When Finnish president Sauli Niinistö arrives in Sweden on Tuesday he knows that the country he represents – and his host country for two days – have both changed utterly since February 24th.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered an earthquake in northern Europe, altered forever the security landscape and left a political and diplomatic chill not seen since the worst of the cold war.
By Tuesday, after debates inside and outside parliament, both countries will have cleared the final political hurdles to join Nato, the mutual defence organisation formed in 1949 by European and North American states to defend Europe and the north Atlantic from the perceived threat of the then Soviet Union.
This is a historic step for Finland and Sweden, in particular for their respective ruling Social Democratic parties.
A day after Sweden’s Social Democrats backed Nato membership, a break with decades of non-alignment, a lively Riksdag debate on Monday was followed by a formal announcement by prime minister Magdalena Andersson that her country would submit an application to join the military alliance.
After two centuries of non-alignment and military neutrality, she said, “one era is ending and another is beginning” as Sweden sought Nato security guarantees to counter a worrying trend emerging from Russia.
“Unfortunately we have no reason to believe that the current trend will reverse in the foreseeable future,” she added.
Niinistö made a similar formal announcement on Sunday and he may even sign Finland’s letter of application to join Nato while in Sweden.
Without delay, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warned on Monday that this marked a “grave mistake with far-reaching consequences” for Finland and Sweden.
Both capitals say they are ready for Russian retaliation through cyber and hybrid attacks. In Helsinki on Monday, US Senate republican leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped the US would be the “first to ratify” the membership applications of two new members he described as a “security gain” for the alliance.
Once inside Nato’s Brussels headquarters, Nordic security analysts expect both countries to join like-minded northern European neighbours in shaping Nato’s looming strategic debate.
For all their similarities, however, Finland and Sweden are starting from different places as Nato candidates, something that may soon become apparent after accession.
“Unlike Finland, Sweden took a 25-year vacation from thinking about security issues after the end of the cold war,” says Dr Ian Anthony, director of the European Security Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri). “Sweden ran down its capabilities and broke up its total defence system so they have a huge reconstruction task ahead.”
Even before their applications are submitted, the cost of Nato – both defence spending and membership fees – has moved into focus. That and other realities of such Nato obligations could, polling agencies say, dampen the recent surge in public support for alliance membership – particularly among the more ambivalent Swedes.
The latest Aftonbladet/Demoskop poll found 61 per cent of Swedes supported joining, up 20 points since January, with almost one-fifth opposed and another fifth hesitant.
“We still have 39 per cent who believe we shouldn’t be a member or is hesitant, meaning there is a big need for communication and explaining to people with fears,” says Karin Nelsson, chief executive of Demoskop to The Irish Times.
In total, 69 per cent said the best reason to join Nato was the realisation that Sweden cannot defend itself – rising to 81 per cent among pro-accession respondents. Other popular arguments in favour of Nato membership include the hope of a more peaceful Baltic region and the chilling effect on Russia.
The most popular argument against joining is that non-alignment has “served Sweden well”, finding agreement with 69 per cent of Nato opponents, 54 per cent of hesitants and 14 per cent of the pro-membership camp.
Another argument against – the fear that Sweden might have to defend other countries – was shared by 60 per cent of anti-accession respondents, 48 per cent of hesitants and 26 per cent of pro-accession.
New uncertainty looms as the Nato process shifts from Helsinki and Stockholm to 30 member state capitals, where approval now hinges on national parliaments and related domestic political agendas. And even after the Nato application is filed, taking it off the political agenda for a time, lingering resentment among some Social Democrat anti-Nato voters may see them defect in the autumn general election.
“It could remain a risk factor even now when it seems like a decision has been taken,” says Nelsson. “It will be quite a balancing act for Magdalena Andersson to handle.”
Swedish newspapers were largely jubilant at the looming Nato application, with the Expressen tabloid declaring on Monday: “At last we are becoming a normal country.”
The Svenska Dagbladet turned its eye to Europe’s remaining non-aligned countries, in particular Ireland. Under a large picture of Taoiseach Micheál Martin it picked up on talk in Ireland of the Ukraine war as “the starting point of a change, in the longer term, both of the definition of neutrality and on the size of the Irish defence budget”.