nato finland blinken
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, left, shakes hands with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, after handing over his nation's accession document during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, April 4, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Finland became the 31st member of NATO on Tuesday in a historic shift that drew an angry warning of “countermeasures” from the Kremlin.

Moscow’s all-out attack of Ukraine last year upended Europe’s security landscape and prompted Finland - and its neighbour Sweden - to drop decades of military non-alignment.

“Not so many years ago we thought it was unthinkable that Finland would become a member. Now they will be a fully-fledged member of our alliance and that is truly historic,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“We are removing the room for miscalculation in Moscow about NATO’s readiness to protect Finland, and that makes Finland safer.”

Finnish Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen called it “a win-win situation” ahead of the choreographed final formalities before Finland’s blue-and-white flag can be hoisted in front of NATO’s headquarters.

But Moscow decried the move as an “assault” on Russia’s security and national interests.

“This forces us to take countermeasures... in tactical and strategic terms,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Western nations founded NATO in 1949 as a means of collective security against the Soviet Union and its allies. But for more than 70 years, two European countries - Finland and Sweden - declined to join the alliance, instead pursuing careful Cold War policies of neutrality and nonalignment.

But Russia’s attack of Ukraine last year changed that for both Finland and Sweden.

Here’s how we got here, and what Finland’s admittance to NATO means for the alliance.

Why wasn’t Finland already in NATO?

Finland and Sweden adopted policies of neutrality during the Cold War, even as their Nordic neighbours, Norway and Denmark, opted to join NATO. They maintained these policies for decades, even as NATO expanded further. Though both were neutral, their reasons for that stance were distinct.

Sweden in the 19th century adopted an official policy of remaining neutral during conflicts. The last time it fought a war was in 1814, when it sought to quell Norway’s bid for independence. It also fought against the Russian Empire in a war that ended in 1809, with Sweden ceding territory that would be incorporated into Finland. During World War II, Sweden maintained its neutrality and did not join the conflict.

nato finland flag
NATO and Finland flags flutter over the building of Ministry of Internal Affairs in Helsinki, Finland, Tuesday, April 4, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Finland, which gained its independence in 1917, had a different experience, first fighting off a Soviet invasion in what became the brutal Winter War of 1939-1940. It went to battle against the Soviet Union again, and also fought against Nazi Germany. In the end, Finland lost about 10 per cent of its territory to the Soviet Union, but remained independent.

After a 1948 agreement with the Soviet Union, it officially became neutral. Due to its deference to its larger neighbour, however, the term “Finlandization” became a byword during the Cold War for a kind of limited sovereignty.

When did the move away from neutrality begin?

Despite declared policies of neutrality, neither Sweden nor Finland was ever fully neutral. During the Cold War, NATO worked with Stockholm; Sweden allowed NATO flights to use its airspace and engaged in other quiet acts of cooperation. Soviet forces also harassed Sweden, most famously in 1981 when a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground on the Swedish coast. The incident became known as “Whiskey on the Rocks.”

But things really changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sweden and Finland soon abandoned their neutrality claims and instead opted to be militarily nonaligned - a more specific term that refers to military alliances rather than political partnerships. Both joined the European Union in 1995.

A further shift came after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The move, coupled with Moscow’s support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, prompted Finland and Sweden to step up official cooperation with NATO.

In 2017, Sweden, which had downsized its military significantly after the Cold War, brought back a limited form of conscription.

After Russia’s unprovoked attack of Ukraine, a majority of people in both countries support NATO membership, with polls last year showing 57 percent of Swedes and 76 percent of Finns in favor of joining the alliance.

Kai Sauer, Finland’s undersecretary of state for foreign and security policy, told The Washington Post last year that Finland had long been realistic about the risk of conflict. “There is a very high willingness to defend the country,” he said. “It might sound old-fashioned, but it is a consequence of our history and geographic position.”

Both Finland and Sweden announced their intention to join NATO in May 2022, just months after Russia invaded Ukraine.

How will Finland change NATO?

The most immediate change might be geography.

Finland’s border with Russia is 1335 km long; when it joins NATO, the military alliance’s border with Russia will double. Sweden, while not bordering Russia directly, holds on to the strategically important island of Gotland, just 320 km from the Russian military stationed in Kaliningrad.

Sweden and Finland have what are considered modern militaries, with equipment compatible with NATO systems. Finland finalised the purchase of 64 F-35 fighter planes from US company Lockheed Martin in early 2022, before Russia attacked Ukraine.

Finland already meets the NATO military spending target of 2 percent of its annual economic output, and Sweden is at 1.4 percent.

Why isn’t Sweden in NATO?

For both Finland and Sweden, the ratification process has been surprisingly lengthy.

One big holdup has been NATO member Turkey, which has criticised Sweden for refusing to extradite “terrorists” affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Protests against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sweden, including one in which a Holy Quran was burned, have further damaged ties.

Another NATO member, Hungary, has yet to hold a parliamentary vote on Sweden’s NATO membership. In a blog post last week, Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman for the Hungarian government, criticised Sweden for sitting on a “crumbling throne of moral superiority” and said Hungary would need time to work out its “ample amount of grievances” with Sweden before it can ratify.

Though it was initially assumed that Finland and Sweden would follow the same path to membership, officials from both countries have conceded that there are likely to be further steps for Sweden. “I have a feeling that Finnish NATO membership is not complete without Sweden,” Finnish President Sauli Niinist said on Friday at a joint news conference with Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.

- with inputs from AFP

Five things to know about NATO
Brussels: NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance, is set to double its border with Russia, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, when Finland becomes its 31st member.
Here are five things to know about the US-led defence club, which was set up during the Cold War to protect western Europe against Soviet aggression.

All for one
The core of the NATO treaty is Article 5 which states that allies agree “that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”
If one of the allies were to invoke the article, and the other allies are unanimous in agreeing that the member is indeed under attack, each will take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
During the Cold War, this principle translated as an effective US security guarantee for smaller allies facing the implied threat of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies in Europe.
But it has never been invoked for that purpose.

One for all
In fact, Article 5 has only been invoked once, to defend the United States.
In October 2001, just weeks after Al Qaeda members hijacked four airliners and crashed them into targets in New York and Washington DC, the alliance rallied to America’s aid.
While the US military response was dominated by its own troops under its own command, NATO AWACS reconnaissance planes were deployed to US skies and warships headed to the eastern Mediterranean.

Growth spurt
At its birth in 1949, NATO was an alliance of North American and western European democracies, facing their Communist foes across the Iron Curtain.
But after the Berlin Wall fell many former Moscow satellites came knocking on NATO’s door, infuriating Russian President Vladimir Putin.
NATO’s members already include Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which directly border Russia. Ukraine and Georgia are seeking to join too.
Sweden, which applied for membership at the same time as Finland, has jumped ahead of Ukraine in the queue, but its application has run into opposition from Turkey, which accuses Stockholm of sheltering suspected Kurdish militants it wants to prosecute.

French leave
France has had a complicated relationship with the alliance, despite being one of its founding members.
World War II hero president Charles de Gaulle was distrustful of NATO’s US leadership and pulled France out of the alliance’s military command structure in 1966.
It was 43 years before president Nicolas Sarkozy took France back to full membership, in return for the promise of prestigious commands for French officers.
But in 2019, France again struck a discordant note, with President Emmanuel Macron declaring the alliance to be in the throes of “brain death”.

Funding problems
The alliance has been dominated by the United States from the outset, in part because the superpower’s defence budget dwarfs that of all the other members combined.
In recent years Washington has accused its European allies of not pulling their weight - former president Donald Trump was particularly critical - and pressured them to increase their contributions.
In 2014, members agreed to aim to increase their individual defence budgets up to two percent of their national GDP within a decade.
Spending has increased, but in 2022 only seven members met the target, according to NATO: Britain, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the United States.
Germany last year announced plans to massively increase defence spending, but it only expects to meet the two-percent target in 2025.