HELSINKI (Associated Press) – During the Cold War and the decades that followed, nothing could convince the Finns and Swedes that they would be in a better position to join NATO – until now.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine It has profoundly changed the security outlook for Europeincluding the neutral Nordic countries of Finland and Sweden, where support for joining NATO has risen to record levels.
A poll conducted by Finnish radio station YLE this week showed that more than 50% of Finns are in favor of joining the Western Military Alliance for the first time. And in neighboring Sweden, a similar survey showed that there are more supporters of NATO membership than opponents.
“The unthinkable may begin to become thinkable,” Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweetedan advocate of NATO membership.
Neither country will join the alliance overnight. Support for NATO membership rises and falls, and there is no clear majority to join their parliaments.
But signs of change since Russia began its invasion last week are unmistakable.
The attack on Ukraine prompted Finland and Sweden to break from their policy of not providing weapons to the warring countries by sending assault rifles and anti-tank weapons to Kyiv. For Sweden, this is the first time it has provided military aid since 1939, when it helped Finland against the Soviet Union.
Apparently sensing a shift between its northern neighbors, the Russian Foreign Ministry last week expressed concern about 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 have to take retaliatory measures if they joined the alliance.
The governments of Sweden and Finland responded They will not let Moscow dictate their security policy.
“I want to be very clear: Sweden is the one that decides for itself and independently the line of our security policy,” said Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersen.
Finland has a history full of conflicts with Russia, with which it shares a border of 1,340 kilometers (830 miles). The Finns participated in dozens of wars against their eastern neighbor, for centuries as part of the Kingdom of Sweden, and as an independent country, including two that fought with the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1940 and from 1941 to 1944.
However, in the post-war period, Finland sought pragmatic political and economic relations with Moscow, remaining militarily unaligned 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 neighbours.
Both countries put an end to traditional neutrality by joining the European Union in 1995 and deepening cooperation with NATO. However, the majority of people in both countries have remained against full membership in the alliance – until now.
The YLE poll showed that 53% support Finland’s joining NATO, compared to only 28% against it. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points on 1,382 respondents interviewed from February 23-25. The Russian invasion began on February 24.
“It’s a very important shift,” said lead researcher Matti Bezu of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “We have seen a situation in the last 25-30 years where Finns have very stable views of NATO. Now it seems that it has completely changed.”
While noting that it was not possible to draw conclusions from a single poll, Besso said there was no similar shift in public opinion after Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, “so this is an exception.”
In Sweden, a late February poll commissioned by public broadcaster SVT showed 41% of Swedes support NATO membership and 35% oppose it, the first time supporters have overtaken those opposed.
The northern duo, important NATO partners in the Baltic Sea region where Russia has significantly increased its military maneuvers in the past decade, have firmly emphasized that it is up to them alone to decide whether to join the military alliance.
In his New Year’s address, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said clearly that “Finland’s room for maneuver and freedom of choice also includes the possibility of military alignment and application for NATO membership, if we so decide.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted last week that Helsinki and Stockholm “are about self-determination and the sovereign right to choose your own path and then also in the future, to apply to NATO.”
There are no set criteria for joining NATO, but aspiring candidates must meet some political and other considerations. Many observers believe that Finland and Sweden will qualify for rapid accession to NATO without protracted negotiations within months.
Despite their non-memberships, Finland and Sweden cooperate closely with NATO, allowing, among other things, allied forces to conduct exercises on their soil. Helsinki and Stockholm have also significantly intensified their bilateral defense cooperation in the past years, and have secured close military cooperation with the United States, Britain and neighboring NATO member Norway.
Niinisto’s office said Thursday that he will meet with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday “to discuss Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the effects of the war on the European security system, and bilateral cooperation.”
The Finnish head of state is one of the few Western leaders who have maintained a regular dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin since Niinisto took office in 2012. Niinisto’s relationship with Biden also appears to be good, and two leaders have maintained close contact throughout Ukraine.
In December, Biden called Niinisto and said he was pleased with Finland’s decision to purchase 64 Lockheed Martin F-35A stealth fighters. To replace the country’s old F-18 fighters. Biden said the move would pave the way for closer military ties between the United States and Finland 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 specify a timeframe. She said everyone agreed that the events of the past weeks had changed the rules of the game.
Together we see that the security situation has changed significantly since Russia attacked Ukraine. “It’s a fact we have to admit,” Marin said.
___ Associated Press writers Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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