By Lake Dodson
“An iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Although this statement about the Berlin Wall by Winston Churchill was made in Fulton, Missouri in 1946, it is undeniable that a new rampart has appeared in Europe. Even without a physical barrier, a true divide now lies between Russia and the member states of NATO.
Russia pushed into the sovereign state of Ukraine through military force, alleging a government intoxicated by Western interference and claiming a duty to free its Slavic brethren. Moscow’s brash mindset has caused it to ostracize itself from the rest of Europe.
No two nations have sobered to the idea of potential Russian military aggression more than Sweden and Finland.
Sweden’s prime minister Magdalena Andersson admitted there is no point in denying a bleak analysis of the situation and Finland’s Sanna Marin announced it may be “mere weeks” until NATO gains two new Nordic nations to its roster.
Popular opinion in both countries seems to back up their leaders’ statements. The percentage of Swedes who support joining NATO jumped 20% between January and April of this year. Finnish citizens show an even more fervent desire to join the alliance, with 68% in approval.
Sweden and Finland simultaneously agreed to apply for NATO membership some time in the middle of May.
Despite Finland and Sweden both moving to join NATO, Finland appears to be working far more diligently to do so. While Finland shares the second largest land border in all of Europe with Russia (second only to Ukraine), there are at least three other less obvious reasons for why Sweden may have some reluctance about joining NATO.
First, Sweden has long maintained a philosophy of self-preservation that is similar to Switzerland’s successful neutrality. Prime Minister Andersson affirmed just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Sweden “should remain alliance-free.” However, this approach will be tested. Is Sweden willing to hang back from NATO in the face of Ukrainian suffering in the same way that the Swiss maintained neutrality despite the atrocities of Nazi Germany?
Second, there are worries about the commitments Stockholm would gain under NATO membership and their implications for the future. Sweden in NATO would be obligated to abide by Article 5, the requirement that all members work together as a unified force to fight back if any other member is attacked.
Lastly, Swedish internal politics remain a large hurdle for the country’s ascension into the alliance. The largest political party in Sweden, the Social Democratic Party, remains staunch in its position that Sweden will not put itself in a position where citizens may have to fight in a war. Swedes have successfully avoided this fate for over 200 years.
The alliance has shown fewer hesitations about potentially welcoming new members. “If they decide to apply,” NATO Secretary Security General Jens Stoltenberg recently announced in Brussels, “Finland and Sweden will be warmly welcomed and I expect that process to go quickly.” Only time will tell if this speedy schedule will be adhered to, delayed or even abandoned altogether.
The most important thing to note about the entire endeavor is to recognize that Sweden and Finland do not just consist of their respective leaders, but the millions of citizens that live within their borders. While the Finnish seem to be more unified in their opinions, Sweden’s population still remains somewhat skeptical. The most recent polling indicates that only a slim majority of Swedes are now in favor of membership.
Ukraine has truly changed the face of Europe. Gone are the days of easy Nordic neutrality, not by choice, but under the threat of force. As tensions with Russia continue to rise, both Finland and Sweden will have to decide soon if NATO membership is the appropriate answer for each nation’s security worries.
The clock ticks for Scandinavia, but the outcome is far from certain. Observers should continue to keep a close eye on the nuances that could result in very different decisions by Helsinki and Stockholm.
Lake Dodson is a regular writer for the Review. He studies Political Science and Global Security at the University of Mississippi.