The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sweden and Finland consider joining NATO

War in Ukraine has made the two countries on Russia’s border seriously consider being part of the military and political alliance.

Swedish troops train in the Baltic Sea region. Sweden and Finland are considering this week whether to join NATO. Both countries, which border Russia, had long favored staying out of the military and political alliance. The war in Ukraine has caused them to rethink that position. (Joel Thungren/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Leaders in Finland and Sweden are seriously considering this week whether to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered the long-held belief in those nations that remaining outside the political and military alliance was the best way to avoid trouble with their giant neighbor.

If Finland’s president and the governing Social Democrats in both countries come out in favor of accession in the next few days, NATO could soon add two members on Russia’s doorstep.

That would be a historic development for the two Nordic countries: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland adopted neutrality after being defeated by the Soviet Union in World War II.

Membership in NATO, which is made up of 30 mostly European nations, was never seriously considered in either country until Russian forces attacked Ukraine on February 24. Almost overnight, the conversation in their capitals, Helsinki and Stockholm, shifted from “Why should we join?” to “How long does it take?”

The change is one of the most significant ways in which the invasion appears to have backfired on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

If Finland and Sweden join the alliance, Russia would find itself surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic.

“There is no going back to the status quo before the invasion,” said Heli Hautala, a Finnish diplomat previously posted to Moscow and a research fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, the Western leader who appeared to have the best rapport with Putin before the Ukraine war, is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership Thursday. The governing Social Democratic parties in both countries are set to present their positions this weekend.

If their answer is “yes,” there would be robust majorities in both parliaments for NATO membership, paving the way for formal application procedures to begin right away.

The Finnish Social Democrats led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin are likely to join other parties in Finland in endorsing a NATO application. The situation in Sweden isn’t as clear.

The Swedish Social Democrats have always been committed to nonalignment, but party leader and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has said there’s a clear “before and after February 24.”

Neither Finland nor Sweden is planning to allow voters to decide in a referendum, fearing it could become a prime target of Russian interference.

After remaining firmly against membership for decades, public opinion in both countries shifted rapidly this year. Polls show more than 70 percent of Finns and about 50 percent of Swedes now favor joining.

Adding new members typically takes months, because those decisions need to be ratified by all 30 NATO members. But in the case of Finland and Sweden, the accession process could be done “in a couple of weeks,” according to a NATO official who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified.