The end of neutrality? : Sweden and Finland on their way to NATO

The end of neutrality?
Sweden and Finland on their way to NATO

Faced with the Russian attack on Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are considering abandoning decades of military neutrality. NATO will welcome them “with open arms”, announced the Secretary General of the Alliance, Jens Stoltenberg. Overview of the main aspects of Swedish and Finnish defense policy:

It would be a historic turning point

For decades, a majority of Swedes and Finns refused to join NATO. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 marks a historic turning point, particularly in Finland, which shares a 1,300 kilometer border with Russia.

In polls over the past 20 years, no more than 20-30% of Finns and Swedes supported joining the transatlantic defense alliance. Today, this share has risen to more than 75% in Finland and 50% in Sweden. Many parties have also changed their position on this issue under the impact of the war in Ukraine.

Finland remained neutral during the Cold War and did not enter into any military alliance even after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Sweden continued a policy of neutrality after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. After the Cold War, this policy of neutrality turned into a policy of military non-alignment.

The two countries are close NATO partners

Even without membership, Sweden and Finland have developed increasingly close ties with NATO. The two countries joined the Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997.

NATO describes Stockholm and Helsinki as some of its “most active partners”, participating, for example, in Alliance operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. Swedish and Finnish armed forces regularly participate in exercises with NATO countries.

The Swedish army

For a long time, Swedish politics was of the view that the country needed a strong army to protect its neutrality. After the Cold War, however, the government drastically cut defense spending and deployments to peacekeeping missions around the world became the primary focus. In 1990, 2.6% of gross domestic product was spent on defence, in 2020 it was only 1.2%.

In response to the war of aggression in Ukraine, the government in Stockholm wants to increase military spending to 2%. Conscription was abolished in 2010 and partially reintroduced in 2017 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Swedish army has around 50,000 soldiers with its various branches.

finnish army

Although Finland has also reduced its defense, it still maintains a much larger army than the more populous Sweden. In the event of war, the country of 5.5 million inhabitants can call on 280,000 soldiers and 600,000 additional reservists.

In early April, Helsinki announced that it would increase its military spending by more than two billion euros over the next four years. A defense budget of 5.1 billion euros is planned for 2022.

Participation in the war and “Finlandization”

Although Sweden has sent armed forces on international peacekeeping missions, it has not been involved in war for over 200 years – most recently in the Swedish-Norwegian War in 1814. The country has remained neutral in both world wars.

Finland, meanwhile, was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939. The Finns put up fierce resistance. Ultimately, however, they were forced to cede much of the eastern region of Karelia in a peace treaty with Moscow.

In a 1948 “friendship treaty” Moscow pledged not to attack its neighbor as long as it remained outside Western defense cooperation. The country’s enforced neutrality coined the term “Finlandization”.

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