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Interview: What's Next For Finland, Sweden's NATO Bids?

A Swedish Army tank takes part in a military exercise called Cold Response 2022, which saw around 30,000 troops gather from NATO member countries as well as Finland and Sweden, on March 25.

Finland and Sweden’s historic moves to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine currently face opposition from Turkey, which is threatening to veto the enlargement of the military alliance.

The Turkish resistance stems from accusations launched by Ankara that both countries are harboring people linked to groups it deems terrorists, including the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and has taken issue with Helsinki and Stockholm’s decisions to halt arms exports to Turkey in 2019.

All 30 NATO allies must approve any enlargement of the security bloc and, ahead of a June 29 summit for the alliance in Madrid, Turkish officials have stepped up their calls for Finland and Sweden to halt their support for the PKK and other groups, bar them from organizing events in their countries, extradite those sought by Turkey on alleged terrorism charges, and lift all restrictions on arms shipments.

Kjell Engelbrekt
Kjell Engelbrekt

Finland and Sweden are currently negotiating with Ankara and other NATO members have said they believe a solution can be found.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine war -- the catalyst that set off Helsinki and Stockholm’s NATO applications -- continues to grind on, with Russian forces making incremental gains in the eastern Donbas region.

To find out more about how Finland and Sweden in NATO could change European security and what’s next for the battles ahead in Ukraine, RFE/RL spoke with Kjell Engelbrekt, a military expert and professor at the Swedish Defense University in Stockholm.

RFE/RL: Both Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership, but Turkey is currently threatening to block their membership bids. In your view, what’s behind this move from Ankara and how can it be resolved before the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29?

Kjell Engelbrekt: I think it's unlikely that it will be resolved before the Madrid summit later this month.

As far as I can assess how the diplomatic process is going, it doesn't seem like the Swedes in particular are able to resolve this issue with Turkey on their own. When it comes to what is actually behind this, I think it's very difficult for anybody outside of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's inner circle to know exactly what their calculation is, but there appear to be a few main things.

One part is Kurdish-Turkish politics. There are a number of Kurdish political exile groups in Sweden and Scandinavia as a whole, and because we have very liberal freedom of expression laws, they are able to operate very freely. Some Kurdish politicians have also become Swedish politicians and they're operating in the Swedish political environment. I think some of this is an annoyance and a worry for the Turkish government and President Erdogan in particular. I think they want to make this known to the Swedes that they see all of this as a problem in bilateral relations and that they want them to provide much less political support for the Kurds.

Finnish soldiers take part in the army's Arrow 22 exercise at the Niinisalo garrison in Kankaanpaa, Finland, on May 4.
Finnish soldiers take part in the army's Arrow 22 exercise at the Niinisalo garrison in Kankaanpaa, Finland, on May 4.

The second part is Sweden's reluctance to export certain products in its arms industry to Turkey. Separate but related to that, we also have Erdogan wanting NATO countries -- but the United States in particular -- to resume exports to Turkey, especially around the issue of getting F-35 [fighter jets] or a deal for new F-16 [fighter jets]. As far as I understand, that is being discussed and examined more intensely in the U.S. Congress right now and there seems to be some progress between the American and Turkish sides. So right now, this puzzle may be resolved, but it will probably take longer than the Madrid summit.

RFE/RL: So do you think NATO is going to be able to declare that Sweden and Finland are on track to become members at the summit, even if they can’t fully accept them then?

Engelbrekt: As far as we understand, that may be a bit too far in terms of the formal process. But I think there will be some expression of support at the summit. We've seen it already from the U.S. side, and I think there will be more countries also coming out in [support of their applications in] Madrid.

Perhaps there'll be separate press briefings with basically all European Union countries expressing support, which in turn will put additional pressure on Turkey to back down. So that's what I envisage as the most likely scenario, but I would be surprised if they can resolve this before the summit.

RFE/RL: To summarize, we shouldn’t assume that this is a done deal?

Engelbrekt: Done deal is probably putting it a bit too strongly, but I'd expect that this gets resolved later this year.

RFE/RL: Looking ahead to a potential future where Finland and Sweden are both NATO members, how does that change things around the Baltic Sea and with each country’s relationship with Moscow?

Engelbrekt: In terms of the security situation, I'll quote what an American colleague told me some 10 years ago, which is that “we're tired of planning around Sweden.”

I think it becomes much easier for the NATO countries to plan and to have some form of consolidation in the security environment around the Baltic Sea with Finland and Sweden joining. What military planners tell me is that Sweden and Finland have been doing much of their planning in a kind of north-south manner because of the geography of those two countries. Now, the whole Nordic-Baltic region can shift to doing east-west military planning, which eases up a lot of different things for how you operate, from patrolling borders with combat aircraft to securing strategic depth for any kind of deployment of military troops.

RFE/RL: And what about political fallout from Moscow for Helsinki and Stockholm?

Engelbrekt: It's no surprise to observers in the region that the Finns were able to flip around much quicker than the Swedes. Military nonalignment was imposed on Finland by the Soviet Union after the end of the Second World War. So they weren't committed to military nonalignment, let alone neutrality. But for us Swedes, it's a longer history, with the country being militarily nonaligned for 200 years. So that's even part of the identity of many Swedes and that makes it more difficult to change quickly.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks next to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at the White House on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks next to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at the White House on May 19.

Sweden used to have an argument that it should not join NATO because it would add to the geopolitical and geostrategic pressure on Finland from Russia. Now, the argument is flipped around: If we don't join them in NATO membership, we are actually weakening the security of Finland. So now the view is that we should join not just for our own sake, but also for Finland's sake.

In terms of the foreign policy experiences of the past, I think the best-case scenario is that the Finns and President Sauli Niinisto will still continue to be able to talk straight with the Russians. I also think that it's in the interest of Sweden, Finland, and also Russia to keep the Nordic area as a relatively low-tension region. There is no interest for Sweden or Finland to set up a number of military bases or move heavy military equipment close to the border. On the Russian side, they should feel the same way.

Right now, the Russians are being a bit ambivalent about this. [President Vladimir] Putin himself said that as long as additional military equipment or bases weren't placed on Swedish or Finnish territory, there could continue to be a relatively normal coexistence.

A few days after that, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that there would be 12 new military postings opening in Russia's Western Military District. I think it remains to be seen how those postings will be equipped and if it's more of a formality to open them or if they will be used to augment the security situation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (center) welcomes Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (right) for meetings near Berlin on May 3.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (center) welcomes Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (right) for meetings near Berlin on May 3.

RFE/RL: Changing the subject now to Ukraine, what’s your assessment of where things currently stand? Russia is making some steady gains in the Donbas, but can they hold these new areas and should we expect some Ukrainian counteroffensives at some point?

Engelbrekt: I think it's a matter of priority for the Ukrainian side.

Russia announced in February before it invaded that it would formally recognize the administrative areas of the two so-called people's republics in Donetsk and Luhansk and they would try to capture them. So if I were in Kyiv right now I might give higher priority to consolidating my positions in the south and if I do counteroffensives, I'd do them there. So it's a matter of priorities -- military and political -- for the Ukrainian side.

Looking ahead, manpower issues loom large for both Kyiv and Moscow. Troops in each army are exhausted, but the morale on the Ukrainian side still appears to be very high. So I think it will be possible for the Ukrainians to train fresh troops and move them in. But that looks to be a more difficult challenge for the Russians, especially in the longer term. I think morale is really low on the Russian side. If there are continued deliveries of Western military equipment to the Ukrainians, they may at some point have the wherewithal to challenge Russian positions.

But again, I think it's an issue of priorities for them. They would probably try and mop up the Russian forces in the north and then they would want to move in and around Kherson in the south before they make a move on Luhansk and Donetsk, where it seems like there is also a deep political commitment from Moscow to capture and hold those positions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.