NATO officials told CNN that discussions over Sweden and Finland joining the bloc have become extremely serious since the Russian invasion, and senior US State Department officials said the matter was raised at this week’s NATO foreign ministers’ conference in which the foreign ministers from Stockholm and Helsinki took part.
Public opinion in both countries about joining the defense alliance has changed significantly as Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, with a former Finnish prime minister telling CNN that joining was “as good as a done deal on February 24, when Russia invaded.” been. “
“If you look at public opinion in Finland and Sweden and how their views have changed dramatically in the last six weeks, I think this is another example of how this was a strategic mistake,” said a senior official at the US State Department this week.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Friday that her country’s parliament would discuss possible NATO membership “within the coming weeks”, adding that she hoped those discussions would be completed “before midsummer”.
“I think we will have very careful talks, but we also don’t take any more time than necessary in this process because of course the situation is very serious,” she said.
Finland’s ambassador to the US, Mikko Hautala, told CNN that the two nations are coordinating closely but that each country will make its own independent decision.
“Rethinking the Basics”
A Finnish official said on Friday that their country would not seek to join NATO out of “desperation” to defend against the 30-strong coalition. Rather, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine forced Finland to “rethink the fundamentals.”
“And we understand that because of these Russian actions, our relations with this Russia that now exists cannot be the same as they used to be,” the official said.
Alexander Stubb, who served as Finland’s prime minister in 2014-2015, echoed this sentiment, telling CNN there has long been a tension in the country between idealism — the desire to work with Russia, with which it shares a common border — and realism , who required Finland to maintain a strong standing army in case Russia ever invaded.
This idealism has now largely evaporated after the Russian attack.
“Finns think that if Putin can slaughter his sisters, brothers and cousins in Ukraine like he is doing now, then there is nothing stopping him from doing it in Finland. We just don’t want to be left alone again,” Stubb said, recalling the Soviet-Finnish Winter War, which lasted from November 1939 to March 1940.
Possibility of a reaction from the Kremlin
The Kremlin said on Thursday it would have to “rebalance the situation” if Sweden and Finland joined NATO.
“We need to make our western flank more sophisticated to ensure our security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Sky News.
Finland was hit by two cyber attacks and an airspace violation by a Russian state plane on Friday. Both Stubb and the Finnish official said Helsinki expected such attacks, and they downplayed the potential for a serious response from Moscow should Finland – which shares a more than 800-mile border with Russia – join NATO.
However, some NATO countries are studying the possibility of Russia staging an attack before Finland falls under the alliance’s protection, according to a European official.
“We will take very seriously the possibility that Russia might try to do something before it joins the alliance,” the official said.
And the Finnish official acknowledged that if our country decides to apply, they “need to be prepared, or even if they don’t, the situation is not safe, stable.” … We have a war, we have all kinds of options. ”
They said there had been signals from other countries that they would offer support if there were security concerns in the interim between the application and ratification of NATO membership.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week: “I am sure that during the transition period we will find ways to address any concerns you may have about the time between the potential application and final ratification.”
The Pentagon said Friday it had not received any requests for assistance from either country, but “if a country calls and asks for United States assistance, we will certainly consider it.”
“Member without being a member”
Stoltenberg said that Sweden and Finland “can easily join this alliance if they decide to apply,” noting that they “have been working together for many years, we know they meet NATO standards when it comes to interoperability.” and democratic control over the armed forces. “
The Finnish official noted that their country is essentially already “a member without being a member”.
Secretly, NATO and US officials say they would be delighted if Finland and Sweden joined the bloc.
These countries already have extremely close ties with NATO and would be a great asset, NATO officials told CNN, especially when it comes to sharing information. While information sharing between Finland, Sweden and NATO has increased dramatically since the war began, a NATO official said, it is not at the level it would be if the countries were members of the bloc.
A European official noted that should Finland and Sweden join, they would both be “net contributors” to NATO as they have advanced combat aircraft. Finland already operates Boeing F/A-18s and has ordered 64 Lockheed Martin F-35s.
Some officials even ironically commented that this was one of the best things Putin has done to strengthen European security.
“Imagine going from a 30-member NATO alliance to a 32-member NATO in how many months,” another senior State Department official told reporters after the foreign ministers’ conference in Brussels. “How can this be anything but a massive strategic blunder for Putin? That has been a topic of conversation and several meetings over the past few days.”
CNN’s Niamh Kennedy, Chris Liakos, James Frater, Oren Liebermann, Barbara Starr, and Michael Conte contributed to this report.