Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO bid speaks of Nordic pragmatism, less of new alignments

By Anna Saraste, Finland

On May 18, 2022, the Nordic countries Finland and Sweden formally submitted their applications for membership in the NATO military alliance. Many commentators were quick to ask if the applications meant that the Nordic countries were breaking with their tradition of neutrality on the international stage.

However, Finland and Sweden have been everything but neutral in the past decades. The countries are clearly aligned to the West, and have built some of the most equal social democracies in the world. Sweden and Finland joined the European Union in 1995. Both have been NATO partners since the 1990s, effectively participating in NATO military exercises and sending their soldiers to NATO missions, for instance to the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Non-membership in NATO was seen in these countries more as a bureaucratic detail than a question of values.

Popular support for NATO in Finland – which has a 1,340 kilometer border with Russia – was mostly low because the benefits of NATO membership didn’t feel tangible. Still in January 2022 polls suggested that only 28 % of Finns favored NATO membership. In the months following the war in Ukraine, this figure had jumped to 76 % in mid-May. Sweden too saw popular opinion turn radically in favor of NATO membership after the start of Russia’s invasion: in May, it was almost 60 % in favor.

The turn in opinion came from observing the way the invasion tested the willingness of the US and the EU to send help and weapons to Ukraine. Both Finland and Sweden felt that military partnerships weren’t sufficient to guarantee help from abroad to ward off an aggressor as large as Russia. Many people, both in the political leadership as well as among regular citizens, felt that value-based alignment needed to be bolstered with actual membership in NATO and protection through its Article 5. The membership bids thus come from a practical point of view.

While Finland had until the start of the invasion a functioning relationship with Russia – with trade and tourism flowing both ways over the border – the Nordic nation had also always prepared for a potential act of aggression. International media have for instance marveled at the amount of bunkers and reservists in the country. The practical approach to Russia of both good relations and preparedness was formed after the country had recovered from the two wars it fought against the Soviet Union during the Second World War. To be able to defend its sovereignty also in the future, Finland built a considerable military force for itself. Today, Finland boasts a wartime troop strength of 280,000. If reservists are counted in, the country’s strength is already at 900,000 troops – a formidable number for a country of just 5,5 million.

Next to Finland and Sweden also other Nordic countries are strengthening their ties to existing partners and alliances. On 1 June, Denmark voted in a referendum to join the EU’s defense policy, a move many didn’t see possible for decades. It seems that new Nordic pragmatism puts treaties, not independence, at the heart of its changed security politics.

Anna Saraste is a Finnish freelance journalist based in Berlin and M100 Alumna.