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Neutral Europeans Ponder their National Security as Finland Joins NATO

Mark Temnycky explores how Sweden, Ireland and Cyprus are reconsidering their security in light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine

Finnish flag with NATO emblem. Photo: JLK/Alamy

Neutral Europeans Ponder their National Security as Finland Joins NATO

Mark Temnycky explores how Sweden, Ireland and Cyprus are reconsidering their security in light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine

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This week, Finland officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The Scandinavian state is the latest member to join the Alliance since North Macedonia in 2020.

Many commended the historic event. Ahead of the ceremony, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that Finland’s membership was good for “Finland’s security, for Nordic security, and for NATO as a whole.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto echoed these statements. “This is a historic moment for [Finland],” he said. “We [will] seek to promote stability and security throughout the Euro-Atlantic region.”

For decades, Finland maintained its neutrality. While the Scandinavian state joined the European Union in 1995, it chose not to join NATO. This was because in 1948, Finland signed a “friendship agreement” with the Soviet Union, stating that the Finns would not join the Western organization. The BBC notes this “was seen as a pragmatic way of surviving and maintaining [Finland’s] independence.”

But the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine forced Finland to reconsider its stance. Following Russia’s military incursion, Finland applied to join the Alliance. The Soviet Union had previously invaded the Scandinavian state during the Second World War, and seeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Finns worried that similar events could occur. In other words, the Finns felt vulnerable. Joining NATO would establish a stronger sense of security for the country.

One year later, all 30 NATO member states ratified Finland’s NATO membership request. Finland has previously been involved in numerous NATO training exercises, thus it is familiar with the Alliance’s structure. In addition, according to the World Bank, Finland already spends around 2% of its GDP on defence.

In short, the Scandinavian state is a welcomed addition to the Alliance. It has also impacted how European states view their national security. To date, nearly one-third of the European continent remains neutral as these countries have not joined NATO nor the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, has forced many countries to rethink their national security strategies. Recent events have shown that NATO membership will help strengthen one’s borders, preserve one’s sovereignty, and guarantee one’s independence.

Who are some of these countries? What has occurred?

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Beyond Finland – Sweden, Ireland, Cyprus

While Finland is set to become the thirty-first member of NATO, its neighbour Sweden is not far behind.

Like Finland, Sweden joined the EU in 1995. Seeing the death and destruction caused by the Russians during the war, the Swedes submitted their membership request to NATO last year as well. To date, 28 of the 30 NATO members have accepted Sweden’s request. Turkey and Hungary still need to review the application. If approved, then the Swedes will quickly join the Alliance. Like its neighbour, Sweden has been preparing for this process. While the application is still under review, the Swedes have increased their defence spending. This Scandinavian state has previously participated in NATO exercises, and its military has become interoperable with the Alliance. Sweden has also promised to assist with further naval and air efforts.

Outside of Scandinavia, other countries have pondered their relationships with NATO. For example, Ireland, a neutral country since the Second World War, is considering its options. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign and defence minister, said that his country needs a “fundamental rethink” of its security posture. In addition, the Irish government is considering options for expanding its cooperation with NATO as these relations pertain to “cyber attacks and maritime intelligence.” Ireland has also increased its defence spending, another signal that this state may be reconsidering its stance. Finally, according to recent polling, there has been a shift in Irish public opinion on NATO membership. While Irish citizens are still divided on joining the Alliance, a considerable uptick in favorability has occurred. Ireland may not apply to join NATO soon, but these events are noteworthy.

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Meanwhile, EU member Cyprus has announced that it will “allocate 2% of [its] gross domestic product for spending on the armed forces.” The Cypriots also recently participated in a bilateral training exercise with the Americans. In addition, Cyprus is considering a partnership with the New Jersey National Guard through the U.S. State Partnership Program. The SPP assists countries around the world with their democratization efforts, and it helps these countries reform their defence capabilities. These events suggest that the Cypriots are serious about their defence capabilities. While Nikos Christodoulides, the president of Cyprus, has stated that Cyprus will not currently seek membership with NATO, the country has put in a considerable amount of time and effort in enhancing its military.

Overall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced the European continent to rethink its national security. Countries targeted by Russian aggression, such as Georgia and Ukraine, have longed for NATO membership as this will help them secure their borders from future Russian aggression. Bosnia and Herzegovina is hoping to join NATO, too.

The events have also led some European countries to abandon their neutrality and pursue other options. Finland was admitted as the newest member of NATO. Sweden will soon follow. Meanwhile, other European countries have increased their defence spending and enhanced their capabilities. This suggests that they want to bolster their capabilities and ensure aggressive states do not target them in the future.

Not every country in Europe wants to join NATO, but they all want to preserve their sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped Europe realize the importance of a strong, unified collective. While the history and relationships throughout Europe are complicated, these decisions have helped lead to a safer and more secure continent. Europe has become stronger than ever before.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He can be found on Twitter @mtemnycky

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