Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Both Sweden and Finland have reopened their national debates about joining the NATO alliance in light of the recent months of tension between Russia and the West, with popular opposition to the alliance now on the wane in the two countries.
While neither has formally submitted an application for membership, both have sought assurances from the alliance that its doors remain open should they opt to join. Sweden and Finland have long chosen to remain neutral, preferring instead to share information with the alliance and participate in some joint training exercises.
With Russia’s President Vladimir Putin demanding that NATO pledges no further expansion to the east, leaders of Sweden and Finland have reacted by loudly reasserting their right to apply for membership should they so choose.
“It is for Finland and 30 NATO allies to decide, finally, on the issue of membership, and that’s exactly the same for Sweden”, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared on Monday, after meeting with the two countries’ foreign ministers.
Traditionally support for NATO membership has been very low among voters in Sweden and Finland, but the mood appears to be changing with the growing tensions arising from Russian troop deployments around the Ukrainian border. A January survey in Finland showed that opposition to joining NATO had dropped to a two-decade low of just 42%.
For Swedish Social Democrats, the country’s largest political party, membership in NATO is comparable to “blasphemy”, Robert Dalsjo of the Swedish Defence Research Agency told AFP. Dalsjo noted, however, that this sentiment could face re-evaluation should the Finns bid for membership, or if a credible threat appears.
According to Finnish analyst Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Russia has already engaged in a number of “sub-threshold actions”, citing the release of migrants across the Finnish border in 2016, and the rise in airspace incursions.
Finland, vividly recalls the Soviet incursion into its territory during the Second World War, and has been investing heavily in its defence. Recently, it announced plans to spend 8.4 billion euro on US-made F-35 fighter jets. Sweden, on the other hand, would benefit much more from NATO membership, since the country slashed its defence budget after the Cold War, and only in 2017 reintroduced mandatory military service. Back in 2013, the nation’s then-top general, Sverker Goranson, noted that Sweden would only be able to hold off a Russian invasion for “about a week” without outside help.