Q. After all these years outside NATO, why do Finland and Sweden want to join now?
A. If you look at both of their defense white papers and national strategy documents over for the last 30 years – since the Cold War ended – they have always been predicated on non-alignment and close cooperation with NATO; in the case of Finland, the closest possible cooperation with NATO. Both of them operated together with NATO in Afghanistan and in Kosovo, so they have already developed very close relationships.
In both countries, public opinion swung in favor of NATO membership after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, which from their point of view, changed the assessment of the security situation in Europe and convinced the majority.
In the case of Finland, support in the polls now is around 76% and its parliament voted 188 to 8, with four abstentions, to join NATO because the threat from Russia was significantly changed by what they saw going on in Ukraine.
Q. Is the Russian invasion of the Ukraine the only driver here?
A. It is the major thing. For a long time, cooperation with NATO was an objective for Finland and Sweden, but there is a difference between cooperating and working with NATO and being beneficiary of the Article 5 guarantee [in the NATO Charter] that an attack on one is an attack on all. It was a sense that they were safer in a collective defense and in a collective security organization than they would be on their own.
Q. And all the NATO members need to approve their joining?
A. Yes. NATO is an organization that operates on consensus, and all 30 members of NATO have to approve and ratify through their national ratification processes that amended North Atlantic Treaty that would now include Finland and Sweden.
Q. Turkey is voicing objections?
A. Yes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has raised objections ostensibly about Finnish and Swedish support for Kurdish Nationalists, the PPK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party which launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey]. It is really more an issue about Sweden than Finland, but honestly, it is more about a pretext.
Q. How will Turkey’s objections affect the rest of the alliance?
A. Privately, I have been told by very senior U.S. officials in Brussels at NATO headquarters that the other NATO members are furious that Turkey has thrown a spanner in the works here. The Turks were beneficiaries of one of the early rounds of NATO enlargement themselves. In 1952, Turkey and Greece came in and they supported all the post-Cold War rounds of 1999 and 2002 individual states, such as Croatia and Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, that have entered since 2002.
So there is a lot of anger at Turkey because this has happened before with the Turks. They blocked [former Danish Prime Minister] Anders Fogh Rasmussen from becoming the secretary general of NATO for awhile back in 2009 and ultimately relented. They blocked the new defense plans NATO worked up for the Baltic states and Poland after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Q. If Turkey prevents this, will it be perceived as a victory for Putin?
A. It certainly serves Erdoğan’s purpose to remind Putin that he is useful to Putin by creating problems in NATO, but I don’t think at the end of the day he is going to stop it from happening. That would really be unprecedented and there would be a lot of costs to Turkey, notably including the potential sale of F-16s from the United States to Turkey which is in the cards now. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the foreign relations committee in the U.S. Senate, has already expressed himself in no uncertain terms that he is quite angry at what the Turks have done in regards to Sweden and Finland and NATO, and there is a chance that they are going to screw these sales up if Erdoğan doesn’t watch himself.
Q. The Swedish population seems slightly less enthusiastic than the Finns. Is this a package deal, or could Sweden still opt out?
A. It is possible, but unlikely. There is a little bit of a history here. The Swedes applied for European Union membership in 1991 without telling the Finns, and the Finns applied the next day. To some degree, the Finns have been pulling the somewhat less-enthusiastic Swedes [towards NATO], but it still has majority support in Sweden. I don’t want to suggest that the Swedish population is not supportive. It is just not as supportive as the numbers are in Finland, although several people have pointed out to me that Sweden, if you look at the Swedish polling and ask, ‘Do you support it if Finland goes in, too?’ the numbers actually go up.