Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (R) and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announcing the country’s NATO bid – Copyright AFP –
Pia OHLIN, with Elias HUUHTANEN in Helsinki
Sweden on Monday officially announced it will apply for NATO membership as a deterrent against Russian aggression, entering a “new era” as it reverses two centuries of military non-alignment.
“The government has decided to inform NATO that Sweden wants to become a member of the alliance,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters a day after neighbouring Finland made a similar announcement.
“We are leaving one era and beginning another,” Andersson said of the dramatic turnaround of her country’s position less than three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sweden’s NATO ambassador would “shortly” inform NATO, she said.
Sweden and Finland have both expressed a desire to act in lockstep on NATO membership. They are expected to submit their applications jointly this week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday warned that NATO’s expansion may trigger a response from Moscow.
The expansion poses “no direct threat for us… but the expansion of military infrastructure to these territories will certainly provoke our response,” Putin said during a televised summit meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Moscow-led military alliance.
Andersson acknowledged Sweden would be “vulnerable” in the interim period before its application is ratified.
“We can’t exclude that Sweden will be subjected for example to disinformation and attempts to scare and divide us”, she said.
However, Stockholm has received security assurances from several key partners, including the United States, Britain, Germany, France and the Nordic countries, she added.
She expected “it shouldn’t take more than a year” for the alliance’s 30 members to unanimously ratify Sweden’s membership application.
– Soaring support –
Sweden’s announcement was expected after Andersson’s Social Democratic party on Sunday backed membership, in a dramatic U-turn after having opposed the idea since the birth of the Western military alliance.
The premier had earlier in the day consulted parliament on the issue by convening a debate, though lawmakers did not vote on the issue.
Six of eight parties in parliament, constituting a very broad majority, are in favour of membership. Swedish public support has also risen dramatically to around 50 percent — with about 20 percent against.
In Helsinki, support for joining the alliance has surged even more dramatically, with more than three-quarters of Finns in favour of joining, almost triple the level seen before the war in Ukraine began on February 24.
Finnish lawmakers on Monday launched a marathon debate on the issue with over 150 of 200 MPs asking to speak, following a NATO membership proposal presented on Sunday by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
“Our security environment has fundamentally changed,” Marin told parliament.
“The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia”, she said.
– Memories of war –
Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, has a long shared history with Russia.
It spent more than a century as part of the Russian empire until it gained independence in 1917. It was then invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939.
Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, but were ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of their eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.
An overwhelming majority of Finland’s 200 MPs — at least 85 percent — back the decision to join NATO.
During the debate in Sweden’s parliament, Andersson acknowledged that Sweden’s decision to join NATO was closely tied to Finland’s.
As the only country in the Baltic Sea region outside of NATO, Sweden would find itself “in a very vulnerable position”, she told parliament.
She also stressed Sweden’s “extensive military cooperation” with Finland.
If Sweden doesn’t join, and “Finland as a NATO member focuses more on its cooperation with NATO countries, Sweden’s defence capability decreases at a time when it instead needs to be strengthened.”
“The best thing for our country’s security is therefore for Sweden to apply for membership in NATO and to do it together with Finland,” she said.
NATO has said the two countries would be welcomed “with open arms”, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed last-minute objections.
Directed in particular at Stockholm, these focus on what Ankara considers to be the countries’ leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations.
Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said Monday Sweden was sending a delegation to Turkey for talks with officials.