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Neutral No More: Why Sweden and Finland Are Joining NATO


Published December 6, 2022

Sweden and Finland are dropping their neutrality, joining NATO and returning to their historical opposition to Russia. Both countries have a long history of conflict with Russia. By joining NATO, Sweden and Finland have signaled that they believe alliances will be more effective than neutrality in preventing Russian expansion. 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How will Russia respond to Sweden and Finland joining NATO?
  2. Do you support Sweden and Finland in joining NATO? Why, or why not?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “NATO’s Nordic Realignment,” by Thomas Henriksen. Available here.
  • Watch “Second Fronts in Great-Power Conflicts,” on PolicyEd. Available here.
  • Read “Opening Up Second Fronts in Great Power Conflict,” by Russell Berman and Michael Auslin via National Interest. Available here.
View Transcript

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland applied for membership in NATO. Both nations have vibrant democracies, professional militaries, and proximity to Russia, giving them a compelling case for joining NATO’s defensive alliance.

News media accounts of their possible entry into NATO focused on Sweden and Finland’s recent history of neutrality or non-alignment. 

But that wasn’t always the case. Until two hundred years ago, Sweden had a long history of armed conflicts with Russia. They fought constantly for control over land and access to the Baltic Sea.

After losing the land that became Finland, Sweden embraced neutrality following the Napoleonic Wars. It avoided the twentieth-century global alliances against Germany and its allies in both World Wars. But Vladmir Putin’s actions have upended their position. Now Sweden looks to another coalition—NATO—to defend it against Russian aggression, as seen in the Kremlin’s wanton invasion of Ukraine.

Like Sweden, Finland’s embrace of neutrality came about because of Russia. It gained its independence from Moscow in 1917 after Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. After clashes in the 1940s, the two nations came to an uneasy peace arrangement where Finland sought to avoid upsetting the Soviet Union.

But Finland now senses more danger from neutrality than from membership in the NATO security alliance.

The addition of Sweden and Finland will strengthen NATO as it prepares for further provocations after the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine. Their accession will be to the good of the alliance, especially since all Nordic nations will now be unified in their relations toward Russia.

It is with rich irony that Russia claimed it invaded Ukraine in order to prevent the expansion of NATO on its border, only to see it expand with Sweden and Finland.