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Amid Russian aggression, NATO nonalignment creates risk for Finland and Sweden

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In the wilds of Scandinavia, more than 30,000 troops are conducting live-fire drills at Cold Response, one of the West’s largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War. Planned long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the training mission in NATO member Norway has nevertheless taken on new urgency — and is sending a powerful message to Moscow: United, the allies stand strong.

But for two of the 27 participating nations at Cold Response — Finland and Sweden — the drills are also cold comfort. As their presence suggests, both nations are deeply integrated into the West. But historically nonaligned, neither belongs to NATO. That leaves them standing uncomfortably outside the alliance’s defense umbrella that states an attack on one member is also an attack on all.

The surging Russian threat, however, is spurring a historic debate in both countries on the suddenly ironic risks of embracing caution on NATO membership. Swedes and Finns are watching aghast at the brutal Russian siege of Ukrainian cities, and closely observing the limited NATO military response to a war taking place in another non-NATO nation. Allied weapons are being sent over the border to Ukraine, a country that, unlike Sweden and Finland, at least sought alliance membership, even if it never won it. Biting economic sanctions are also being slapped on Russia. But one thing is now abundantly clear: NATO will not risk nuclear war with Russian President Vladimir Putin by sending in the cavalry to defend a country that is not a member of its club.

That’s food for thought for the long-cautious Swedes and, especially, the Finns, who are even more deeply familiar with Russian aggression. Over the past two weeks, polls in both countries have shown a sea change in public opinion in favor of joining NATO — a stance now shared by a slim majority in both countries for the first time.

“In Sweden, defense was a low priority before the Ukraine war,” Anna Wieslander, the Stockholm-based Northern Europe director for the Atlantic Council, told me. “Now, it’s the number one issue.”

Of the six European Union countries that are not members of NATO — a short list that also includes Austria, Cyprus, Ireland and Malta — Finland and Sweden are seen as perhaps the most likely candidates, but also the ones that would gall Russia the most. Already among the closest nonmember states to NATO, the two countries are Enhanced Opportunity Partners — a category that also includes Ukraine. They further strengthened NATO ties in 2014, signing a deal that granted the defense alliance more room to operate on their territory during conflict and other emergency situations. NATO has already agreed to share intelligence on the Ukraine war with both countries.

Yet Moscow has already warned of “serious military-political consequences” should either nation take the plunge into full membership, appearing to threaten with more than words. Last week, Finnish planes flying near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad suffered mysterious interference with their GPS signals. On March 2, Swedish officials denounced the violation of its Baltic Sea airspace by four Russian fighter jets.

‘We cannot blink’: Eastern Europe tells the West it is time to stand up to Putin

Both countries are nevertheless moving to respond to a new age of Russian aggression. Like other European nations, Sweden has announced a big ramp up in defense spending, with Finland weighing similar action. A week ago, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö met with President Biden at the White House — a session the Swedish leader joined remotely — to discuss greater defense cooperation. On the heels of a major E.U. summit on the Ukraine crisis in France last week, the Finnish and Swedish leaders will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday for a two-day summit alongside other northern European nations, and with the aim of strengthening a regional defense pact.

Both countries have also been seeking to remind other E.U. members that the bloc is more than just an association based on economics and trade. In a joint letter to member nations last week, Finland and Sweden brought up Article 42.7 of the European Union’s founding Lisbon Treaty — which obligates other members to “aid and assist by all the means in their power” any E.U. country that comes under attack.

But few observers see that as a security solution for either country. The E.U. clause lacks the force of NATO’s Article 5 — which provides for the alliance’s defense umbrella. For one, the E.U. treaty does not apply to some of the most important NATO armies — including the United States, Britain and Turkey. And given the European Union’s fundamental stance that NATO still forms the backbone of the continent’s defenses, a test of the Lisbon Treaty’s military pledge might end up dangerously disappointing nonaligned countries.

Of the two, Finland, the only non-NATO E.U. state which shares a border with Russia, is moving faster to weigh an actual membership bid. The country has long existed as a buffer state — spending 700 years as part of Sweden before being wrenched away by the Russian Empire in 1809. After independence in 1917, World War II-era wars with the Soviet Union saw fierce Finnish resistance. A 1948 treaty with Moscow exchanged a measure of independence for a security pact with the Soviets, a stance Helsinki would stick to throughout the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to Finland’s lurch West. It joined the European Union in 1995, even as it refrained from the more provocative step of joining NATO.

Suggesting how Moscow’s war in Ukraine could spur countries on the fence to take clearer sides, a Finnish push to hold a national referendum on joining NATO won the 50,000 signatures needed for a parliamentary debate it in less than a week, Al Jazeera reported. Senior members of the Finnish government, including Niinistö, say a review of the question is now underway, with officials calling for a timely, if not hasty, answer.

“When alternatives and risks have been analyzed, then it’s time for conclusions,” Niinistö told reporters last week. “We have safe solutions also for our future. We must review them carefully. Not with delay, but carefully.”

Sweden, a historically nonaligned country that stayed out of both world wars, appears to be on a slower track. During the Cold War, it saw Moscow as a threat and covertly cooperated with NATO, but did not seek to join it. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sweden cut military spending and joined the European Union, even as public opinion and political will remained against NATO membership.

Despite a massive shift in public opinion since the Ukraine war, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, a stalwart of the center-left, tramped down speculation of any immediate NATO bid.

A move now, she told reporters last week in Stockholm, would “further destabilize the situation.” That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Last week, the Swedish Democrats — a party of right-wing nationalists — announced they would reconsider their past opposition to joining NATO, a move that would give pro-alliance parties a sudden majority in parliament.

Should either country take the leap, one major problem would be the dangerous gap between any petition to join NATO, and having that request granted. Until official entry, either country would still live outside the NATO defense umbrella, while a public pledge to join NATO could increase the threat of a Russian storm.

At least some current NATO members are also likely to resist assuming greater risk at such a sensitive time.

“The question is, can you take out the insurance when the house is on fire?” Wieslander told me. “That is something NATO is also going to have to decide.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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