Finland and Sweden formally ask to join NATO, in potentially its biggest expansion in two decades
By Johanna Lemola, Christina Anderson and Shashank Bengali
Finland and Sweden formally submitted their bids for NATO membership on Wednesday morning, casting aside decades of strategic neutrality to embrace the military alliance in a stunningly swift transformation prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Finnish and Swedish envoys delivered letters expressing their nations’ interest in joining NATO to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. Stoltenberg has said that NATO would seek to admit both nations in a fast-track process.
The two Nordic states, which have had close relations with NATO but long remained militarily nonaligned, have seen public opinion tilt heavily in favor of joining the alliance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended European security. If both are admitted, it would mark NATO’s most significant expansion in nearly two decades, increasing the organization’s membership to 32 nations and adding hundreds of additional miles of border with Russia.
The potential growth of NATO is another example of how President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has backfired. The Russian leader described NATO’s eastward expansion as one reason he felt compelled to send troops and tanks into Ukraine, but instead of fracturing the Western alliance, Russia’s aggression has strengthened it.
Putin has struck a measured tone since Finland and Sweden announced their intentions to join NATO, saying that their accession would not create a “direct threat” but that Russia’s response would be determined by how NATO expands its military infrastructure into those nations.
Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, said the war had convinced his country, which shares an 810-mile-long eastern border with Russia, that it could not afford to remain on the sidelines.
“We believed that nonalignment would give us stability,” he said Tuesday during an official visit to Sweden. But Russia’s invasion, he added, “changed everything.”
The formal submissions came after a dizzying week that began when Niinisto and Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, announced their support for membership last Thursday. Finland’s Parliament endorsed the proposal Tuesday in a vote of 188-8. The vote was a political formality, since Niinisto has authority over the nation’s foreign policy, but it served as a signal of enthusiasm in a country where public opinion in favor of joining NATO has moved from 20% before the Russian invasion to 80% now.
“This was an exceptionally strong result, 188 votes in favor, “Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, told the Finnish broadcaster YLE. “I did not myself expect such a strong outcome.” Haavisto signed the country’s application after the vote.
The Finnish government has closely coordinated its moves with Sweden, a long-standing security partner that has observed neutrality for two centuries but whose public has also moved staunchly in favor of joining NATO.
On Sunday, Sweden’s governing Social Democratic Party cast aside decades of misgivings and announced its decision to support the bid for accession to NATO. Fifty-seven percent of the Swedish public now supports joining the alliance, up from 48% at the end of April, according to a poll by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, signed her country’s NATO application Tuesday morning.
Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, said that her nation was closely bound with Finland. “This is a strong and clear signal that we stand united,” she said.
The triumphant mood in the Nordic states was shadowed, however, by signals that Turkey, a NATO member, might seek to block their accession. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sharply criticized Sweden in particular as a haven for Kurdish separatists he regards as terrorists.
Niinisto has said that he was surprised by Erdogan’s comments, and expressed hope that any differences could be worked out in direct talks with Turkey.
The United States has strongly backed membership for Finland and Sweden. On Thursday, Niinisto and Andersson are scheduled to meet with President Joe Biden in Washington. They will discuss their NATO bids, the war in Ukraine and “the relationship of Europe and the United States in the changed security situation,” according to a statement from the Finnish presidency.