to Mr. Putin, whose response would depend on whether his troops could meet their military objectives in Ukraine and whether they could do it fast. There’s a lot of uncertainty. The only thing that’s certain is that more instability is awaiting Europe.
- With the Russian invasion of Ukraine nearing three months, Sweden and Finland (SweFin), the two Nordic countries that have historically stayed out of military alliances, have formally applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
- But their accession into NATO may not be smooth. Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, has said it would oppose the Nordic countries joining the bloc, citing that they harbour “terrorist groups” — a reference to Kurdish insurgent outfits.
- Putin has sought to play down the development saying the Nordic countries joining NATO does not pose any immediate threat to his nation, but warned against NATO moving weapons to these countries.