Sweden and Finland see ‘historic’ surge in support for Nato

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended the status quo in traditionally non-aligned Finland and Sweden, ushering in an "historic" surge in support for Nato, "exceptional" arms exports and defiance in the face of Russian demands.

Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Anderson arrives for a press conference in Stockholm after returning from a special meeting of the European Council.
Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Anderson arrives for a press conference in Stockholm after returning from a special meeting of the European Council. Photo: Fredrik Persson/TT

Stockholm and Helsinki have ruled out applying to join the Nato military alliance for the time being but the two countries have never been so close to taking the plunge, analysts say.

“Anything is possible at the moment and the signal from Nato countries is that a membership application can be processed in a very short time span,” said Zebulon Carlander, defence analyst with the Society and Defence organisation in Sweden.

“So I think it’s very much a political decision that rests in the capitals — Stockholm and Helsinki,” he told AFP.

The two countries are officially non-aligned, although they have been Nato partners since the mid-1990s and ended their neutral stance at the end of the Cold War.

Finland’s parliament is due on Tuesday afternoon to consider how to respond to a public petition calling for a referendum on Nato membership.

The citizen’s petition garnered the 50,000 signatures needed to refer the matter to the Eduskunta in less than a week.

It will be considered by lawmakers as part of a wider debate on the crisis in Ukraine.

And although Prime Minister Sanna Marin tweeted on Monday that the debate was not intended as a “wider conversation on Finland’s policy regarding military alignment or non-alignment”, the context of the discussion has suddenly changed.

For the first time, a majority (53 percent) of Finns are in favour of joining the Atlantic alliance, according to a poll published on Monday by public broadcaster Yle.

This is almost double the number a month ago, when a survey in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper put support for NATO membership at just 28 percent.

“(This is) a completely historic and exceptional result,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak, senior research fellow at Finnish Institute of
International Affairs, told AFP.

Support for joining Nato is historically high in Sweden too — at 41 percent, according to a poll by public broadcaster SVT last Friday.

Russian warnings

In another radical change, the two countries have broken with tradition by exporting weapons to a country in active conflict.

In addition to sending Ukraine protective equipment, including helmets and body armour, Stockholm is to deliver 5,000 anti-tank weapons.

This is an “exceptional” move, stressed Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, unprecedented since the Winter War of 1939, when Sweden sent assistance to Finland to counter an invasion by none other than the Soviet Union.

“I think this is probably just the beginning of reassessments in Swedish defence security policy,” Carlander said.  “And we are also seeing a debate now on what further measures could be taken to strengthen the Swedish armed forces.”

In another “historic decision”, in the words of Sanna Marin, Finland on Monday also agreed to send weapons to Ukraine, including 2,500 assault rifles, ammunition and 1,500 single-use anti-tank weapons.

In parallel, the Swedish and Finnish army reserves are reporting an increase in applications.

Nato membership for Finland and/or Sweden — experts expect the two countries to act in concert — would infuriate the Kremlin at a time when tensions between Russia and the West are already explosive.

The eastward expansion of Nato is a red line for Moscow, which has felt betrayed by the West on this subject since the end of the Cold War.

Last Friday, Russia’s foreign ministry warned that if the Nordic countries were to join Nato it would “have serious military and political repercussions”.

Helsinki shrugged this off as a warning it had heard before, which did not amount to a threat of invasion.

Stockholm and Helsinki continue officially to rule out membership bids. Yet, crucially, they have in recent weeks taken steps to ensure that the door to the alliance — and its key Article 5 on collective defence — remains open to them.

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EXPLAINED: How might Russia react to Sweden and Finland joining Nato?

One of the big unknowns of Sweden's Nato process is how Russia will respond. We run through the options.

EXPLAINED: How might Russia react to Sweden and Finland joining Nato?

Sweden’s rush towards membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), arguably starts with the draft treaty Russia published on December 17th, which sought to bar Sweden and Finland from joining the alliance by demanding that the US “undertake to prevent” its “further eastward expansion”.

Five months later, this gambit has backfired completely: Russia has ended up creating the very situation it sought to prevent.

So what will Russia do?

The Swedish government’s report assessing Nato membership concluded last week that Russia “would react negatively to a Swedish Nato membership”.

“Nato does not seek confrontation with Russia, nor does it constitute a threat to Russia,” the report claims. “In recent years, however, Russia has chosen to increasingly view Nato as a geopolitical competitor and opposes the addition of new members. For Russia’s part, Swedish membership would be described as Nato advancing its position.” 

How has Russia reacted so far?

In the months running up to Sweden’s and Finland’s Nato decision, Russian officials warned repeatedly that the two country’s joining Nato would have negative consequences. 

Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev in mid-April warned of nuclear escalation. “If this is done, no non-nuclear status of the Baltic will be possible,” he said. “The balance must be restored.”

The result for Sweden and Finland, he continued, would be nuclear-armed Russian ships just “arm’s length” from their homes.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned on Monday that the two countries’ decision to join the Nato was a “grave mistake with far-reaching consequences” and that “the general level of military tensions will increase”.

But President Vladimir Putin was more sanguine. 

“Russia has no problems with these states. There is no immediate threat to Russia,” he said at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which groups Russia with Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. “But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response.” 

Online propaganda and influence campaigns

According to the Swedish government report, the most probable Russian course of action involves “various types of influence activities”.

“These could be directed against the Swedish general public and specifically against Swedish decision-makers,” it argues.

When it comes to decision-makers, Sweden should be prepared for “hack and leak” operations in the mold of the Democratic National Committee email hack that helped swing the 2016 election for Donald Trump. 

Members of Sweden’s government might see sensitive private documents leaked, perhaps regarding relations with Nato, but also about other issues — for example the Covid-19 response, arms deals, their private lives, or their financial affairs.

Russia has already done this in Sweden at least once. It has been accused of hacking the Swedish Sports Confederation as part of a campaign to smear international athletes for doping. 

Russia is also likely to use online propaganda, such as automated and human-run accounts on Twitter and Facebook, both to sway the Swedish public against Nato and to sow general disarray in Swedish society. 

According to Mikael Tofvesson at Sweden’s Psychological Defence Agency, in the run-up to Sweden’s decision on Monday there was a “significant increase in articles and posts concerning both Sweden and Finland and the Nato issue”, which he said has been “an attempt to create a picture of the risks that come with Nato membership”. 

In April, Tofvesson argued that Russia’s influence operations seemed to have become less effective since the invasion of Ukraine. 

Funding political and protest groups 

Russian agents claiming to be US citizens have been shown to have channeled money to protest groups in the run-up to the US elections of 2016, and it is possible that Russia might give similar funding to groups in Sweden to destabilise society, probably without the groups even being aware of it.  

As the European Union seeks to wean itself off Russian gas and oil, Russia might give money to protestors against wind farms, for instance. 

Interfering with the acceptance process within Nato  

The Swedish-Kurdish journalist Kurdo Baksi has suggested in Sweden’s Expressen newspaper that Turkey’s moves to hinder Swedish and Finnish membership might be part of a deal with Russia.  

“Erdogan is currently running errands for Moscow within Nato, in order to get a free hand from Vladimir Putin to invade even more Syrian-Kurdish territory and declare himself the winner before the June 2023 election,” he argued. 

Croatia’s president, Zoran Milanović on Wednesday said he would instruct Croatia’s Nato ambassador Mario Nobilo to vote against admitting Finland and Sweden unless an election law in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, which he said discriminated against ethnic Croats, is changed. 

Croatia’s prime minister Andrej Plenković has accused Milanović of being pro-Russian, pointing to his attacks on the Ukrainian government as “corrupt” in the run-up to Russia’s invasion”, and his description of the West of “war-mongering”. 

Plenković on Wednesday condemned Milanović’s attempt to block Swedish and Finnish membership as “a pro-Russian stance”. 

“He is the only one who advocates that. Only those who advocate pro-Russian views can be satisfied with such attitude,” he said. 

Hungary is another Nato country with close historic links to the Kremlin. Its leader, Prime Minister Victor Orban, played a big role in blocking an EU embargo on Russian oil. Since the invasion of Ukraine, however, he has largely sought to distance himself from Moscow. 

Business barriers 

Most Swedish businesses have already cut their ties to Russia, but in the medium to long term, Russia could seek to punish Sweden by barring its companies from the Russian market, or by denying it access to Russian raw materials or energy. 

As natural gas plays a very minor role in the energy mix, and the country is moving away from petrol and diesel, Sweden is less vulnerable to this sort of pressure than many other countries in the EU. 


On 14th January, more than a dozen of Ukrainian government websites were taken offline for a few hours and 70 attacked, mainly through so-called DDoS attacks. A second attack, on February 15th, was traced by UK and US intelligence to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). 

Sweden will be braced for similar attacks on its government websites, and also on important private online services for citizens, such as BankID, in the run-up and aftermath of Nato accession. 

Military build-up

Russia has warned that Finland and Sweden joining Nato will double the alliance’s border with Russia, forcing Russia to respond. Russia may place more troops near its border points with Finland and move more military infrastructure to the borderlands. 

After Finland and Sweden join the alliance, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is now entirely surrounded by Nato countries, which may prompt Russia to place more troops, ships, missiles, and other military infrastructure there. 

After Medvedev threatened that nuclear weapons would need to be placed in Kaliningrad, Lithuania’s defence minister, Arvydas Anusauskas retorted that it is widely known that Russia already has nuclear weapons in the city. 

Incursions into Swedish waters or airspace 

In the run-up to Sweden entering Nato, Russian planes have twice made incursions into Swedish airspace, with three jets flying near the island of Gotland in early March, and a reconnaissance aircraft in southern Sweden at the end of April

If Sweden and Finland join Nato such incursions could become much more common as Russia seeks to assert itself in the Baltic. 

Military attacks 

The island of Gotland is strategic for control of the Baltic Sea, and there is a small but real chance that Russia will see the interim period between Sweden’s application to Nato and its accession as its last chance to seize the island. 

This is why the US, UK, Germany, France, and the Nordic countries have all given security assurances to Sweden, with Denmark and Norway in particular pledging to fight alongside Sweden if it is attacked. 

The US assault ship USS Kearsarge is currently on its way to Stockholm, and it is likely that there will be a constant Nato presence near Gotland during the application process.