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STOCKHOLM — The NATO debate between Sweden and Finland has taken a turn this week, with officials performing a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance ahead of a possible joint bid in the coming days to join the military alliance.
On Tuesday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin met German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz in Berlin, while Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde was dispatched to the United States and Canada.
At each meeting, the leaders pledged their support for Finland and Sweden, as well as for those countries’ NATO candidacies. In Washington, Linde said she got even more reassurances after meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Yes, she said, the United States would support a Swedish and Finnish bid for NATO, and yes, she added, the United States would provide whatever military support Sweden might need to stave off Russian aggression during what could be a months-long application process.
“I’m very sure we have an American commitment now,” Linde told reporters.
Such assurances, though vague, resonated across the NATO alliance as the week progressed. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has promised the alliance could station more troops in and around Sweden if needed. And British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, on a visit to Finland, said it was “inconceivable” that his country would not support Finland or Sweden “if they were ever attacked”.
All of this was a sign of how quickly Russia’s ruinous war in Ukraine is upending years of Europe’s entrenched military policy. Many countries are increasing defense spending and strengthening existing alliances, while in Sweden and Finland – two of the European countries that have resisted NATO for decades – sentiment has quickly shifted towards joining the alliance. military alliance.
Now the NATO tour of the two countries will return home. Sweden and Finland are expected to announce their decisions on NATO membership in about 10 days, and political debates and statements on the issue are scheduled almost daily for next week.
The NATO debate will particularly dominate Swedish politics in the coming days, as the ruling Social Democrats seek to conclude a consultation process with their local party groups.
Digital meetings with local members are scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, while a range of party figures, including Foreign Minister Linde and her predecessor, Margot Wallström, will deliver speeches.
A cross-party defense policy report – including a discussion of NATO membership – is also due on Friday and a meeting of the Social Democratic Party leadership is scheduled for May 15, at which the party could take a final decision on NATO membership.
The meeting was previously scheduled for May 24, and the new date is seen as a way to align Sweden’s schedule with that of Finland, where President Sauli Niinistö is due to announce his views on NATO on Thursday. Marin’s ruling Social Democrats will announce their own position on May 14.
Three days later, Niinistö will pay a state visit to Sweden.
The consensus among political observers is that the two are likely preparing to run together. This week’s shuttle diplomacy, which also included Finn Marin Meet Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto holding talks along with his Turkish counterpart, was widely seen as part of those preparations.
The latest opinion poll in Sweden shows that 48% of Swedes are in favor of applying for NATO membership against 25% against. About 60% of Finns want to join.
In recent days, two high-level Swedish Social Democrat ministers, Ardalan Shekarabi and Lena Hallengren, said they were “leaning” to back a NATO membership bid. But their party colleagues have mostly remained silent on the matter.
Experts say the silence is partly motivated by a desire to limit Russia’s window to launch any response to a NATO bid. Moscow has previously said it would move weapons – including nuclear weapons – closer to Finland and Sweden if they join NATO.
In their latest attempt to discredit Sweden, Russian authorities this week displayed posters in Moscow calling many Swedish luminaries, including author Astrid Lindgren and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, Nazis.
Following her meeting with Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly on Thursday evening, Sweden’s Linde said she expected Russia to try “everything it can” to discourage Sweden and Finland to join NATO, including potential cyberattacks and airspace violations.
She said “visible” support from NATO partners in a possible bid process would be essential.
Joly, who said she also spoke to Finnish Foreign Minister Haavisto earlier this week, said the decision on any NATO membership should and will be up to the Finns and Swedes themselves. But if they decide to apply, she stressed, they will have Canada’s support.
“We think Sweden and Finland’s contribution to NATO would definitely be a plus,” Joly said.