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Wednesday August 17th, 2022 4:07AM

Crucial NATO decisions expected in Finland, Sweden this week

By The Associated Press

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Key decision-makers in non-aligned Finland and Sweden are set to announce their positions on NATO membership this week in what could be a serious blow to Russia as its military struggles to make decisive gains in Ukraine.

If Finland’s president and the Social Democrats who govern both countries ignore Moscow's warnings and come out in favor of accession, NATO could soon add two new members right on Russia’s doorstep.

Such an expansion by the Western military alliance would leave Russia surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic, as well as represent a serious setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin cited NATO's previous expansion in Eastern Europe - and the possibility of Ukraine joining the alliance - among the reasons for Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. On Monday, he marked Victory Day - the holiday when Russia commemorates Nazi Germany's surrender in World War II - without being able to celebrate any major breakthroughs in Ukraine.

Belonging to NATO would be a historic development for the two Nordic countries: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland adopted neutrality after its defeat by the Soviet Union in World War II.

NATO membership was never seriously considered in Stockholm and Helsinki until Russian forces attacked Ukraine more than 10 weeks ago. Virtually overnight, the conversation in both capitals shifted from “Why should we join?" to “How long does it take?”

Along with hard-nosed Ukrainian resistance and wide-ranging Western sanctions, it’s one of the most significant ways in which the invasion appears to have backfired on Putin.

“There is no going back to the status quo before the invasion,” said Heli Hautala, a Finnish diplomat previously posted to Moscow and a research fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, the Western leader who appeared to have the best rapport with Putin before the Ukraine war, is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership on Thursday. The governing Social Democratic parties in both countries are set to present their positions this weekend.

If their answer is “yes,” there would be robust majorities in both parliaments for NATO membership, paving the way for formal application procedures to begin right away.

The Finnish Social Democrats led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin are likely to join other parties in Finland in endorsing a NATO application. The situation in Sweden isn't as clear.

The Swedish Social Democrats have always been staunchly committed to nonalignment. But Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, the party's leader, has said there's a clear “before and after Feb. 24."

Andersson and other top Social Democrats are believed to be leaning toward NATO membership, but several subgroupings of the party have come out against, including the women’s faction, led by Climate and Environment Minister Annika Strandhall.

“We believe that our interests are best served by being militarily nonaligned,” Strandhall told Swedish broadcaster TV4. “Traditionally, Sweden has been a strong voice for peace and disarmament.”

Neither Finland nor Sweden is planning a referendum, fearing it could become a prime target of Russian interference.

Sweden and Finland have sought — and received -- assurances of support from the U.S. and other NATO members in the application period should they seek membership.

Both countries feel they would be vulnerable in the interim, before they’re covered by the alliance’s one-for-all, all-for-one security guarantees.

The Kremlin has warned of “military and political repercussions” if the Swedes and Finns decide to join NATO.

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who is deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said last month it would force Moscow to strengthen its military presence in the Baltic region.

However, analysts say military action against the Nordic countries appears unlikely, given how bogged down Russian forces are in Ukraine.

Many of the Russian troops stationed near the 1,300-kilometer (830-mile) border with Finland were sent to Ukraine and have suffered “significant losses” there, Hautala said.

She said potential Russian countermeasures could include moving weapons systems closer to Finland, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, economic countermoves and steering migration toward the Russian-Finnish border, similar to what happened on Poland’s frontier with Belarus last year.

There are signs that Russia already has increased its focus on Sweden and Finland, with several airspace violations by Russian military aircraft reported in recent weeks and an apparent campaign in Moscow with posters depicting famous Swedes as Nazi sympathizers. Putin used similar tactics against Ukraine’s leaders before launching what the Kremlin called its “special military operation.”

After remaining firmly against membership for decades, public opinion in both countries shifted rapidly this year. Polls show more than 70% of Finns and about 50% of Swedes now favor joining.

The shocking scenes playing out in Ukraine made Finns draw the conclusion that “this could happen to us,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, while Sweden already had a tradition of neutrality dating to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But both countries built up robust conscription-based armed forces to counter any Soviet threat. Sweden even had a nuclear weapons program but scrapped it in the 1960s.

The threat of a conflict flared up in October 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground off the coast of southwestern Sweden. Eventually the sub was tugged back out to sea, ending a tense standoff between Swedish forces and a Soviet rescue fleet.

As Russia’s military power declined in the 1990s, Finland kept its guard high, while Sweden, considering a conflict with Russia increasingly unlikely, downsized its military and shifted its focus from territorial defense toward peacekeeping missions in faraway conflict zones.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted the Swedes to reassess the security situation. They reintroduced conscription and started rebuilding defensive capabilities, including on the strategically important Baltic Sea island of Gotland.

Defense analysts say Finland and Sweden have modern and competent armed forces that would significantly boost NATO’s capabilities in Northern Europe. Finnish and Swedish forces train so often with NATO that they are essentially interoperable.

Adding new members typically takes months, because those decisions need to be ratified by all 30 NATO members. But in the case of Finland and Sweden, the accession process could be done “in a couple of weeks,” according to a NATO official who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified because no application has been made by the two countries.

“These are not normal times,” he said.

___

Lorne Cook contributed to this report from Brussels.

___

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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