The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves across the world, with ripples being felt both near and far from Europe. As NATO announces its new Strategic Concept at the 2022 Madrid Summit in late June, renewed Russian belligerence is sure to be a central topic of discussion. In the same vein, two unexpected new members may formally apply to the alliance at the summit. Sweden and Finland, both notably neutral Nordic states have rapidly moved in the direction of NATO membership in the past few weeks. At a joint press conference in Stockholm, both countries’ prime ministers stated that they would be moving forward with the process of application given the new security environment they find themselves in. For the first time, both countries have a majority of public support for membership in the organization. This unprecedented turnaround in security policy could prove to be one of the most significant consequences of Putin’s war in Ukraine. The gravity of a joint Finnish-Swedish accession to NATO would have important effects on the region as well as the organization, but what exactly should be expected?
Given both Sweden and Finland’s advanced economies, modern militaries, and solid governance record, many of the steps in the process of acquiring NATO membership will be formalities. While we should still expect full membership to take at least a year, Brussels will likely expedite this process to offer Helsinki and Stockholm as little time in the vulnerable application window during which provocations from Russia may exacerbate.
The guarantee of collective defense which comes with NATO membership is a clear advantage for the prospective applicants, but the alliance also stands to gain from including the two Nordic states in its ranks. While it would inherit the daunting task of coordinating the defense of an 800-mile Finnish-Russian border, the Finnish military has specialized to an incredible degree in the protection of their borders from Russian attack. There are few nations on Earth with such a one-track defensive policy as Finland, which has predicated most of their decisions on the matter since World War 2 on countering and preventing the threat from Moscow. This gives the Finns incredible insight into Russian decision-making, backed by robust military intelligence. Finland has also maintained a highly advanced military, recently purchasing 64 F-35A aircraft from the United States. These fifth-generation fighters will be more advanced and indeed more numerous than even Russia’s current best aircraft, the Su-57.
The Swedish military is also regarded as heavily professional and well-equipped. The Swedish navy is well prepared for operations in the Baltic and the Arctic, a specialization not common to most modern navies. The strategically placed Swedish island of Gotland sits at the center of the Baltic and is considered one of the most defensively relevant locations in the region. If Sweden became a NATO member, the permanent deployment of NATO forces there could alter the security architecture of the region, much to Moscow’s displeasure. NATO will also benefit from the ability to project a united front in Scandinavia if both Sweden and Finland join, limiting the gray zone of Russian influence.
While Swedish and Finnish integration into NATO has been a slow but sure development formal application for membership will certainly provoke Russia’s ire. Large-scale Russian military deployment is unlikely given their current quagmire in Ukraine, however both states should expect to see a ratcheting up of hybrid warfare efforts coming from Moscow. Disinformation efforts and cyber warfare coupled with provocative naval and aerial maneuvers would be in keeping with Russia’s modus operandi. A quick application and accession would give Russia fewer opportunities to sow discord and undermine stability, as their resources are clearly strained now. The long-term implications of the move will be an increased securitization of both the Baltic and Arctic region, and likely a significantly larger NATO presence on Russia’s borders. While Russia has made broad statements about positioning nuclear and ballistic missiles in the Baltic region, this is unlikely to significantly change the dynamics of the region. Use of hybrid tactics and deliberate provocations seem to more realistically fall into the purview of Russian operations. Moscow will seek ways to sow chaos and mistrust among their northern neighbors, hoping to derail their plans of membership, but the apparent speed of their application process limits the window for such operations. If Finland and Sweden pursue NATO membership fully, it may prove to be one of the largest consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine.