Sweden and Finland to join NATO due to Russian Threat

This is how the debate in Sweden changed, leading to the announcement Monday the country will join Finland in seeking NATO membership

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/2022-05-16/ty-article-magazine/.premium/fear-won-in-swedens-battle-between-neutrality-and-the-russian-threat/00000180-e9f4-d189-af82-f9fd10820000

STOCKHOLM – Until a few months ago, nobody would have bet on Finland and Sweden joining NATO at all, much less doing so at lightning speed. Public opinion opposed the idea, as did both countries’ political establishments; neither country’s political system was built for rapid decisions on defense affairs; and most importantly, both countries had a decades-old tradition of avoiding military alliances. In Sweden’s case, this was an ideological approach. The last time Sweden was involved in a war was in 1814. Throughout the 20th century, it tried to position itself as a humanitarian superpower that, instead of taking sides in wars, tried to mediate between the parties, while also supporting international institutions, mediating conflicts and taking in refugees. Thus, it ostensibly remained neutral in World War II and nonaligned during the Cold War.

In Finland’s case, its neutrality stemmed from fear of the superpower next door. Finland shares a border with Russia that is more than 1,300 kilometers long. It was once part of the Russian Empire, fought against the Soviet Union during World War II and was threatened by Moscow during the Cold War. The last thing it wanted after the Soviet Union fell apart was to get involved in a new conflict with the Russians. But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and both countries’ unalignment policies melted away.

Finland and Sweden were always completely Western in their orientation. And practically speaking, it’s an open secret that they have been cooperating with NATO for years. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed a flaw – if Ukraine could be ruthlessly attacked by Russia while the world settled for economic sanctions and condemnations, who would protect Sweden and Finland? After all, just like Ukraine, they are independent countries that aren’t under the protection of the NATO alliance, and particularly the treaty’s Article 5 which states that an attack against one NATO country is considered as an attack against them all.

Consequently, the invasion of Ukraine produced a turnaround in Finnish and Swedish public opinion. Immediately after the invasion began, polls published in both countries showed that for the first time in history, there was widespread public support for joining NATO.

In Finland, 50,000 people signed a petition to join the alliance, and parliament began feverish discussions that culminated with Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinisto saying in a joint statement that “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.” To enable the implementation of this decision, parliament will hold a vote on the issue in the coming days.

Sweden isn’t lagging far behind. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, who asserted in the past that “As long as I’m defense minister, I can promise that we won’t join” NATO, told Sweden’s national broadcaster last week that “Nordic mutual defense will be strengthened if Sweden and Finland join.” Explaining why he changed his position, he said, “There’s before February 24 and after February 24,” referring to the date when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Over the weekend, a parliamentary committee submitted a report about the worsening of Sweden’s security situation following the invasion of Ukraine. Many saw this as further support for those who advocate joining NATO. The ruling Social Democratic Party announced on Sunday that it had changed its position and would support joining NATO, and took the formal decision to apply on Monday after a debate in parliament.

“In Finland, the question of joining NATO was always a practical one, but in Sweden, it’s a more sensitive subject,” says Hans Wallmark, a veteran Swedish parliamentarian from the center-right Moderate Party who has supported joining NATO for years. “For part of the left, not being a member of NATO was almost a religious position, so for some politicians, supporting joining NATO is like converting to another religion. Therefore, it’s difficult and painful.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine and the Finns began their joining process, the Swedish Social Democratic Party was more or less pushed into the process,” adds Wallmark, who is deputy chairman of parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, he said, Sweden shouldn’t join NATO just because it’s forced into it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“There are three reasons why Sweden should join NATO,” he continues. “First of all, there’s Article 5 of NATO’s treaty, with its principle of ‘one for all and all for one.’ Second, there’s a need for joint defense planning with other countries in the region, and third, this is an issue of solidarity with European and North American countries.”

Deterrent power against Russia

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, Jouni Ovaska, a member of Finland’s parliament representing the Center Party since 2019, made many of the same points as his Swedish colleague. As a member of his parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, he is also involved in the parliamentary proceedings to enable Finland’s membership bid. “Membership in NATO will guarantee Finland’s security, because of the alliance’s substantial deterrent power,” he says. “And of course, the most important thing is Article 5 of the treaty. ”Nevertheless, he says, Finland must continue investing in its own military and training its soldiers, just as it has until now, and continue cultivating its other international partnerships.

“The European Union is our main partner, and most European countries are NATO members,” he notes. “I hope joining will strengthen European countries so that they can take care of defense on their own. Sweden is our closest partner, and if it, like all the Nordic countries, becomes a NATO member, this will provide greater security for the entire region.” Ovaska says the Finns have moved very swiftly to join NATO. “February 24 changed everything,” he says. “We have cooperated with Russia in the past, but the invasion of Ukraine showed that we can’t trust it. That’s why we rethought the situation. Public opinion changed very quickly, more quickly than change happened among elected officials.” He says the change in public opinion stemmed directly from the war in Ukraine: “What was done to Ukraine dredged up memories from the past. It’s not like something from the 21st century, it reminds us of atrocities from many years ago, and we have to make a change.”

However, there are some who oppose joining the military alliance. The Swedish Green Party, for example, argues that Sweden should be an independent power that promotes democracy and peace in the world, not part of a military alliance that possesses and bases its power on nuclear weapons. According to the Left Party, Sweden will defend itself better if it adheres to the policy of refraining from military alliances, which it says has served the country well for many generations.

The two parties that oppose joining NATO have a total of just over 40 seats out of 349 in the Swedish parliament. In Finland, opposition to the move is even smaller, and at this point is heard only on the fringes. Therefore, it seems that Sweden and Finland’s rush into NATO is inevitable, although the process itself is not short. “After the official request is submitted to Jen Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, in Brussels, Sweden and Finland will enter what is called the Membership Action Plan,” Prof. Ann-Sofie Dahl explains.

Dahl, who lives in Denmark and serves as a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., has written extensively about the NATO alliance. “Usually this is a process that takes a long time, but Sweden and Finland are very close to NATO, so that this time it will be just a formal process that will probably take only a day or two,” she says, explaining that the initial process will be followed by the ratification process.

“They will also try to accelerate this step, but because there is a need for the approval of the parliaments of the 30 member countries, it will probably take at least four to six months until the formal membership of the two countries goes into effect,” Dahl says. Naturally, in both Sweden and Finland there is some concern regarding the interim period between their decision and the validity of membership. Dahl note the guarantees of security that have been obtained in recent months. “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Sweden and Finland this month and declared that the United Kingdom will guarantee the security of the two countries,” Dahl says. “

That is a very important declaration, because Britain is an important player as well as a nuclear power,” she notes, adding that there is apparently a less official, and less overt, commitment from the White House. It is known that the Finnish president has met in Washington with President Joe Biden, and the Swedish foreign minister recently also held meetings in the U.S. capital. In addition, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visited Berlin and received a promise from Chancellor Olaf Scholz that their countries “can rely on German support if they submit a request for NATO membership.”

“I think that after the decision to join NATO – and certainly from the moment the candidacy is submitted – we’ll see a lot of ‘Russian noise,’ but not a military assault,” says Dahl. “We may see things such as a cyberattack or an attack of disinformation, but Moscow is busy in Ukraine and probably, as happened during the previous NATO expansion process, Russia will make a lot of noise – but will then continue as usual.”

Wallmark, the deputy chairman of the Swedish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is also aware of the anticipated saber-rattling by Moscow. However, he anticipates that “the Kremlin will bark, but nothing more than that.” His Finnish colleague, Ovaska, finds it difficult to say what the Russian reaction will be. “We’re ready to make decisions and we’re ready for anything that happens because of them,” he says. “But it’s important to remember that even when we’re part of NATO, Russia will remain our neighbor. It’s important that in future, in some way, we find a way to cooperate with them.”

Will Putin's Ukraine War Push His Neighbors Into NATO's Hands?

Since the invasion of Ukraine, even traditionally dovish Social Democrats are beginning to change their minds, as seen in historic polls showing that about half of Swedes and Finns want their country to join the alliance

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-putin-ukraine-s-war-could-push-his-neighbors-into-nato-s-hands-1.10668900

STOCKHOLM – NATO membership has been a controversial issue in Sweden and Finland since the alliance’s founding in 1949, but the two countries’ traditions of nonalignment are so strong that they’re staying out for now, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The end of the Cold War saw 14 new members join NATO, bringing the roster to 30, but without these two Nordic countries. For Sweden, the main reason for staying out has been its long-standing policy of nonalignment and neutrality. For Finland, it has largely been concern about the way its Russian neighbor would interpret such a step. Thus, while the other Nordic countries –  Denmark, Norway and Iceland – are full NATO members, Sweden and Finland have been cooperating with the alliance for years without actually joining. But then came Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine.

According to surveys conducted after the invasion, about half of Swedes are in favor of joining NATO – a record for the country, and up from 37 percent last summer and 32 percent in 2017. Other studies show that more and more Swedes are concerned about a possible Russian attack. In Finland, a petition signed by over 50,000 people calls for a referendum on NATO membership, a subject discussed in parliament last week. A poll by Finland’s public broadcaster early in Russia’s invasion showed that a record 53 percent of Finns support full NATO membership. In 2017 this number was only 19 percent.

In Helsinki last weekend, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, discussed defense policy and cooperation while keeping the NATO issue vague. Marin said that it’s “very understandable that the mindset of our citizens is changing due to Russia’s attack against Ukraine,” adding that Finland’s political parties would now be delving into the issue. Andersson agreed and added that “the security situation has altered in a dramatic way, and of course this will be discussed both in Finland and in Sweden.” In the current crisis, officials from both countries have spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden on their close cooperation with the United States.

“Historically, in both countries, nonalignment has been a long tradition, especially in Sweden, which was ‘neutral’ during World War II, though it was of course helping the Germans,” says Ann-Sofie Dahl, an associate professor in international relations and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Sweden clung to nonalignment during the Cold War as mostly a political and ideological tool for the ruling Social Democrats, who have a romantic view of Sweden playing a role in global politics as a neutral country,” Dahl says. “But this was a two-sided doctrine because it was combined with top secret cooperation with NATO during the Cold War.”

Getting closer

In the Finnish case it’s more of a security matter. “Finland has a very long border with Russia and they’ve also been part of the Russian Empire, which puts them in Putin’s sphere of interest. The Finns have also fought against the Russians [during World War II], which means that the Russians respect them. So, although Sweden and Finland both have nonalignment security doctrines, they have very different historical backgrounds.”

In 1994, Sweden and Finland were among the first to join the Partnership for Peace, NATO’s nonmember partnership program. But unlike Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, they have not joined NATO. In 2014, with the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland became part of the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership, a small group of the alliance’s closest partners that now includes Ukraine.

“This means Sweden and Finland are part of NATO military exercises and various forms of communications and training. Now, because of the war, Sweden and Finland are even closer to NATO, and they’re participating in its discussions on the Ukraine crisis,” Dahl says. “This is a historic moment; we have never seen discussions like this before. Domestically in both countries, some center-right parties have supported joining NATO for years, others have recently joined, but now even some Social Democratic voices are moving towards accepting the idea of NATO membership. In Sweden this means a possible ideological U-turn for traditional supporters of nonalignment, while in Finland, the Social Democrats seem to be one step ahead because of a more pragmatic approach in these matters.”  

Exposed and vulnerable

Swedes and Finns who are now changing their minds about NATO membership have a clear understanding of its benefits. It’s all about Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That clause, sometimes called the “Three Musketeer article,” commits each NATO member to consider an attack on another member an attack on it. As in the Alexandre Dumas novel, it’s “all for one and one for all.”
“People in Sweden and Finland are afraid of what’s happening in Ukraine, which isn’t very far from them. They realize that they’re outside NATO, which means that like Ukraine, they’re exposed and vulnerable, particularly Sweden, which still has a very weak military and is seen as the most vulnerable part of the Baltic,” Dahl says. “We have a president in Moscow who is obviously unstable and ready to invade a neighboring country. Russia has been provoking Sweden with fighter jets entering its airspace. People are aware of this and of course they’re scared.”

Still, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Andersson said that a Swedish application for NATO membership was not on the table at the moment, adding that such a move would further destabilize the situation in Europe. Sweden prefers to strengthen its ties with Finland and the United States, cooperate with NATO as a nonmember partner and work within the EU framework to support Ukraine.
Finland doesn’t seem like it will be joining NATO in the immediate future either. “The Finnish position is that we are at the beginning of a process,” says Maimo Henriksson, a senior Foreign Ministry official who headed the Eastern department and is now ambassador to Sweden. “The security situation has changed in our neighborhood, which means there are more reasons to analyze and discuss the situation and its implications. Joining NATO is one option, but it’s not self-evident that we’ll land there.”

Henriksson says a political debate has been launched in Finland that includes policy papers, parliamentary debates and discussions among the parties. “It’s an open issue, it should be handled efficiently but with care, and it’s not clear what the end result will be,” she says, adding that Finland has constantly been talking with the Russians throughout the years, but not over the last few weeks. The Finnish people, shocked like so many people around the world,  have shown strong support for Ukraine. Regarding Sweden, Henriksson says that “both countries wish to go hand in hand when it comes to the decision about NATO. But of course, there are no guarantees since both countries have their individual national processes, and decisions will be made on the basis of national interest.”

Sweden's war in Afghanistan

המדיניות השוודית באפגניסטאן

Published in The Local – Sweden's news in English, December 2010 http://www.thelocal.se/30858/20101215/


One of those catchy phrases about foreign policy is the one in which Winston Churchill explains why he cannot forecast Russia's actions. "It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", he said. Churchill knew what he was talking about, foreign policy can be complicated, and the war in Afghanistan is a perfect example. 

First, the conflict's history is long and full of twists and turns. Second, it's a war and like any other war it's a matter of life and death, which makes it an urgent moral issue, not just an abstract geopolitical one. Third, the story is told differently by different spectators, each holding a different narrative. The participants themselves meanwhile frequently say one thing while doing another, creating policy drowning in hidden interests and secret dealings. In fact, the dealings around the war in Afghanistan have turned out to be a war in itself, what a Frontline documentary called a war behind closed doors.

Afghanistan, which has been in a state of war or civil conflict since its ancient history, has seen many great powers fighting over it, from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the modern British, Soviet and American empires. The current war started just months after 9/11 when a combined US and British military attack toppled the Taliban regime which supported Al-Qaeda. An Afghan anti-Taliban front then created a local government and an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was subsequently formed by the UN to secure Kabul. ISAF is now led by NATO and Sweden is one of over 40 countries who is part of it.

Despite ISAF's successes there are many who now claim that it's fighting a losing battle and that the war in Afghanistan can't be won. According to American journalist Bob Woodward even president Obama is sceptical. "I'm not doing 10 years" he supposedly told Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I'm not spending a trillion dollars".

With these doubts and with more and more ISAF member countries planning exit strategies, what is the wider context of Sweden's new wide political agreement on a an Afghanistan strategy shift, changing the military's mission from actively fighting insurgents to training and supporting local forces?

First, it's worthwhile taking a look at the two parties opposing the government's proposal. Though both the left-wing Vänsterpartiet and the Sweden-Democrats can agree the Taliban is a fundamentalist war-mongering movement, they want the troops home earlier than 2014. The Sweden Democrats don't prioritize solving problems far away from home, and Vänsterpartiet won't support any kind of military strategy.

This should be seen in context. It's an ongoing debate if the west should be responsible for imposing freedom and democracy on the rest of the world. On the one hand, there are doctrines of using economic and military power to export democracy, liberalism and human-rights. The shortcomings of these doctrines are obvious – their disciples tend to choose targets according to their own self-interests, they almost always invest more in short-term force than in long-term education, infrastructure and civil service and often they make the situation worse than it was in the first place.

On the other hand there are those who reject any attempt to meddle in the affairs of others. Who are we to decide what's right and wrong? they say, why should we impose our values on others? Perhaps the most telling argument against this political moral relativism is that if it had been implemented in the 1940s it would not have allowed the war against Hitler. Taking this argument further, it may have been these attitudes that made concentration camps and genocide possible in the first place, since it was precisely the disappearance of clear definitions of good and evil that led the way to politics of strong and weak and ethics of superior and inferior. If you can't define evil, you can't fight it, you just ignore it.

Swedish decision makers are somewhere between these arguments. Most of them agree that the Taliban is evil and I assume all of them know that back in 2001 the Taliban wasn't going anywhere without military intervention. The Sweden Democrat's position is therefore somewhat self-centered and indifferent. Vänsterpartiet's attitude, on the other hand, lacks a basic ingredient – the civilian aid it speaks of could never reach Taliban-led Afghanistan without an invasion. Take away the support for an invasion, and your policy becomes either naïve or complacent.

The government's position and new strategy is, I think, more morally balanced. But in the real world moral debates are usually a disguise for other motives. It all goes back to the post 9/11 conflict within the Bush administration which ended up adding a war in Iraq to a relatively limited and reasonable reaction focusing on the actual terrorists and their hosts in Afghanistan.

The two-front war which shook an all ready trouble-ridden region, inevitably created political and social instability. This instability had many effects. When the part of the world which produces so much oil is in flames, for example, prices rise. That may be bad for car owners in suburban Stockholm but it's great if you're selling oil and even better if you're making money from the financial difficulties of industrial heavy oil users.

Though blaming greedy generals and over-eager military establishments is common practice, it's men in suits, not in uniform, who have hidden interests. There are many, in official offices and financial institutions rather than army HQs, whose livelihood or political aspirations depend on instability – advocates of nuclear weapons for example, opponents of regional peace negotiations and your usual suspects of international lenders, financial speculators, drug and arm dealers and money launderers.

So should Swedish politicians avoid destabilizing wars a long way from home all together? The answer, I think, is no. Once a war has started, the worst scenario for an occupied nation is a premature withdrawal which leaves it no chance of rebuilding. Take Iraq for example, even if the war was originally based on lies and deception, now that the old regime is gone and the country still isn't stabilized, the international community must take responsibility and help build a modern and stable Iraq.

This is also true for Afghanistan where the war made much more sense in the first place. Some in Islamabad, Tehran and even Washington and London have everything to gain from the chaos, but for most Afghans it's just a prolonged nightmare.

So it's no use obsessing about final dates. It's more important to create a situation which allows a safe home-coming for Swedish troops while not leaving Afghanistan in ruins. How is this done? As far as the military aspect goes it'll probably be wise to focus less on killing insurgents and more on protecting local populations while taking every possible measure to avoid civilian casualties. Politically, investments must be made in Afghanistan's industry and welfare and a wide international front must strengthen all branches of the local government and take tough measures against international actors supporting destabilizing forces.

Ultra-modern, super-organized, secular Sweden is a long way from Afghanistan. Stockholm's government offices and TV studios are safe; they're surrounded by prosperity and while the debate commences in parliament, first signs of Christmas decorations are popping up all over town. It's so easy to forget what it's all about. It's not about Lars Ohly's political loneliness or about Aliansen's brilliant parliamentary tactics. It's about one of the richest countries in the world participating in an international force in one of its poorest. It's about trying to make real people's lives better while other forces are cynically exploiting them. If Sweden can do this, its years of involvement in Afghanistan, I think, may both be valuable and as most people hope, soon be over.