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Will Sweden and Finland Scrap Neutrality in Face of Ukraine invasion?

Sweden and Finland
Swedish soldiers firing the Pansarskott 86 antitank weapons that Sweden sent to Ukraine after the Russian invasion. The historically neutral nations of Sweden and Finland are reportedly leaning toward joining NATO after centuries of neutrality. Credit: Screenshot from Youtube

For many, many decades now, the politicians of the world have depended on the political neutrality of Sweden and Finland as most of the rest of Europe took sides during the years of the Cold War and afterward, joining NATO or remaining within the former Soviet sphere of influence.

But this balance may be changing forever after the Russian invasion of the “common European homeland” so lovingly referred to by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former General Secretary of the Communist party of the USSR, has shaken the continent to its core.

Russia’s invasion into the heartland of Europe has created a sea change in how these traditionally neutral countries, which have long prided themselves on being apart from the fray of international alliances and the tensions that can arise from them — will face a future in which open warfare has broken out on the continent.

Sweden and Finland may be at cusp of a sea change in policy

Now, the support for joining the NATO alliance has surged to record levels, according to polls taken in these Nordic countries.

One poll commissioned by Finnish broadcaster YLE last week showed that more than 50% of Finns support joining the Western military alliance. This marks the first time in history that has occurred as Finns appear to be taking a stand against their gigantic neighbor to the East.

In Sweden, which has long been such a beacon of neutrality that it frequently engages in diplomacy among countries that do not have diplomatic relations with each other, another poll also indicated a majority of citizens are in favor of NATO membership.

The enormous import of the tilting of the scales in favor of joining the Western alliance cannot be overstated. “The unthinkable might start to become thinkable,” said former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, a proponent of NATO membership, in a Tweet recently.

Sweden ships 5,000 antitank weapons to Ukraine

And incredibly, Sweden has already sent war materiel to Ukraine on its own, taking the initiative to do so as it shipped 5,000 shoulder-fired antitank weapons to the military there.

Although the embattled country will not be getting Sweden’s state-of-the-art “Robot 57” rocket launchers, the sending of these more portable weapons to Ukraine represents a vast shift in policy for the Swedes, according to the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.

The Pansarskott 86 is not capable of taking out an entire modern tank, its makers say, but it can immobilize a tank charge in the field and stop it from advancing.

Learn more: EU to Evaluate Ukraine’s Application this week

The ancestor of the single-shot 74-mm unguided anti-tank smooth bore recoilless weapon, called the Miniman, was designed in Sweden by Försvarets Fabriksverk (FFV) and became operational in 1968.

In 1986 the Swedish Army adopted the FFV AT4, designated the Pansarskott m/86, to replace the Miniman; however, FFV engineers adopted the rugged but simple firing and safety mechanism of the Miniman for the AT4.

Moving targets can be attacked at a range of 150 meters (490 feet) while stationary targets may be engaged out to 250 meters (820 feet). The Miniman’s HEAT projectile has a copper liner and can penetrate 340 mm (13 inches) of rolled homogeneous armor, its makers say.

Naturally, NATO will not be adopting the neutral countries into its fold immediately and as of now there is no clear parliamentary majority in favor of joining in either country. But the simple fact that polls indicate most people in these steadfastly neutral countries want to take the momentous step to become allied with the West is telling.

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The shipment of the antitank weapons marks Sweden’s first time to offer military aid since 1939, when it did assist Finland in its fight against the Soviet Union, although it stayed neural in the Second World War which was ongoing at the time.

Russian Foreign Ministry issues warning to Nordic countries

As evidence of the seismic shift that appears to be forming regarding the warming of ties between NATO and the Nordic countries, the Russian Foreign Ministry complained about concern what it said were the efforts by the United States and some of its allies to “drag” Finland and Sweden into the alliance.

Ominously, it also warned that Russia would be forced retaliate in some way if they joined the group.

That threat was immediately rebuked by government officials in both countries, who declared that they won’t allow Moscow to dictate their security policy.

“I want to be extremely clear: It is Sweden that itself and independently decides on our security policy line,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson retorted after the Russian warning.

But it is Finland that has borne the brunt of having a long 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with its gigantic neighbor to the East. The country has been invaded dozens of times over the centuries, not only when it was part of the once-powerful Swedish Kingdom, but also when it was an independent nation.

Finland fought two separate wars with the Soviet Union, from 1939-40 and 1941-44. But the postwar years meant a continuation of the status quo, in which the balance between East and West was precarious but not threatened by either side.

Joining EU in 1995 marked new international cooperation with continental Europe

For its part, Sweden swore off all military alliances and incursions after its disastrous Battle of Poltava in 1709, in which it was routed by Tsar Peter I, losing all its Baltic territories.

The strict neutrality of both Nordic countries was breached somewhat by their joining of the European Union in 1995 and the gradual growth of cooperation with NATO. But through the years — until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February — a majority of citizens in both countries had shied away from joining the Alliance.

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The YLE poll showed that only 28% of Finns were against joining ranks with NATO while 53% were in favor; the poll included the opinions of 1,382 respondents who were interviewed Feb. 23 to 25, while Russia’s invasion began on February 24.

Matti Pesu, a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, says “It’s a very significant shift,” in an interview with the Associated Press. “We’ve had a situation in the past 25-30 years where Finns’ opinions on NATO have been very stable. It seems to now to have changed completely.”

Although acknowledging that these were only the results from a single poll, Pesu pointed out that no similar shift in public opinion had happened after Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia or its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, “so this is an exception.”

Meanwhile in Sweden, a similar poll in late February poll sponsored by the public broadcaster SVT showed that 41% of Swedes supported joining NATO; 35% opposed it, representing the first time that those in favor of taking part in the Alliance exceeded the number of those against.

Biden calls Finland “Strong defense partner” after meeting

The Nordic duo, important partners for NATO in the Baltic Sea area where Russia has substantially increased its military maneuvers in the past decade, has strongly stressed that it is up to them alone to decide whether to join the military alliance.

But the swing westward seems to have been in the air even prior to the Russian invasion, as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto remarked that “Finland’s room to maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide,” in his New Year’s speech to the nation.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has remained openly noncommittal, appearing to make an effort to not be pushing membership on the Nordic nations, while saying last week that “this is a question of self-determination and the sovereign right to choose your own path and then potentially in the future, also to apply for NATO.”

Unlike the case in the EU, in which there are layers of prerequisites for members to join, there are no set rules for nations who wish to join the alliance; still certain political and other considerations must be fulfilled, according to an Associated Press report, which cited experts who believed that Finland and Sweden would qualify for a fast-track entry that would only amount to a matter of months.

Finland and Sweden already collaborate with NATO, allowing the alliance’s troops to conduct military exercises on their territory and cooperating closely with the US, the UK and Scandinavian neighbor Norway.

Niinisto met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House last Friday “to discuss Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the effects of the war on the European security order, and bilateral cooperation,” according to the President’s office; no NATO announcement came out of the meeting, however.

Biden agreed to deepen security ties with his Finnish counterpart but stopped short of making any formal guarantees to the country that is undoubtedly nervously watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine play out.

Both men stopped short of saying Finland would seek to join NATO or become a major non-NATO ally of the United States, which would be a designation that grants a degree of enhanced security cooperation.

But after their 90-minute-long meeting, Biden called Finland a “strong defense partner” helping a “united trans-Atlantic response to holding Russia accountable.”

Biden had telephoned called Niinisto in December of 2021, telling him he was pleased with his country’s decision to buy 64 Lockheed Martin F-35A stealth fighter jets to replace its aging F-18 fighters. At the time, Biden said the deal would pave the way for closer U.S.-Finnish military ties in the years to come.

Meanwhile, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said last week that her Social Democratic Party would discuss a possible NATO membership with other parties; however, she gave no time frame for the talks. Regardless, she admits that the disturbing events of the past have changed the political playing field, maybe for good.

“Together we see that the security situation has changed remarkably since Russia attacked Ukraine. It is a fact that we have to acknowledge,” she stated.

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