Finns and Swedes want neutral nations in NATO, poll finds

“The unthinkable could start to become thinkable,” tweeted former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, a supporter of NATO membership.

Neither country will join the alliance overnight. Support for NATO membership goes up and down, and there is no clear majority to join their parliaments.

But the signs of change since Russia began its invasion last week are unmistakable.

The attack on Ukraine prompted Finland and Sweden to break with their policy of not supplying arms to countries at war by sending assault rifles and anti-tank weapons to Kiev. For Sweden, this is the first time it has offered military aid since 1939, when it helped Finland against the Soviet Union.

Seemingly sensing a shift in its Nordic neighbours, the Russian Foreign Ministry last week expressed concern over what it described as efforts by the United States and some of its allies to “drag” Finland and Sweden into NATO and warned that Moscow would be forced to retaliate if they joined the alliance.

The Swedish and Finnish governments have countered that they will not let Moscow dictate their security policy.

“I want to be extremely clear: it is Sweden that decides itself and independently on our security policy line,” said Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

Finland has a history of conflict with Russia, with which it shares a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) border. Finns have fought in dozens of wars against their eastern neighbor, for centuries as part of the Kingdom of Sweden, and as an independent nation, including two with the Soviet Union of 1939-40 and 1941-44.

In the post-war period, however, Finland pursued pragmatic political and economic ties with Moscow, remaining militarily non-aligned and a neutral buffer between East and West.

Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, choosing the path of peace after centuries of war with its neighbors.

Both countries ended traditional neutrality by joining the European Union in 1995 and deepening their cooperation with NATO. However, a majority of people in both countries have remained strongly opposed to full membership in the alliance – until now.

The YLE poll showed 53% in favor of Finland joining NATO, with just 28% against. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points and included 1,382 respondents surveyed from February 23-25. The invasion of Russia began on February 24.

“This is a very important change,” said lead researcher Matti Pesu of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “We have had a situation over the last 25 to 30 years where Finns’ views on NATO have been very stable. He now seems to have completely changed.

While noting that it is not possible to draw conclusions from a single poll, Pesu said no similar shift in public opinion occurred after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, “so this is an exception”.

In Sweden, a poll commissioned in late February by public broadcaster SVT found that 41% of Swedes favor NATO membership and 35% oppose it, marking the first time that supporters have surpassed those against. .

The Nordic duo, important NATO partners in the Baltic Sea region where Russia has dramatically increased its military maneuvers over the past decade, have strongly emphasized that it is up to them alone to decide whether to join or not. the military alliance.

In his New Year’s speech, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto clearly stated that “Finland’s room for maneuver and freedom of choice also includes the possibility of military alignment and an application for NATO membership. , if we decide for ourselves”.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted last week that for Helsinki and Stockholm “it’s about self-determination and the sovereign right to choose your own path, and then potentially in the future, to also apply for NATO”.

There are no set criteria for joining NATO, but potential candidates must meet certain political and other considerations. Many observers believe that Finland and Sweden would qualify for accelerated entry into NATO without lengthy negotiations within months.

Although not members, Finland and Sweden cooperate closely with NATO, allowing, among other things, alliance troops to exercise on their soil. Helsinki and Stockholm have also significantly stepped up their bilateral defense cooperation in recent years, and both have maintained close military cooperation with the United States, Britain and neighboring NATO member Norway.

Niinisto’s office said Thursday that he would meet with President Biden at the White House on Friday “to discuss Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the effects of the war on the European security order and cooperation bilateral”.

The Finnish head of state is one of the few Western leaders to have had a regular dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin since Niinisto took office in 2012. Niinisto also enjoys good relations with Biden and two leaders have maintained close contacts throughout Ukraine. crisis.

In December, Biden called Niinisto and said he was pleased with Finland’s decision to buy 64 Lockheed Martin F-35A stealth fighter jets to replace the country’s aging F-18 fighters. Biden said the move would pave the way for closer U.S.-Finnish military ties in the future.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said this week that her Social Democratic party would discuss possible NATO membership with other parties, but did not set a deadline. She said everyone agrees that the events of the past few weeks have been a game-changer.

“Together, we see that the security situation has changed remarkably since Russia attacked Ukraine. It’s a fact that we have to acknowledge,” Marin said.

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