'Kremlin would love it': Finland wants to join NATO with Sweden but could go solo

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By David Mac Dougall  with AP
Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto arrives for a news conference at the Parliament building in Helsinki, Finland, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.
Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto arrives for a news conference at the Parliament building in Helsinki, Finland, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

Finland could consider joining NATO without Sweden if Turkey continues to block their joint bid to enter the military alliance. 

During a Tuesday morning television interview, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said that both Nordic nations joining NATO together was "absolutely the number one option," but that "we have to be ready to evaluate the situation." 

"Has something happened that would in the long term prevent Sweden's application from progressing?" Haavisto asked. 

The answer to his question would seem to be yes. 

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Sweden no longer had Turkey's support for its NATO application after a Danish extremist burned a copy of the Quran in Sweden over the weekend. 

A few hours after his initial remarks, Haavisto spoke to journalists at a hastily-arranged press conference in parliament and clarified his comments, saying he had been "imprecise" and that Finland still wanted to join NATO together with the Swedes. 

Despite the backpedalling, the foreign minister's comments were the first tacit admission that the Finnish government has been looking ahead and considering scenarios that might unfold, raising doubts about becoming NATO members in parallel with Sweden at a time when the alliance is seeking to present a united front in the face of Russia's war in Ukraine.

"He's now said what was always implicit but previously left unsaid, that our goal is always that we want to do this together with Sweden, but nobody has definitively said Finland would never go at it alone -- not Sanna Marin, not Pekka Haavisto, not President Niinistö," said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki. 

"At his press conference, he clarified that as long as the process is moving then there is no need to think about anything else. Finnish policy has not changed, it's only if the process gets permanently frozen we would have to think about something else," Salonius-Pasternak told Euronews. 

For the time being, in particular ahead of a Finnish general election in early April, no serious Finnish politician would actively campaign for the country to go solo with its NATO application and leave Sweden behind. 

Finland sees a possible window of time for Turkey to give the green light to NATO applications between the Turkish elections in mid-May and the next NATO summit in Lithuania in June. 

After that, if there was still no movement from Ankara, there would have to be more serious discussions for the new government in Helsinki to figure out their next steps. 

How has Sweden reacted?

Speaking to reporters in Stockholm on Tuesday evening, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said he “understands the frustration that many in Finland feel” over not having been admitted to the alliance already, but called for calm and urged Swedes who oppose NATO membership to “realise the gravity” of the security situation.

“There are forces both in Sweden and outside Sweden who want to prevent Sweden from becoming a NATO member,” said Kristersson, who came to power in the autumn with the support of a far-right political party. 

“And it’s against that backdrop we should see that there are provocateurs who want to damage Sweden’s relations to other countries, leading to a delay in Swedish membership of NATO.”

Finland's uncoupled membership 'could work more for Sweden'

A possible worst-case scenario for NATO memberships would be for Turkey to ratify Finland's bid but not Sweden's. 

The Finns would then have to decide whether or not to deposit their own legal paperwork in Washington DC to take that final step in becoming full NATO members, even if it meant leaving Sweden outside the military organisation.

"It would be really bad for Finnish politicians and domestic politics. The Kremlin would love it if one NATO member has just gone against the US and the will of the other NATO countries. Geopolitically this would be great for Russia," said Salonius-Pasternak.

He reckons Sweden understands that Finland wants to join NATO together, but if the stars do not align, Finnish membership would still improve Nordic and Baltic security. 

"And Finland could work more for Sweden as a member inside rather than outside."