President Putin has always been a strong opponent of any NATO expansion, calling it an imperialist threat and claiming that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is nothing more than an extended arm of US power.
The Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24th and, within less than three months, Moscow’s fears of a NATO enlargement landed at the Russia’s doorstep. Both Sweden and Finland are soon to become NATO’s 31st and 32nd member states. The most recent NATO enlargement came in March 2020 when North Macedonia joined the alliance. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine have also stated their interest in joining.
In fact, President Putin has only himself to blame insofar as he unintentionally assisted in strengthening NATO-promoted fears that Russian troops could attack other nearby countries.
In the words of Magdalena Andersson, the Swedish prime minister: “There is a before and after 24 February.” Russian aggression and Putin’s own political miscalculations pushed Sweden and Finland from a position of neutrality to soon-to-become fully-fledged NATO members.
The Hardening of Public Opinion in Sweden and Finland
On May 15, 2022, the Swedish government announced it wants to join NATO, a decision which was supported by the Swedish political establishment and the population. Various polls indicated that Swedish public opinion in joining NATO had a major shift due to the Russian’s invasion.
Statista Research Department has conducted a number of surveys on the perception of NATO membership in Sweden between the years 2014 to 2022. In April 2014, 56% were strongly opposed and said Sweden should stay out. In December 2015, the opposed side slightly decreased to 50% and the “yes Sweden should join NATO” stood at 34%.
In December 2016 to December 2017, the percentage of Swedes in favor of NATO membership stood within 30% to 35%.
In January 2022, a month before the Russian invasion, the in “favor” side was 37%, the “don’t-know” side 28%, and the “oppose” side was 35%. Following the invasion, there were more Swedes in favor. In the days after the invasion the number went up to 41% and in April it increased slightly to 45%. By May 2022, it jumped sharply to nearly 60 percent of Swedes in favor of their country joining NATO. The “oppose” side which had stood at 56% in April 2014 was all the way down to 19%. Therefore, looking at those figures one can agree with those analysts who say that the invasion of Ukraine has had the unintended outcome of strengthening the alliance.
In Finland, Sweden’s neighbor, there is also is a majority in favor of joining NATO. For almost three decades, Finnish people were staunchly opposed to any NATO membership. For the past 30 years, those who favored a Finnish NATO membership stood 20% to 29%.
In January 2022, 28% said they want to see Finland join the alliance. A month after the Russian war, March 2022, the in-favor side dramatically jumped to 62%, and in May it went up to 76%.
The percentage of opponents to NATO membership had dropped radically in both Sweden and Finland.
The Russian aggression’s unintended outcome has meant that Russia will soon share an 800 mile border with a NATO member state, Finland.
Sweden’s decision to join NATO was a drastic shift from its over two-hundred-year history of neutrality. The paradox here is that Sweden’s neutrality began after a colossal loss of territory to Russia during the Napoleonic wars in 1812. During the first and second world war, Sweden was able to not get involved. During the 20th century, Swedish foreign policy was mainly focused on taking an active role to promote international peace, democracy and human rights through diplomacy and cooperation. After the cold war ended, Sweden actively supported efforts to develop a new co-operative European Security Order centered around rules on conflict prevention, reconciliation and the respect of International law, which also included respect for national sovereignty and national borders.
On August 9, 2022, the US became the 23rd ally to approve NATO membership of Sweden and Finland. At the signing, Biden said that the partnership was an “indispensable alliance” and added, “In seeking to join NATO, Finland and Sweden are making a sacred commitment that an attack against one is an attack against all (…). It was and is a watershed moment I believe in the alliance and for the greater security and stability not only of Europe and the United States but of the world.”
The accession to NATO must be approved by all 30 member states before Finland and Sweden can join the alliance. Sweden and Finland submitted their applications three months ago and already more than 23 NATO members including Turkey, which initially had reservations, have welcomed in the two new nations. This marks one of the speediest expansions of the pact of mutual defense among the United States and its democratic allies in Europe during its 73 year history.
This begs the question, what was Putin thinking when he decided to invade Ukraine? In the words of President Biden, Putin is now getting "exactly what he did not want," meaning the enlargement of NATO.