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On GPS: Finland's bid to join NATO
06:01 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Marja Heinonen, a Finnish author of several books, has more than three decades’ experience as a journalist, editor and in academia, and holds a doctorate in communications. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Tampere, Finland CNN  — 

When it comes to friendships between nations, not much comes between Sweden and my home country of Finland.

We’re not just neighbors; We are bound together by centuries of shared history. Parts of Finland were ruled for 500 years (sometimes uneasily, to be honest) by the kingdom of Sweden. And along with Finnish, Swedish is one of two official languages in Finland. Most Finns learn to speak the language passably well.

Marja Heinonen

In recent decades, our two countries have also been close military allies. In fact, Sweden is Finland’s closest defense partner. The two countries have been cooperating on defense since the 1990s. That close military cooperation is one of the reasons why, when many other countries in northern and eastern Europe rushed to join NATO, Helsinki and Stockholm chose to remain outside. We felt we had our mutual defense needs covered vis-a-vis Russia.

Finland also has robust military defenses which we developed as a matter of exigency, living in the shadow of a powerful Russian neighbor with whom we already went to war once before, back when it was part of the Soviet Union. Until one year ago, we Finns actually harbored the idea that our eastern neighbor had become a peace-loving trading partner, and no longer posed a threat to our national security.

Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine changed all that. It quickly became clear that if Finland and Sweden are to have real security from possible Russian aggression, we are more likely to find it within the larger NATO military alliance than on our own. We were particularly keen for the protections afforded by Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the collective defense doctrine stating that an attack on one member is tantamount to an attack on the entire alliance. It’s been a cornerstone of the 30-member NATO alliance since its founding in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.

US President Joe Biden underscored the importance of the article during his meetings in Poland this week with leaders from the so-called Bucharest Nine countries – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – on the frontline of any potential hostilities with Moscow.

“Article 5 is a sacred commitment the United States has made. We will defend literally every inch of NATO,” Biden told the group.

Finland and Sweden submitted applications for NATO membership last June, assuming we’d be on a fast track to accession. Our applications were submitted simultaneously to signal that we were united in our assessment of the Russian threat. And if all goes according to plan, in the next several months our two nations will be full-fledged NATO members.

But things have not gone according to plan – in fact, almost from the start, the accession process has hit some bumps in the road.

Twenty-eight NATO member states accepted the applications almost immediately, but two holdouts – Turkey and Hungary – have thrown a wrench into the application process, which requires unanimity from all of the 30 current NATO member states.

Political observers in Hungary say Budapest seems likely to relent as the application process proceeds this spring. Hungarian lawmakers have scheduled a vote on Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO bids in early March, and officials have signaled that they expect to approve both bids.

Turkey, however, is another matter. Ankara wants Finland and Sweden to take a tougher line against individuals within their respective borders who it is calling terrorists. Turkey’s wrath is focused on members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which goes by the acronym PKK, as well as a few other political groups.

The PKK, which Ankara has accused of seeking to form an independent state in Turkey, has been waging an armed struggle against the government and has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Sweden and Finland of being “like guest houses for terror organizations,” but he is particularly unhappy with Sweden. The central demand from Ankara is that the two countries extradite wanted individuals living in their territory.

The burning of a Koran by protesters during a demonstration outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm last month was the last straw for Erdogan. Ankara now has signaled that it might be willing to accept Finland as a future NATO member, but so far has blocked membership for Sweden.

All of this raises a thorny question for Finns: Is this where we part ways with Stockholm? When it comes to securing a coveted spot in the NATO military alliance, is it every man – every nation – for itself?

For the last few months, that uncomfortable possibility has been openly debated in political and security circles, and among average citizens in my country of some 5.5 million people. Officials from both countries are plowing ahead, even amid growing uncertainty as to whether the two Nordic allies can move forward together.

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin said at a press conference in Stockholm this month that Helsinki would join NATO “hand in hand” with Sweden. There are, however, varying interpretations of “hand in hand.”

This week, Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö met in Sweden with the prime ministers of Sweden and Norway, and said at a follow-up press conference: “To the extent that it is up to us, we will go hand in hand But Turkey has ratification in its own hands, and we can’t do anything about that.”

This would seem to suggest that Finland is preparing for a scenario in which Turkey plans to ratify Finland first, and to leave the question of Sweden’s accession to NATO for another day.

Some Finns think, in fact, that it makes sense for us to go first, given the more than 800-mile long border we share with Russia, creating a greater security risk. Others feel that in the end, it won’t make all that much difference if Finland joins first and Sweden joins a few months from now. But in an unsettled world, both nations are eager to close the deal as soon as they possibly can.

If Helsinki is looking for guidance from the Finnish people about whether to proceed with or without Stockholm, then the government is out of luck: Finns are split almost right down the middle over the question, according to a recent poll.

A survey this month by the Taloustutkimus polling group found a slim majority (53%) of Finns saying that they would be willing to join the alliance ahead of Sweden.

In the last couple of days – amid pressure from the United States and other NATO members – Ankara has signaled that it might relent. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of 27 US senators said in a letter to US President Joe Biden that Ankara’s continued blocking of Sweden and Finland joining NATO is hurting the entire alliance. The lawmakers urged Biden to delay the planned sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey until it agrees to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO.

Those threats may be what has led to a softening in the tone of the debate in recent days. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters on Thursday he has seen progress in talks with Turkey on Sweden’s membership bid and still aims to have both Sweden and Finland join the alliance by the time of its July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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    The NATO leader added that Turkey, Finland and Sweden will hold a meeting at alliance headquarters next month “to address the challenges” that have hampered Sweden’s accession application.

    So it would appear that July’s NATO summit could also seal the fate of Sweden – and definitively determine whether Helsinki ditches its old friend and forges ahead into the military alliance alone.