(CNN) — Finland is about to join NATO while Sweden is following suit.
Here’s what you need to know about how the war in Ukraine pushed the two Nordic states closer to the US-backed alliance, and what comes next.
Why haven’t Finland and Sweden joined NATO yet?
While other Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark and Iceland were original members of the alliance, Sweden and Finland did not join the pact for historical and geopolitical reasons.
Both Finland, which declared independence from Russia in 1917 following the Bolshevik revolution, and Sweden adopted neutral foreign policy stances during the Cold War, refusing to align with the Soviet Union or the United States.
For Finland, this proved more difficult as it shared a huge border with an authoritarian superpower. To keep the peace, the Finns adopted a process some call “Finlandization,” in which the leaders acceded to Soviet demands from time to time.
The impartiality of both countries effectively ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. They joined the European Union together in 1995 and gradually aligned their defense policies with the West, although they avoided joining NATO.
Each country had different reasons for avoiding signing the NATO pact together with the EU.
In the case of Finland, it was more geopolitical. Russia’s threat is made more tangible by the 830-mile (1,335-kilometre) border the two countries share.
“Finland has been the exposed country and we have been the protected country,” former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a joint interview with former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.
Although it is an independent nation, Sweden’s geography places it in the same “strategic environment” as its liberal democratic neighbors, Bildt said. Finland and Sweden have enjoyed close collaboration for decades, and Stockholm viewed its decision not to join NATO as a way to help keep the heat out of Helsinki. Now, however, Sweden is likely to follow Finland’s lead.
“We share the idea that close cooperation will benefit both of us,” current Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference last month alongside her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin.
What does joining NATO entail?
The reason most countries join NATO is Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which stipulates that all signatories consider an attack on one to be an attack on all.
Article 5 has been the cornerstone of the alliance since NATO was founded in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.
The purpose of the treaty, and of Article 5 in particular, was to discourage the Soviets from attacking liberal democracies that lacked military strength. Article 5 guarantees that the resources of the entire alliance — including the massive US military — can be used to protect any member nation, including smaller countries, which would be defenseless without their allies. Iceland, for example, has no standing army.
Bildt said he doesn’t think large new military bases will be built in either country if they join NATO. He said joining the alliance would likely mean more joint military training and planning between Finland, Sweden and the 30 current NATO members. Swedish and Finnish forces could also participate in other NATO operations around the world, such as those in the Baltic states, where several bases have multinational troops.
“There are going to be contingency preparations as part of the deterrence of whatever adventures the Russians may be thinking of,” Bildt said. “The actual change is going to be pretty limited.”
Why does Russia hate NATO?
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the alliance as a bulwark aimed at Russia, despite spending much of the post-Soviet years focusing on issues such as terrorism and peacekeeping.
Before Putin invaded Ukraine, he made clear his belief that NATO had gotten too close to Russia and should go back to its 1990s borders, before some of Russia’s neighbors or former Soviet states joined the ranks. military alliance.
Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, and its NATO partner status – seen as a step on the road to eventual full membership – was one of numerous grievances Putin cited in an attempt to justify invading the country. neighbour.
The irony is that the war in Ukraine has given NATO a new purpose.
“Article 5 is back in the game, and people understand that we need NATO because of a potential Russian threat,” Stubb said in an interview with CNN before the invasion.
Why the war in Ukraine changed everything
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed Sweden and Finland to pull the trigger on joining NATO.
If the Kremlin was willing to invade Ukraine, a country with 44 million people, a GDP of about $516 million and an armed force of 200,000 troops, what would stop Putin from invading smaller countries like Finland or Sweden?
“Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine,” Marin said in April. “The mentality of the people in Finland and also in Sweden changed and shifted very dramatically.”
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, public support for NATO membership in Finland has jumped from around 30% to almost 80% in some polls. Most Swedes also approve of their country joining the alliance, according to opinion polls in that country.
“Our entry into NATO was decided on February 24, at 5 am, when Putin and Russia attacked Ukraine,” Stubb said. “Finland and Sweden would not have been united without this attack.”
Officials from both Sweden and Finland have also expressed frustration that, in the run-up to the Ukraine war, Russia tried to demand NATO security guarantees to stop the alliance from expanding eastward. However, such a concession would have given Russia the power to dictate the foreign policy of its neighbors, depriving them of the ability to choose their own allies and partners.
Russia, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told CNN, wants “real influence on security decisions in Europe.”
“They want influence over neighboring countries. And that is totally unacceptable for Sweden.”
Finnish leaders announced their intention to join NATO on Thursday. Sweden is expected to do the same, potentially as soon as Monday, according to Bildt.
Finland said it hopes to apply for membership “without delay” and complete the necessary steps at the national level “in the next few days”. That will include a vote in the Finnish parliament, which ultimately votes on the accession decision.
NATO diplomats told Reuters that the ratification of the new members could take a year, as the legislatures of the 30 current members must approve the new applicants. Both countries already meet many of the accession criteria, which include having a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; treat minority populations fairly; commit to resolving conflicts peacefully; have the ability and willingness to contribute militarily to NATO operations; and commit to maintaining democratic civil and military relations and institutions.
As two prosperous liberal democracies, Sweden and Finland are eligible for NATO membership, although Turkey, for example, could make the process difficult for aspiring members. The president of that country, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Friday that he did not see “with good eyes” the entry of both countries into NATO, accusing them of harboring Kurdish “terrorist organizations”.
In the meantime, both countries will have to rely on their current allies and partners for security guarantees, rather than Article 5. Sweden and Finland have received guarantees of support from the United States and Germany if attacked, while the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week signed mutual security agreements with his Finnish and Swedish counterparts.
How has Russia reacted?
Russia lashed out at the decision. Its foreign ministry said in a statement that Finland had adopted a “radical change” in its foreign policy that will force Russia to take “retaliatory measures, both of a military-technical and other nature”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “NATO expansion does not make the world more stable and secure.” He added that Russia’s reaction will depend on “how far and how close to our borders the military infrastructure moves.”
Russia currently shares some 755 miles (1,215 kilometers) of land border with five NATO members, according to the alliance. Finland’s accession would mean that a nation with which Russia shares an 830-mile (1,335-kilometre) border would become formally aligned militarily with the United States.
Not only would this be bad news for the Kremlin, but the addition of Finland and Sweden would benefit the alliance. Both are serious military powers, despite their small populations.
However, Bildt and Stubb, the former Swedish and Finnish prime ministers, believe that Russia’s response so far has been relatively weak.
“The Kremlin sees the entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO as a Nordic solution and, in that sense, not as a radical threat,” Stubb said. “We’re not too worried.”
Stubb and Bildt said they believe Moscow ultimately views the two countries as reliable neighbors, despite its decision to join a Washington-backed alliance.
“The fact that Finland and Sweden are part of the West is not a surprise,” Bildt said.
Luke McGee, Nic Robertson and Paul LeBlanc of CNN and Reuters contributed to this report.