Sweden is used to leading in northern Europe, not playing catch-up – and certainly not to Finland. But Vladimir Putin’s war on one neighbour has scrambled old certainties among the others.
Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson will seek broad support for an application to join Nato on Monday, she announced today, after her party dropped its long-standing opposition to membership in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Joining Nato was a distant prospect just months ago, but Russia’s attack on its neighbour has prompted both Sweden and Finland to rethink their security needs and seek safety in the military alliance they stood apart from during the Cold War.
For decades, Finland's post-war politics focused on not provoking Moscow; joining the EU in 1995 and partnering in Nato missions in the last decade saw Helsinki pivot westward.
But now the Finns are making a final shift away from neutrality, non-alignment and the ruins of their bilateral relations with Moscow.
The Finnish application to join Nato is a pragmatic reaction to history – the trauma of being left alone to battle the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – and geography: a 1,300km border with Russia stretching into the Arctic Circle.
All bets with Russia are now off and this border will in the near future be Nato’s outer wall. Helsinki is more interested in securing its people and their interests than pandering to Russian encirclement anxiety.
Curiosity vs fear
Finns know this decision is likely to have consequences, but decades of sustained spending and preparation has them as ready as they will ever be. From a well-equipped army, a secondary army of trained reservists, cold war bunkers, food supplies and considerable investment in cyber security, Finnish defence officials seem more curious than worried as to what the Kremlin will send their way.
Not even Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats impress them much: they are widely viewed in Helsinki as a sign of weakness rather than strength.
Sweden was always another story. Its collective memories of conflict – with Russia or anyone else – are two centuries older. Sweden’s neutrality has deep emotional roots but, compared to Finland in recent decades, was more a choice than necessity. Sweden’s military and defences are not up to Finnish standards and its people not used to thinking about conflict, let along the new, real risk of Russian aggression.
But shock over Ukraine has seen decades-old Swedish scepticism about Nato – in particular its nuclear capability and leading US role – melt away in weeks. Faced with Putin’s taste for war and Finland’s determination to join Nato, Sweden realised that staying out was the worst of all possible worlds.
In an emergency, Stockholm would be simultaneously outside Nato's mutual defence yet face pressure to allow alliance troop and equipment movements through its territory to defend Finland.
On Sunday, Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats, rather than leave the issue dangling and face an election drubbing in the autumn, decided that playing catch-up with Finland was a more appealing prospect than insecure Nordic security solitude. – Additional reporting Reuters