NATO Welcomes Finland as its 31st Member, Sweden to Follow Soon
Prof Rajaram Panda

The Russia-Ukraine crisis has assumed a new dimension as the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main sore point, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), welcomed its new member Finland on 4 April 2023, upon depositing its instrument of accession to the organisation with the United States at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. NATO Allies signed Finland's Accession Protocol on 5 July 2022, after which all 30 national parliaments voted to ratify the country's membership. The import of this momentous development did not receive the kind of coverage that it deserved by the major Western newspapers. But for Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, this was “historic” as it ended 75 years of Finland’s neutrality. Now, once Turkey stops blocking its membership, Sweden, another eternal neutral country, will follow soon.

At the ratification process of the Accession Protocols being concluded, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto observed that Finland will contribute in making NATO even stronger, both politically and militarily. Finland is expected to make strong contributions to the alliance. Stressing Finland’s strong defence capability, civil preparedness and resilience, Haavisto stressed that his country shall contribute to the strength of the alliance.

Finland’s membership to the NATO alliance was delayed for months until Turkish Parliament finally voted unanimously approving Finland’s application to the accession process to the alliance. The vote thus fulfilled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “promise” to allow Finland in the defence alliance. Turkey was the last NATO member to approve Finland’s accession, although Hungary only did so few days ago.[1]It is expected that Sweden’s case shall go smoothly through the same process.

There are hurdles ahead, however. For now, Turkey is opposed to Sweden’s membership because Erdoğan is of the view that Turkey would not approve Sweden’s NATO membership unless the country extradites “terrorists” upon Turkish request. Sweden has made clear this would not happen and for now, the process is stuck. The Ukraine crisis shall push for an early decision on Sweden’s membership application.

NATO has an open-door policy. Any country can be invited to join if it expresses an interest, as long as it is able and willing to uphold the principles of the bloc’s founding treaty. However, under the accession rules, any member state can veto a new country from joining. Both Turkey and Hungary as members of the alliance had reservations initially but both cleared Finland’s membership application after considerable debate. Sweden’s case is awaited and is expected to pass soon.

Interestingly, it was only four years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron had called the possibility of the two Baltic states joining the alliance as ‘brain dead’, and former US President Donald Trump saw as ‘obsolete’ in 2017. The Ukraine crisis suddenly resurrected the possibility of NATO’s expansion what was once thought unthinkable as the geostrategic matrix changed suddenly. The push for this new life to NATO was Putin himself. Putin expected that by subduing Ukraine, he would prevent the organisation’s enlargement but what he achieved is the opposite as he pushed the two Nordic countries into the alliance. Now NATO gets a new brain and a new lease of life and in better health that eluded it for decades. NATO remains as the oldest alliance of free countries. With Finland already in and Sweden likely to follow soon, and the final obstacle - objections by Turkey – overcome, this would be a monumental shift for the two Nordic countries with a long history of wartime neutrality and staying out of military alliances.

Because of strategic reasons, Russia strongly opposes the two states joining the alliance. Putin in fact has used the expansion of the West’s military alliance as a pretext for its war in Ukraine. Putin’s actions shattered a long-standing sense of stability in northern Europe. Both Finland and Sweden had reason to feel vulnerable. In fact, soon after Russian troops marched into Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Finland’s joining the alliance was a “done deal” as security threats suddenly heightened.

Finland cannot forget that in March 1940 it lost its eastern province of Karelia to Russia. The people of Finland were awakened to a similar possibility when Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine this time. When the Soviet army invaded Finland in late 1939, Finland’s army put up a fierce resistance but were outnumbered. Though they escaped occupation, Finland lost 10 per cent of its territory. The Finns suddenly revisited the history when the war in Ukraine broke out and readied to protect the country’s sovereignty by aligning its future with the NATO grouping.

Finland shares a 1,340 km (830 mile) border with Russia. So the fear this time was real and sticking to the policy of neutrality was therefore not an option. Also, both Finland and Sweden have increased their military budget in recent years. This is triggered also by several reported airspace violations by Russian military aircraft. It was reported earlier that a Russian submarine was lurking in the shallow waters of the Stockholm archipelago in 2014. In response to this development, Sweden’s army returned to the small but strategically important Baltic Sea island of Gotland, which was abandoned for over two decades.[2]

Though Finland officially already joined the NATO alliance and Sweden likely to follow soon, both were official partners of NATO in 1994 and have contributed to the alliance and also taken part in several NATO missions since the end of the Cold War. Seen from this perspective, not much change can be visible, except that the two Nordic states shall enjoy for the first time security guarantees from nuclear states under NATO’s Article 5, which views an attack on one member state as an attack on all. This kind of protection means big for both Finland and Sweden in the face of Russia’s military might.

Learning from their historical experience, both have made incremental moves to strengthen their independent defence capabilities since the end of the Cold War. Finland bought 64 combat planes from the US in 1992. Three years later, both Finland and Sweden joined the European Union. Successive governments since then have favourably viewed to the idea of partnering with the NATO. With a population of 5.5 million, Sweden has army strength of 280,000 soldiers and 900,000 reservists. Though the priority earlier was to downsize its military and prioritising peacekeeping missions from territorial defence, such a policy changed suddenly when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Soon conscription returned and spending on defence increased. Finland has already reached NATO’s agreed defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP. Sweden has also plans in place.

How does Russia view to NATO’s expansion? It sees Finland’s joining the NATO and Sweden to follow almost given, as a provocation. It would not be a surprise if Russia responds by deploying nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, the Russia exclave between Poland and Lithuania. Russia is also likely to resort to other means of retaliation such as cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and occasional airspace violations.

Opinions in Finland and Sweden are however divided if their security is affected after the two countries join the NATO alliance. A significant minority in Sweden is sceptical about the likelihood of their country joining the European alliance. This minority hold the view that NATO’s nuclear deterrence would increase tensions and lead to an arms race, which would make Sweden a less safe place. If Sweden finally joins the alliance, its credibility as the promoter of global nuclear disarmament would have received a severe jolt.

Though Putin shows no sign of yielding and opt for negotiated peace, NATO would be further emboldened as its perceived threat from Russia is unlikely to go so soon. The alliance took birth in 1949 with 12 members. It has grown to 31 members after Finland joined and soon to embrace Sweden into its fold as its 32rd member. Greece, Turkey and West Germany joined in the 1950s, followed by Spain in the 1980s. Three former Soviet provinces that emerged as independent states after the disintegration of the Soviet Union joined in 1999, and seven more in 2004. Albania and Croatia were admitted in 2009, followed by Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. With Finland already admitted as the 31st member, the alliance would have grown to 32 when Sweden’s case is cleared.[3] The US has stood rock solid behind the resilience of the alliance after the Cold War ended and the US decided to provide a security umbrella to the Western Europe and deployed 350,000 troops and thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, thereby acting both as a protector and pacifier.

Sweden is confident that its application also shall be cleared soon. The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and his team are working hard for the smooth accession of Sweden into the alliance. Sweden already enjoys the status of an “invitee” and participates in NATO discussions. Thus it transpires that Russia shall have to face a stronger European alliance. It remains to be seen if Russia is deterred in its military operations in Ukraine with the NATO acquiring a stronger teeth or emerge more belligerent and further escalate tensions.

Endnotes :

[1] Ivana Kottasova, “Turkey approves Finland’s NATO application, clearing the last hurdle. Sweden is still waiting”, 31 March 2023,
[2]Phelen Chatterjee, “Sweden and Finland's journey from neutral to Nato”, 29 June 2022,
[3]Josef Joffe, “How Putin saved NATO”, 6 April 2023,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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