Shaken by Russia, Finland and Sweden revisit NATO debate
Helsinki (AFP) – The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has reignited debate in Finland and Sweden over whether they should join NATO to fend off any possible aggression from the east.
Fighter jets could be heard carrying out exercises over the Finnish capital this week, while Sweden recently deployed troops to a Baltic outpost in response to rising tensions.
President Vladimir Putin’s demands that NATO not expand eastward also led Finnish and Swedish leaders to loudly reaffirm their right to apply for membership if they so wished.
“It’s up to Finland and 30 NATO allies to decide, finally, on the question of membership, and it’s exactly the same for Sweden,” the secretary general of the NATO said on Monday. NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, after meeting the foreign ministers of the countries.
Neither Finland nor Sweden have officially expressed a desire to become full members, preferring instead information sharing and joint training.
But Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs said Finland and Sweden had made “a conscious effort…to get explicit statements that NATO’s open door policy is always open”.
Elina Valtonen, vice-president of Finland’s opposition National Coalition Party, said joining was “a natural step”.
“We have formed increasingly close cooperation agreements not only with NATO, but also with the United Kingdom and the United States,” Valtonen said.
She added that Finland had long since abandoned its Cold War stance of seeking to appease the Kremlin by remaining neutral.
“Similar to blasphemy”
Without membership, Finland is ineligible for protections under NATO’s Article 5, which commits other members to come to its aid if Russia sends troops across the 1,340 kilometer long border ( 830 miles).
But support for NATO membership has traditionally been low among Finns and Swedes, although a January survey in Finland suggested opposition to membership had fallen to 42%, its lowest. level in two decades.
Robert Dalsjo of the Swedish Defense Research Agency said that for many members of Sweden’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, NATO membership was akin to “blasphemy”.
A reassessment could only be triggered by “a Finnish openness to membership, or a threat so credible that the political calculus changes”, he said.
Few Russia watchers suspect Putin of intending to send tanks to Finland.
But, said Finnish analyst Salonius-Pasternak, “we have seen and continue to see…sub-threshold actions”, such as Russia suddenly releasing 1,700 migrants across the Finnish border in 2016, or repeated incursions into airspace.
With lingering memories of the bloody invasion attempt by the Soviets in World War II, Finland for years maintained high levels of military readiness.
Finland’s former foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, one of the country’s most prominent opponents of NATO membership, said the country was well prepared if needed.
“We don’t have blue eyes, so we have invested a lot in our national defence,” he said.
Finland has spent 8.4 billion euros ($9.5 billion) on new fighter jets and ‘can mobilize a reserve of 280,000 trained soldiers, which no other country in Europe can do’ , added Tuomioja.
Sweden, on the other hand, reduced its military spending after the Cold War.
In 2013, Commander-in-Chief Sverker Goranson shocked Swedes by saying the country could only fend off a Russian invasion for “about a week” without outside help.
But after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Sweden began to strengthen its defences.
“We were surprised dressed for good weather as the barometer indicated an upcoming storm,” said Dalsjo, the Swedish analyst.
“We solved this by borrowing umbrellas, boots and warm sweaters from the Americans”, but Sweden is still far from having the means to defend itself.
The country, which has not been at war for two centuries, reintroduced compulsory military service in 2017.
This month, Sweden deployed armed patrols to the island of Gotland after three Russian landing ships entered the Baltic Sea.
Finland announced that it had boosted its “preparedness” with military exercises across the country.
Salonius-Pasternak said Helsinki were quietly preparing behind the scenes.
“Right now, things are happening, but maybe you don’t see it,” he said.
© 2022 AFP