Press play to listen to this article
STOCKHOLM — Sweden and Finland’s NATO debate went on tour this week, with officials performing a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance ahead of a potential joint bid in the coming days to join the military alliance.
On Tuesday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin met German premier Olaf Scholz in Berlin, while Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde was dispatched to the U.S. and Canada.
At each meeting, leaders pledged their support for Finland and Sweden, and for the countries’ NATO candidacies. In Washington, Linde said she had gotten even more assurances after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Yes, she said, the U.S. would support a Swedish and Finnish NATO application, and yes, she added, the U.S. would provide the military support Sweden might need to ward off Russian aggression during what could be a months-long application process.
“I feel very sure that we now have an American commitment,” Linde told reporters.
Such assurances, while vague, were echoed across the NATO alliance as the week went on. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg pledged the alliance could station more troops in and around Sweden if requested. And U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, on a visit to Finland, argued it was “inconceivable” that his country wouldn’t back Finland or Sweden “if they were ever attacked.”
It was all a sign of how rapidly Russia’s ruinous war in Ukraine is upending years of Europe’s entrenched military policy. Many countries are boosting defense spending and strengthening existing alliances, while in Sweden and Finland — two of Europe’s decades-long NATO holdouts — sentiment has quickly shifted toward joining the military alliance.
Now, the two countries’ NATO roadshow will return home. Both Sweden and Finland are expected to announce their decisions on NATO membership in around 10 days, and political debates and pronouncements on the issue are planned for nearly every day next week.
The NATO debate will especially dominate Swedish politics in the coming days, as the governing Social Democrats are seeking to wrap up a consultation process with their local party groups.
Digital meetings with local members are scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, while a range of senior party figures, including Foreign Minister Linde and her predecessor, Margot Wallström, will give speeches.
A cross-party report on defense policy — including a discussion of NATO membership — is also expected on Friday and a meeting of the Social Democratic party leadership has been scheduled for May 15, during which the party might make a final decision on NATO membership.
That meeting was previously slated for May 24, and the new date is seen as a way to bring Sweden’s timetable in line with that of Finland, where President Sauli Niinistö is set to announce his NATO view on Thursday. Marin’s governing Social Democrats will announce their own stance on May 14.
Three days later, Niinistö will make a state visit to Sweden.
Consensus among political watchers is that the two are likely preparing to apply together. This week’s shuttle diplomacy, which also featured Finland’s Marin meeting Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki, and Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto holding talks with his Turkish counterpart, was widely seen as part of those preparations.
The latest public opinion polling in Sweden shows that 48 percent of Swedes favor an application to join NATO versus 25 percent against. Around 60 percent of Finns want to join.
In recent days, two high-profile Swedish Social Democrats ministers, Ardalan Shekarabi and Lena Hallengren, have said they are “leaning toward” backing an application to join NATO. But their party colleagues have for the most part remained quiet on the subject.
Experts say that silence is partly driven by a desire to limit Russia’s window to launch any response to a NATO bid. Moscow has previously said it would move weaponry — including nuclear arms — closer to Finland and Sweden if they join NATO.
In their latest attempt to discredit Sweden, Russian authorities this week put up posters in Moscow labeling numerous Swedish luminaries, including the author Astrid Lindgren and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, as Nazis.
Following her meeting with Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly late Thursday, Sweden’s Linde said she expected Russia to try “anything they can” to discourage Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, including potential cyberattacks and airspace violations.
She said “visible” support from NATO partners during an eventual application process would be essential.
Joly, who said she had also spoken to Finnish Foreign Minister Haavisto earlier this week, said the decision on any accession to NATO should and will be up to Finns and Swedes themselves. But if they do decide to apply, she stressed, they would have Canada’s backing.
“We think Sweden’s and Finland’s contribution to NATO would certainly be a plus,” said Joly.