Finland and Sweden took a major step towards joining Nato on Wednesday, after their prime ministers said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had changed Europe’s “whole security landscape” and “dramatically shaped mindsets” in the Nordic countries.
The Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, said on Wednesday that her country, which shares a 1,300km (810-mile) border with Russia, would decide whether to apply to join the alliance “quite fast, in weeks not months”, despite the risk of infuriating Moscow.
Russia has repeatedly warned both countries against joining Nato and would see any such move as a provocation. The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, has said that if Finland and Sweden entered Nato, Russia would have to “rebalance the situation” with its own measures.
Speaking alongside her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, at a joint press conference in Stockholm, Marin said Finland had to be “prepared for all kinds of actions from Russia” and that “everything had changed” when Moscow attacked Ukraine.
“The difference between being a partner and a member is very clear, and will remain so. There is no other way to have security guarantees than under Nato’s deterrence and common defence as guaranteed by the alliance’s article 5,” she said.
Article 5, the 30-member alliance’s collective defence cornerstone, states that an attack on one Nato member is an attack on all. It has only been invoked once in the organisation’s history, in response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Andersson said there was “no point” in delaying analysis of whether it was right for Sweden to apply for Nato membership. “There is a before and after 24 February,” she said – the date on which Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. “This is a very important time in history. The security landscape has completely changed. We have to analyse the situation to see what is best for Sweden’s security, for the Swedish people, in this new situation.”
A Finnish government white paper, released on Wednesday, on the country’s “fundamentally changed” security environment made no recommendation on Nato but will serve as the basis for a parliamentary debate after Easter.
“I think people’s mindsets in Finland, also in Sweden, changed and were shaped very dramatically by Russia’s actions,” Marin said. “This is very clear and that caused a need for a process in Finland to have a discussion about our own security choices.”
She said Finland needed “to be very frank about consequences and the risks. There are both short-term and more long-term risks. These risks are there both if we apply and if we do not apply.”
A recent opinion poll showed 68% of Finnish respondents were in favour of joining the alliance, more than double the figure before the invasion, with only 12% against. Polling in Sweden suggests a slim majority of Swedes now also back membership.
Both countries are officially non-aligned militarily, but became Nato partners – taking part in exercises and exchanging intelligence – after abandoning their previous stance of strict neutrality when they joined the EU in 1995 after the end of the cold war.
Finland declared independence in 1917 after more than a century of Russian rule, and its heavily outnumbered army twice fought off Soviet forces during the second world war before ceding some border territory. Sweden has not fought a war for 200 years.
Sweden’s ruling centre-left Social Democrats, led by Andersson, this week began debating whether the country should drop its opposition to joining Nato, abandoning a decades-long belief that peace was best kept by not publicly choosing sides.
The question is expected to be a key issue in parliamentary elections on 11 September, with centre-right opposition parties already saying they would back a Nato application and the far-right Sweden Democrats also open to the idea.
Many commentators expect the two Nordic nations to act in tandem on whether to join, although Finland – widely seen as likely to apply before a Nato summit in Madrid scheduled for June – looks closer than Sweden.
A Swedish security policy review is expected to be completed before the end of May and Andersson has said she will await its outcome before making any decisions. However, a positive Finnish decision would put pressure on Sweden to follow suit.
Both countries have received public assurances from the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, that their applications would be welcome, as well as expressions of support from members including the US, UK, Germany and France. Any membership application must be accepted by all 30 Nato states, which could take four months to a year.