The Finnish and Swedish Path to NATO – similarities and dissimilarities

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Updated 2.5.2023

The similarities are obvious. A systematic adoption of NATO norms and standards to turn both armies into NATO-compatible forces. A strong reaction in the spring of 2014 to the annexation of Crimea and drawing of identical consequences of the changed strategic situation after the Russian military incursion into the Donbas and attempts to push further and deny Ukraine’s access to its Black Sea coast. This led to increased cooperation with NATO becoming an enhanced opportunity partner in 2014. This was supported by bilateral and trilateral defense cooperation with The United States and Britain.

The most concrete step without doubt was the launching of intensified bilateral Finnish-Swedish defense cooperation. It was given a decisive boost by the Swedish defense minister Peter Hultqvist. It went much further, deeper, and faster than anybody could have anticipated. I remember my surprise at Kultaranta, Presidents Niinistö’s summer residence in June 2016, when Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén talked about “operative planning beyond peace time conditions”. We had embarked on something unparallelled.

The support for bilateral defense cooperation was overwhelming in both countries, but some enthusiasts in Finland overplayed their hand. They misjudged the dynamic of the process and the Swedish position. They began talking about a Finnish-Swedish Defense Union. A non-starter then and a non-starter when Peter Hultqvist discovered the idea and in 2022 offered a bilateral defense union as an alternative to NATO Membership. He was supported by the former Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja. What the two proposed was nothing less than the Finnish historic strategic aim since the mid-1930’s when Marshal Mannerheim together with Paasikivi envisioned Swedish Orientation as the goal of Finnish security policy. The idea was adopted by the Government in 1936 and called Nordic Orientation. Paasikivi was sent as the Finnish envoy to Stockholm with the task to pursue this policy. In August 1940, Molotov aggressively told a Swedish cabinet minister that the Winter War was Sweden’s war! But in 2022 mere Swedish Orientation was too little and too late for both countries. Ironically, the success and the popularity of the military cooperation had done its part in strengthening popular support for NATO.

Over the years, there was only minority support for NATO Membership both in Finland and Sweden. The current Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson visited Helsinki in early 2018 as the newly elected Chairman of the Swedish Conservative Party Moderaterna. He was pressed by Finnish pundits about the expected change of Swedish policy towards NATO after the anticipated return of the Conservatives to power in the upcoming parliamentary elections. I was sitting next to him at a lunch at the Swedish residence and innocently queried him “Why hasn’t Carl Bildt expressed himself on NATO Membership?” Kristersson looked at me like fool and replied: “Everybody knows that Carl Bildt presumes that NATO Membership has to be supported by the Social Democrats, too.” I silently smiled because I knew the answer.

That is exactly what happened in both countries in the spring of 2022. It is a historic turn of events that NATO-skeptical or reluctant Social Democratic-led governments in both Finland and Sweden decided to apply for NATO Membership with the backing of the conservative opposition parties. There is a historic parallel to how Finland joined the European Union. The decision to apply for membership was taken by a government led by the EU-skeptical Center Party.


As for the dissimilarities, the most obvious one is still the fact that Sweden enjoyed an American secret security pledge throughout the Cold War despite its non-aligned status. Two hundred years of Swedish neutrality and non-alignment remains a singular European success story. It grew into an identity and something of an ideology for many Swedes.

In the case of Finland, pursuing a policy of neutrality, which Soviet leaders before Gorbachev never recognized, was the precept of pragmatic Finnish foreign policy of survival, to use President Mauno Koivisto’s definition of the “Finnish idea”. It never turned into an issue of identity, nor did it acquire ideological connotations. But it allowed Finland to successfully pursue a step-by-step policy of integration into European structures and finally to join the European Union together with Sweden in 1995.

It would be wrong to claim that the reactions to the growing Russian militant rhetoric were different even if the alarm bells sounded louder in Helsinki. Unlike Sweden, the Finnish Government had early on adopted a NATO option, i.e., that Finland reserves the right to apply for membership in case its security warrants it. This remained anathema for Sweden, although Stockholm would, of course, have had the same option, but to announce this was politically impossible.

Putin’s shrill demand in December 2021 for security guarantees and a stop to NATO enlargement and even a call to roll back the alliance to the borders of 1997 was pure trolling although not immediately recognized as such. He talked about NATO but meant Ukraine. This was, as we know today, a turning point for Finland. Russia was claiming a sphere of interest, something Finland immediately associated with the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. The change of mood in the country was profound and demands to apply the NATO option were immediately voiced. In President Niinistö’s words in Brussels on 4 April 2023 when Finland finally joined NATO:

“Russia tried to create a sphere around them … we’re not a sphere.”

Support for NATO Membership grew steadily, and the political class followed public opinion. In hindsight it looked as if the Finnish leadership, the President, and Government were hesitant in formulating policy, but the fact remains that the strong support of the population for NATO empowered the President and the Government in taking this historically significant and decisive step.

The unprecedented publication of intelligence about a forthcoming Russian attack on Ukraine was a kind of American ”countertrolling” to Putin’s aggressive moves. It probably postponed the attack and prevented false-flag operations and encouraged Ukraine to prepare seriously for war. Still the Russian attack on 24 February 2022 was a shock and a surprise.

As President Niinistö noted in his New Year’s address January 2023, Putin’s words questioning Ukraine’s right of existence were like Stalin’s policy in November 1939 when he denied Finland’s right to exist.

“If Russia believed that a massive threat would rapidly force Ukraine on its knees, it made a serious error of judgement. One cannot avoid thinking about the similarities the situation has with our Winter War when the Soviet Union assumed that they would march into Helsinki within two weeks. As leaders of a country under authoritarian rule, Stalin and Putin failed to recognize a key factor. The fact that people living in a free country have their own will and convictions. And that a nation that works together constitutes an immense force.”

To add a historic note, Stalin’s “bloodhound” Lev Mekhlis, to quote Stephen Kotkin in his magistral Stalin biography, promised that Helsinki would be taken by 21 December 1939, the 60th birthday of Stalin. As the Senior Political Commissar of the Red Army, Mekhlis supervised the Red Army operation to cut Finland in half, but according to written orders, not to cross the border to Sweden. Two Soviet divisions were annihilated in the battle of Suomussalmi in early January 1940. Mekhlis himself escaped capture and barely made it through the dark wintry forest back to the Soviet rear where he oversaw the execution of the divisional commanders who had failed in their task.

Niinistö flew to Washington on 4 March 2022 to meet President Biden and seek security assurances. At the end of the day, the Presidents called from the Oval Office Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. The table for the two countries joining the alliance had been laid. Two months later 19 May President Niinistö was again in the Oval Office, this time together with Prime Minister Andersson. We should not forget the importance that Ukraine’s will and ability to fight and repel the aggressor played in opening the door for Finnish and Swedish NATO Membership.

The wheels started to turn quickly in Helsinki, quicker than in Stockholm and the consensus solidified in an unprecedented way. A key factor in reaching the decision to apply for NATO Membership was the skillfully conducted parliamentary process led by the Speaker and former Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen. The result was all but unanimous support for joining NATO.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s words at the ceremony of Finland’s accession is a succinct summary:

“President Putin had as a declared goal of the invasion of Ukraine to get less NATO …He is getting exactly the opposite… Finland today, and soon also Sweden will become a full-fledged member of the alliance.”

The author is ambassador and a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences
Opening comments by Amb. René Nyberg at a seminar on Finland’s NATO accession arranged by Section VI of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences on 12 April 2023. In addition, Dr. Matti Pesu from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs delivered a talk at the same seminar based on the” report” Finland as a NATO ally. He situated Finland on Europe’s strategic map, highlighting that Finland is both a Baltic Sea state, an Arctic country and a frontline state while being situated rather peripherally from the Western military and industrial power.