Sweden and Finland in NATO: Interesting Positions in Moscow and Ankara

Yoselina Guevara López
Protesters gather during a demonstration against possible Nato membership for Sweden outside the ruling Social Democratic Party’s office in Stockholm on 14 May (AFP)

Sweden and Finland have announced their willingness to join NATO and have already taken the first steps by sending the Atlantic organization a formal application for membership. The move, evidently in response to Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, is creating excitement in the chancelleries of the 30 NATO member countries. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has assured that the two nations “will be welcomed with open arms and the process will be swift”. But Turkey does not agree with this accession, so it is very likely that the road will not be easy for the Baltic countries, which will have to take several technical and political steps, and above all diplomatic ones, to overcome the dam imposed by Ankara.

For its part, the United States is securing its pieces. On Thursday, May 19, U.S. President Joe Biden will receive Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the White House. Presidential spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre noted that the three leaders “will discuss Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership applications, European security and strengthening our partnership on global issues and support for Ukraine.”

Moscow’s position

The Russian Federation has no problems with Sweden and Finland, so the NATO membership of these two countries “would not create an immediate danger for Russia”, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it known. What could trigger a countermeasure from Moscow, however, is an expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure in these Baltic countries that would threaten Russia’s security.

The red line for the Kremlin is not NATO membership, but the allocation of allied bases, troops and armaments in the two Nordic countries. Initially, the Russian deterrent statements and military exercises were intended to influence the decision-making process in Stockholm and Helsinki. Having failed to have any effect, it is useless for Moscow to show its cards and let the adversary know how, when and with what it will respond to this extension of the Atlantic Organization. The Kremlin’s wisest decision has been to wait for the news to filter through, perhaps from the NATO summit in June in Madrid, where the allies, in addition to accepting and accelerating the membership application of Finland and Sweden, will have to make decisions on how to reconfigure the military deployment on the eastern flank.

At stake here are important questions, for example, whether and how the U.S. presence in these countries will be permanent. Stockholm and Helsinki, according to different specialists, have large and capable armed forces, so it should not be necessary to send means and troops from abroad. Prime Minister Andersson has stressed that Sweden will not allow foreign troops or nuclear weapons within its borders. It is unknown how Andersson will be able to maintain this position by joining an organization whose track record is warlike.

Ankara against

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vetoed the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, and has stated his reasons for this: Swedish sanctions for the Turkish war in Syria; the refusal of both countries to 33 requests from Ankara for the extradition of terrorists; alleged support for PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) networks and the Islamic preacher, Fehtullah Gülen, an opponent of Erdogan.

Turkey may slow down the formal entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO by extending the deadline between application and accession. This causes fear in the Baltic countries of a possible attack by Russia. For this, the allied front is preparing. Norway, Denmark and Iceland have declared that they will intervene if necessary, aligning themselves with the military guarantees offered by the United Kingdom to the two Nordic countries, in correspondence with the pact recently signed between London, Stockholm and Helsinki. In the United States, Republican leaders in Congress have pledged to ratify the Swedish and Finnish NATO accession agreement by August and the administration has guaranteed that it will “address any security issues during the transition period.”

From this perspective, Moscow looks favorably on Turkey’s obstacles because it brings out the internal divisions of the adversary alliance. However, it cannot delude itself into thinking that Ankara is on its side. Turkey’s position is not absolute, in the sense that it has not closed the door to Sweden and Finland, but wants to negotiate.

Ankara absolutely needs Washington’s position towards it to soften. As it feels internationally besieged from the north with Syria, from the east, Iraq in its pro-Iranian Kurdish expression, from the west, Greece, plus the US pressure on Russia. In addition, the internal situation in Turkey is not going through its best moment either; the refusal of the Turkish electorate against NATO, the galloping inflation, the unstable economic situation. Turkey’s only way out is to threaten a reluctant and firm stance towards the United States and, in fact, it is doing so where it has the power to do so: by opposing the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, in order to regain weight and demand some counterpart. This does not mean that Turkey wants to break with NATO, it is not even minimally raised, but it is raising the price of its membership to improve its position.

Yoselina Guevara López Correspondent in Italy