By Erin Viner
“I warmly welcome requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO will increase our shared security,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a ceremony held at allied headquarters in Brussels as the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the alliance handed over their application letters, each in a white folder embossed with their national flags.
Underscoring that “This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” The NATO chief added that “the alliance considers that the accession of Finland and Sweden would hugely strengthen it in the Baltic Sea.
Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810 mile) border and a difficult past with Russia, has gradually increased cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a partner since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
All 30 NATO members must approve the expansion.
Turkey, however, startled its allies in recent days by voicing reservations over accepting Helsinki and Stockholm, accusing both nations of offering save haven to individuals linked to groups it deems as “terrorists,” and condemning embargoes they placed on weapons shipments to Ankara following its incursion into Syria in 2019.
Having remained neutral during the Cold War, Sweden’s and Finland’s decisions to join NATO marks one of the most momentous shifts in European security architecture for decades, reflecting a major change in public opinion throughout the Nordic region since Russia’s 24 invasion of Ukraine.
While diplomats have speculated that ratification by all allied parliaments could take up to a year, NATO’s Director General expressed his belief that any obstacles will be swiftly overcome.
“We are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions,” Stoltenberg said, noting strong support from all other allies.
In hopes of advancing the process along, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist is in already in the United States, to be followed by Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö later this week. Both Sweden and Finland are aiming to secure speedy ratification by the alliance’s premier power to help accelerate NATO membership. The administration of US President Joe Biden previously expressed confidence that any outstanding matters can be resolved.
The move represents a setback for the Kremlin, whose reaction so far has been relatively minor despite having previously warned of steps of a “military-technical” nature and that it could deploy nuclear weapons in its European exclave of Kaliningrad if the countries were to join.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained on Monday that Swedish and Finnish NATO membership posed no threat to Moscow, he still cautioned that a response would be forthcoming if the Western alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.
“Russia has no problem with these states – none. And so, in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion (of NATO) to include these countries,” Putin told the leaders of a Russian-dominated military alliance of former Soviet states.
He nevertheless went on to warn that any “expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response” when “we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin told the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Contrasting with the Kremlin chief‘s reaction to one of his country’s most sensitive geopolitical worries, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the West should have no illusions that Moscow would simply put up with the Nordic expansion of NATO. Those comments were still being played up on state television.
Former President Dmitry Medvedev, one of Putin’s closest allies, belligerently threatened in April that Moscow could deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles into its exclave of Kaliningrad if Helsinki and Stockholm joined NATO.
Putin, who has exerted power since 1999, has repeatedly claimed that advances by the US-led coalition in the post-Soviet era eastward toward his nation’s borders prompted the the “special military operation” aimed at “de-Nazifying” its neighbor because the US was using Ukraine to threaten Russia through NATO enlargement, forcing defense against the persecution of Russian-speaking people. He has also alleged to have evidence that the US has been trying to create components of biological weapons in Ukraine – which Washington and Kyiv have denied. Ukraine its Western backers have also asserted that the pretext of discrimination against Russian speakers has been exaggerated by Moscow to launch its unprovoked war against a sovereign state.
The West has long asserted that NATO – which includes former Warsaw Pact republics such as Poland and Hungary, as well as nuclear powers such as the United States, Britain and France – is purely defensive.