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Preventing NATO expansion is one of Vladimir Putin’s primary justifications for invading Ukraine. The war appears likely to backfire on this front, as Finland and Sweden seriously consider joining the alliance. 

On April 13, Finnish officials said there would be immediate debate in Helsinki about applying for NATO membership. Speaking at a joint press conference in Stockholm on the same day, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said that Finland would reach a final decision in the next few weeks.

“We have to be prepared for all kinds of actions from Russia," she told media, adding that everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. 

Marin held the press conference alongside Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, who confirmed that Sweden was also re-evaluating its long-held neutrality. 

It is the first time either Finland or Sweden has made a definitive statement about NATO membership since Russia invaded Ukraine. Regardless of membership prospects, the two countries are re-examining their security needs. 

The most direct comments on the subject had previously come from NATO itself. In the doorstep statement before the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told media that if Finland and Sweden applied to join the alliance, the other members would welcome them.

“If they decide to apply, I expect that all allies will welcome them, and that building on the fact that Sweden and Finland are our closest partners,” Stoltenberg said. “We have worked together for many years, we know that they meet the NATO standards when it comes to interoperability, democratic control over the armed forces. We know that they can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply.”

These remarks echoed similar ones Stoltenberg issued in a press conference the day before. The secretary-general has also said that it would be possible for both countries to join quite quickly under current circumstances. 

While NATO countries have often been less than cohesive, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has unified them to an unexpected degree against a common adversary. The invasion changed the strategic landscape of Europe so dramatically that conventions of political neutrality and aversion to conflict may soon become relics of the Cold War. Even Germany made the decision to order F-35 fighters from the United States and to supply weapons to Ukrainian fighters.

Likewise, the current conversation around Finland and Sweden joining NATO would have been hard to imagine at the beginning of 2022. Despite close military coordination with the alliance for decades, the two Nordic countries long maintained a position of official neutrality. Finland has done more to overtly align itself with NATO, purchasing the F-35 from the U.S. last year. For Sweden, the concept of neutrality has been more absolute; it has not officially fought a war since 1814. 

The reason has historically been rooted in the flexibility that neutrality could provide in a conflict, but it has everything to do with Russia. During the Cold War, Finland feared that joining NATO would provoke rather than deter aggression from the Soviet Union, and Sweden feared suddenly having the Soviet Union next door. 

The comments from both prime ministers indicate that neutrality is probably no longer an option. Even if Russian forces had not invaded Ukraine, NATO membership was no longer unthinkable in the two countries. 

After all, Finland and Sweden’s Cold War fears have never completely gone away. Whenever the possibility of joining NATO comes up, Moscow threatens retaliation. Such was the case when Helsinki more seriously considered joining NATO after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

In a 2016 press conference in Helsinki, Vladimir Putin boldly implied that Finnish NATO membership would be met with a Russian military response. 

“What do you think we will do in this situation? We moved our forces back [from the border], 1500 kilometers away. Will we keep our forces there? How they assure the safety and independence of their own country is the Finns’ choice. Undoubtedly we appreciate Finland’s neutral status.”

Well into the 21st century, NATO membership remained unpopular in both countries. Before Russia invaded Ukraine this year, some polls showed that less than 30% of Finns and Swedes favored joining the alliance.

The invasion changed this. For the first time since NATO’s creation, a majority of Finns and Swedes support their countries becoming members. In Finland, that number has soared to 68%. The Swedish and Finnish governments quickly warmed to that position, likely because of a sense that neutrality will not offer them the same protection from Russia that it was at least thought to have before Feb. 24. 

However, the issue they now face is the irreversibility of the decision. Ultimately, there is no way to compromise between living with the status quo and attaining NATO membership. Meanwhile, threats from Moscow are piling up. Echoing Putin’s threat in 2016, more than one Kremlin spokesperson has threatened Finland and Sweden in recent weeks with severe consequences if the countries join NATO. After the March 13 announcement, Russia warned Finland and Sweden that it would move nuclear weapons to the Baltic region.

Russian threats will probably not be enough to prevent Finland and Sweden from pursuing NATO membership. Helsinki and Stockholm have both responded to say that they, not Moscow, determine their respective security policies, and they will decide to join or not join the alliance regardless of threats from Russia. 

NATO has not described what an accelerated application process would look like, but the secretary-general’s welcome of Finland and Sweden is unambiguous. NATO membership is not a decision to be taken lightly, but neither is remaining neutral when Russian aggression may one day affect both countries.  

Sarah White, M.A. is Senior Research Analyst and Editor at the Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author’s own.