HELSINKI (AP) – During the Cold War and decades after that, nothing could convince Finns and Swedes that they…
HELSINKI (AP) – During the Cold War and decades after that, nothing could convince Finns and Swedes that they would be better off joining NATO – so far.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has profoundly changed Europe’s views on security, including the neutral countries of Northern Europe, Finland and Sweden, where support for NATO membership has risen to record levels.
A poll conducted this week by Finnish TV company YLE found that for the first time, more than 50% of Finns support joining the Western military alliance. In neighboring Sweden, a similar poll found that more people were in favor of NATO membership.
“The unbelievable can be made possible,” wrote former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, a supporter of NATO membership.
None of the countries is going to join the alliance right away. Support for NATO membership is growing and falling, and there is no clear majority to join their parliaments.
But signs of change after Russia launched its invasion last week are unmistakable.
The attack on Ukraine prompted both Finland and Sweden to abandon the supply of weapons to warring countries, sending to Kyiv submachine guns and anti-tank weapons. For Sweden, this is the first time it has offered military assistance since 1939, when it helped Finland against the Soviet Union.
Apparently feeling a shift among its northern neighbors, the Russian Foreign Ministry last week expressed concern that it called the efforts of the United States and some of its allies to “drag” Finland and Sweden into NATO, and warned that Moscow would have to retaliate if they joined the union.
The governments of Sweden and Finland have said they will not allow Moscow to dictate its security policy.
“I want to be very clear: Sweden itself and independently determines the line of our security policy,” said Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Anderson.
Finland has a controversial history with Russia, with which it has a dividing border of 1,340 kilometers (830 miles). The Finns took part in dozens of wars against their eastern neighbor, for centuries as part of the Kingdom of Sweden and as an independent nation, including two fought with the Soviet Union in 1939-40 and 1941-44.
In the post-war period, however, Finland maintained pragmatic political and economic ties with Moscow, remaining in military non-alignment and a neutral buffer between East and West.
Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, choosing the path of peace after centuries of war with its neighbors.
Both countries put an end to traditional neutrality by joining the European Union in 1995 and deepening cooperation with NATO. However, most people in both countries have remained firmly against full membership in the alliance – so far.
The YLE poll showed that 53% were in favor of Finland’s accession to NATO and only 28% were against. The survey had an error of 2.5 percentage points and included 1,382 respondents surveyed from 23 to 25 February. Russia’s invasion began on February 24.
“This is a very significant shift,” said Mother Peso, a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “Over the last 25-30 years, we have had a situation where Finns’ views on NATO have been very stable. It seems that now he has completely changed. “
Noting that it is impossible to draw conclusions from a single poll, Pesu said similar shifts in public opinion after Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 did not occur, “so this is an exception.”
In Sweden in late February, a poll commissioned by the public broadcaster SVT found that 41% of Swedes support NATO membership and 35% oppose it, the first time supporters have outnumbered those opposed.
The Northern duo, important NATO partners in the Baltic Sea region, where Russia has significantly increased its military maneuvers over the past decade, are adamant that they are the only ones deciding whether to join the military alliance.
In his New Year’s speech, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö made it clear that “Finland’s room for maneuver and freedom of choice also includes the possibility of a military alliance and applying for NATO membership if we so choose.”
Last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that for Helsinki and Stockholm “it is a matter of self-determination and the sovereign right to choose one’s own path and then, potentially, also apply for NATO membership in the future.”
There are no specific criteria for joining NATO, but aspiring candidates must meet certain political and other considerations. Many observers believe that Finland and Sweden will claim accelerated NATO membership without lengthy talks in a few months.
Although Finland and Sweden are not members, they work closely with NATO, allowing, among other things, Allied forces to conduct exercises on their territory. Helsinki and Stockholm have also significantly intensified their bilateral defense cooperation in recent years, and both have ensured close military cooperation with the United States, Britain and neighboring NATO member Norway.
On Thursday, Niinist’s office said it would meet with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday, “to discuss Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the consequences of the war for European security and bilateral cooperation.”
The Finnish head of state is one of the few Western leaders to maintain a regular dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin since Niinist took office in 2012. Niinista has seemingly good relations also with Biden, and the two leaders are in close contact across the Ukraine crisis.
In December, Biden called Niinist and said he was pleased with Finland’s decision to purchase 64 Lockheed Martin F-35A fighters to replace obsolete F-18 fighters. Biden said the move would pave the way for closer US-Finnish military ties in the future.
The Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, said this week that her Social Democratic Party would discuss possible membership in NATO with other parties, but did not set a deadline. She said everyone agrees that the events of the past weeks have changed the game.
“Together, we see that the security situation has changed significantly since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. That is a fact we must acknowledge, ”Marin said.
___ Associated Press writers Carl Ritter in Stockholm and Lorne Cook of Brussels contributed to this report.
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