Until now, Swedes and Finns have watched over the military neutrality of their country. But that was before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Close to the conflict, the two countries then began to fear a possible extension of the conflict and Russian aggression. As a reminder, Finland shares a border of nearly 1,300 kilometers with Russia. Opinion then changed and the two countries are perhaps on the point of applying to join NATO and thus end their long policy of military non-alignment. Explanation.
A turn in the polls
While support for NATO integration has hovered around 20 to 30% for 20 years in Finland and Sweden, the latest polls now suggest that more than 70% of Finns and 50% of Swedes support membership.
In both countries, many parties have or are in the process of changing their position on the issue. In the Finnish Parliament, a very clear majority in favor of membership is emerging. In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party, historically opposed to NATO, must decide between May 15 and 24, while the right-wing opposition is pushing for membership.
An ancient and complex history
Ceded by Sweden to Russia in 1809, Finland proclaimed its independence from Russia on the occasion of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939, the country resisted valiantly during the three months of the ‘Winter. After the resumption of the conflict in 1941, Finland was forced into an armistice after three years of fighting. At the end of a “friendship” treaty signed in 1948 under pressure from Moscow, the Finnish leaders agreed to stay out of Western military cooperation in a form of forced neutrality that has remained in history under the name of “Finlandization”. “. The country escapes the rank of satellite state of the USSR, but remains under the eye of Moscow on its foreign and military policy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the European Union (1995) and NATO’s Partnership for Peace, but remained officially non-aligned militarily.
Sweden, for its part, maintained for almost two centuries an official policy of neutrality inherited from the end of the Napoleonic wars, in particular during the two world wars. In the 1990s, its policy of neutrality was amended to a military non-alignment “aiming to allow” neutrality in the event of war.
Neutral, but armed
While remaining outside NATO, the two countries have forged ever closer ties with the alliance, which now considers them to be the two closest non-member states. The two countries have thus taken part in missions led by NATO in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well as in numerous joint exercises.
During the Cold War, Sweden and Finland devoted significant resources (4 to 5% of their GDP) to their armies, a consequence of their absence of military allies. With the disappearance of the Soviet threat, both reduced their appropriations, but Finland maintained a massive use of military service and reservists. With its 5.5 million inhabitants, Finland can thus count on a wartime army of 280,000 combat-capable soldiers, plus 600,000 other reservists, an exceptional force for a European nation. The professional army, however, has only 12,000 soldiers, even if it trains 21,000 conscripts each year.
Sweden has divested further, dropping from 2.6% of GDP in 1990 to 1.2% in 2020. But the country began to reverse the trend after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Compulsory military service, abolished in 2010, was partially reintroduced in 2017. Currently, the Swedish army has some 50,000 soldiers.