In line to join NATO, Sweden and Finland are facing some 'vulnerable' months
Close to NATO but not protected by it, the two countries are braced for Russian retaliation
Some have described what is about to transpire between Finland, Sweden and NATO over the next few months as the "marriage vows."
Now that Stockholm has formally acknowledged that it will follow Helsinki in applying for membership in the western military alliance, the long, anxious trip to the altar gets underway with the accession talks.
And so begins what's likely to be several months of tensions for two nations committed to NATO but not quite part of it — and not yet protected by its security guarantees.
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Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson warned that her country would be in a "vulnerable position" during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to brace themselves for Russia's response.
"Russia has said that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO," she said. "We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us."
The decision by Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership is historic for many reasons. For Sweden, it means ending two centuries of military non-alignment.
And while there's enthusiasm for expanding NATO in most quarters of the alliance, the marriage itself won't be legal until all 30 existing members ratify the new memberships.
At the moment, the prospect of the two northern nations being stranded at the altar is being downplayed. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Monday she believes ways can be found to accommodate the concerns raised by Turkey, which already has expressed opposition.
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Accession talks — where NATO officials go over all of the different obligations of membership — are expected to conclude before alliance leaders meet in Madrid at the end of June. During those talks, each nation will be asked a series of questions, including the main one — "Do you agree to uphold Article 5 of the Washington Treaty?"
After Finland and Sweden accept the one-for-all, all-for-one provision in Article 5 — which requires members to come to each other's defence if they're attacked — a number of housekeeping items will follow, such as cost-sharing arrangements and discussions of individual nations' roles in defence planning. There are also legal and security obligations to discuss.
"Some people have called it the marriage vows," a NATO official said recently in a background conversation.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said over the weekend that Russian President Vladimir Putin responded "calmly" when he was told that Finland would apply for NATO membership.
'We are not afraid'
Defence and foreign policy experts say no one should read too much into that cordial, somewhat frosty reception.
"Of course there are concerns," said Terhi Suominen, secretary general at the Atlantic Council of Finland. "We are not afraid and we know that Russia is not happy. If Finland will join NATO, we know that Russia hasn't been happy with any NATO enlargements, but this is something that I think we have in Finland, internally, discussed profoundly."
Putin spoke Monday at the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit, a meeting of the military alliance between six states that were once parts of the Soviet Union: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
He said Russia had no problem with Sweden and Finland joining NATO — but he warned that movement of troops or weapons into those new NATO states would cause Russia to react.
That is a clear marker.
"We just have to handle these next few months," Suominen said.
The United Kingdom recently stepped up with security guarantees outside of the NATO framework that promise aid in the event Sweden or Finland come under attack.
Canada will support the U.K. but will not offer similar commitments, said Joly.
Suominen said giving her country and Sweden seats at the table will make NATO "more European," which could be important in dealing with Russia over the long term.
"I think we will bring a little bit [of a] different kind of approach on how to deal with Russia. Because we have to remember, despite what we are now seeing in Ukraine, we have to try to see the world after this catastrophe," she said.
"And I think that we still need to find ways to deal with Russia and to communicate with Russia, no matter how we condemn what they are doing at the moment."
Steve Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. He said that, given their proximity to Russia, NATO probably isn't planning on having military bases in Sweden and Finland anytime soon.
There are other, perhaps more important benefits to NATO membership, he said in a recent interview.
"We'll probably have a better intelligence picture of Northern Russian territory from their side of the fence," he said.
It will go both ways, said the NATO official.
"These countries are extremely close partners of NATO. We are working with them all day, every day," the official said.
"Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, we activated what's called the modalities for strengthened interaction, which gives us much more regular consultation and allows us to share more classified information with them."