NATO’s possible expansion in Northern Europe and its significance for Georgia and Ukraine
Nino Chanadiri, Contributing Analyst
In parallel with the Ukraine crisis, the possibility of NATO’s expansion in Northern Europe, which implies the membership of Sweden and Finland, is being discussed more and more actively. As is whether, in fact, it means that Russia’s latest moves regarding Ukraine accelerate what Putin opposes so vehemently - bringing NATO even closer to Russia's borders.
Late last year, Russia introduced demands for "legal guarantees" to ease tensions around Ukraine. Those demands include NATO stopping its expansion to the east, and for the deployment of NATO troops and weapons in Eastern Europe to be limited. This caused concerns in Finland and Sweden, who are not NATO members but actively cooperate with the alliance. In the light of growing threats from Russia in recent years, the debate over NATO membership in these countries has become increasingly relevant. The Russian demands highlighted to the authorities in these countries that opposition from Russia to the future expansion of NATO could reduce not only Ukraine’s, but also their ability to make an independent political decision on their foreign moves.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde noted of Russia’s demands on NATO’s non-expansion, that compromises about this issue from NATO would have a significant impact on Sweden's security. On 16 February, the Minister presented a 2022 statement on foreign policy to the parliament, stating that Sweden has no plans to join NATO. However, it emphasizes that one of the main pillars of Sweden's foreign and security policy is deepened cooperation with the alliance. The statement drew particular attention to the Russian threat to European security and that “Ukraine, like Sweden, has the right to make its own security policy choices”. The president of Finland Sauli Niinistö responded to the situation in January and declared that the demands from Russia were a challenge to European security and Finland’s sovereignty. He cited the EU as a party in the conflict, whose members’ sovereignties are under threat, and said the EU's role in the process should be more active than just the technical coordination of sanctions.
NATO’s attitude is also principled. In January, after meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Finland and Sweden, the NATO Secretary General said that only NATO member states and Finland and Sweden can decide on the membership of these countries in the alliance. According to former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, although the issue is not on the agenda at the moment, Finland and Sweden are NATO's closest partners and if they wish, their membership can be decided overnight.
In parallel with the growing relevance of this topic, a warning was issued by Russia that the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO would have military and political consequences “that would require an adequate response from Russia”.
In light of the threat of a Russian invasion in Ukraine, Sweden and Finland enhanced their military readiness, as they anticipate that the war could have an impact on neighboring countries as well. Sweden has sent troops and armaments to the strategic island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.
Island of Gotland (Source: Financial Times)
The current Russian-Ukrainian crisis is not the first time an aggravated situation in the Black Sea basin has had a significant impact on the Baltic Sea region. After the events in 2008 and 2014 in Georgia and Ukraine, the perception in the Baltic Sea region was strengthened that Russia is ready to use force against territorially close states to hinder their cooperation and accession to NATO. This was followed by steps to strengthen the security of countries in the region. The Swedish Security Service has declared many times that various kinds of attacks on Sweden “have broadened and deepened in recent years”. In 2020, it was announced that Sweden would significantly increase its defense spending for 2021-2025, which was linked to increasing threats in the Baltic Sea region. By 2022, Finland had also upped spending on air defense.
Attitudes in Swedish and Finnish societies
Both Sweden and Finland are in close cooperation with NATO. However, in both societies, positions on membership are not homogenous. While NATO membership in Georgia and Ukraine is associated with security guarantees in the neighborhood of Russia, Sweden and Finland, which are also Russia's neighbors, have traditionally avoided membership in the military alliance. According to the last surveys in Sweden, 37% of the countries citizens support NATO membership, while 35% oppose it and 28% do not have a clear position. Over the years, however, a positive trend has been observed in terms of the growing number of NATO supporters. In previous years, the number of supporters did not exceed 32%, while more than 40% opposed.
Support for NATO membership is relatively low (26%) in Finland. 40% are against membership of the alliance, while the number of citizens without a specific position is also significantly high (33%). Yet, as in Sweden, the number of opponents of NATO membership has been declining in Finland over the years.
In the political sphere, most parties in Finland traditionally do not support the country's potential membership in the military alliance, and believe that close cooperation with NATO is sufficient. In Sweden, however, attitudes are relatively divided. The ruling Social Democrats are in favor of military non-allignment, while the idea of NATO membership is gaining more support in opposition parties - including the largest party in parliament, the "Moderate Party". In recent years, thanks to the support of opposition parties, the Swedish parliament has adopted the so-called NATO Option, which means the country can consider NATO membership if the need arises.
Given the lack of support from the majority in Swedish and Finnish societies, the prospect of NATO membership seems less likely at this stage. However, as Russian aggression grows, the number of supporters of NATO membership is increasing. If Russia launches an attack on Ukraine, it will be a clear signal to the citizens of both countries of the threat to their sovereignty too, which could lead to a change in attitude. In Sweden and Finland, the number of people with no clear position regarding membership is quite high. In parallel with the growing security challenges, their support is expected to shift towards alliance membership.
Sweden and Finland are actively cooperating in the field of defense and security policy. It is likely that public opinion will be influenced by the second country’s choice regarding membership: If Sweden decides to join NATO in future amid growing support, it is expected that this will encourage Finland to decide to join the alliance too. It is less likely to be favorable for Finland to stay as a buffer zone in Northern Europe between NATO and Russia. It is expected that the two states will maintain active communication regarding NATO accession, and their decisions will be agreed with each other.
Although the ruling parties of both countries are among those who have not previously supported membership in the military alliance, recent events show that the Finnish and Swedish authorities want to maintain the possibility of joining NATO if it is in the interest of national security.
What is the significance of NATO expansion in Northern Europe for Georgia and Ukraine?
The support of Northern European countries to the Eastern European states, including Georgia and Ukraine, has always been firm. Sweden, together with Poland, is the initiator of the Eastern Partnership program, in which Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are considered successful members. If Sweden joins NATO in future, it is expected that these countries will acquire another supporter in the alliance.
Not allowing Russia to influence NATO’s “open door policy” is crucial for Georgia and Ukraine. As mentioned above, if a positive decision is made in Sweden and Finland, the process of their accession to the alliance will proceed quickly. The entry of these countries into the alliance will be proof that NATO does not “trade” on this principle issue with Russia, and the opportunity to join also remains for Georgia and Ukraine, who are considered future members after being, as it is often referred to in NATO, “ready to join as a result of various reforms.”
NATO’s expansion to Northern Europe will be a significant blow to Russia. It will be a long-term effect of Putin's "Ukrainian venture” and is also likely to have consequences for his domestic political image. If he starts a war in Ukraine, it is likely that this will only strengthen the aspirations of Russia’s northern neighbors for NATO, thus, in fact, he will be contributing to what he opposes so vehemently.
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