For decades, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) seemed like a relic of the Cold War era. Created in 1949 by the United States, Canada and several Western European nations, NATO was designed to provide collective security to member countries against the perceived threat of the Soviet Union. Over the years, NATO membership has grown from an initial 12 countries to a current list of 30. Until a couple of weeks ago, many assumed that Finland and Sweden were part of NATO. But they aren’t. At least not yet.
Historically, Finland and Sweden have pursued neutral policies toward the West and Russia. Finland shares a long border with Russia, and the two countries have a history of conflict. Russia conquered Finland in a war against Sweden in 1808, and it wasn’t until 1917 that Finland won its independence. Most Finns did not want to join NATO for fear it would provoke Russia. Meanwhile, Sweden has a long history of not joining any military alliance, and hasn’t fought a war since 1814 – even managing to remain neutral in World Wars I and II.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that. As a result of the insecurity and instability created by Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, and the frightening unpredictability of the Putin regime, a majority in both Finland and Sweden now want to join NATO. Both countries have applied to join the alliance, and both appear to be a good fit for NATO. They each have strong, modern militaries, and Finland already meets NATO’s 2% military spending target.
But there is a problem. Turkey — which became a member of NATO three years after it was founded — has expressed opposition to the two countries joining. And since NATO members must unanimously agree on new members, Turkey’s opposition is a concern. According to reports, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opposes the new members because he says they are harboring members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish group recognized by the State Department as a terrorist organization. PKK has been involved in an armed struggle against Turkey. Sweden has a large Kurdish minority, and Turkey believes Sweden doesn’t do enough about PKK and other Kurdish groups with ties to PKK. Turkey has also demanded that Sweden and Finland lift arms embargoes they placed on Turkey in 2019, following Turkey’s military actions in Syria.
Most observers agree that Turkey’s opposition to Finland and Sweden is largely political, and that the concerns can be worked out. That is good news, since expansion of NATO will be good for the alliance and each of its members, including Turkey.
We look forward to welcoming Finland and Sweden to NATO, even as we wonder what took them so long to recognize the threat of Putin’s Russia. And, in that regard, since member countries can resign from NATO at any time, we can’t help but wonder whether whatever it is that kept Finland and Sweden from joining NATO until now will cause them to resign once the current Russian threat subsides.