In his annual New Year’s speech, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö directly asserted Finland’s sovereign right to join NATO, should it wish. NATO advocates sat up a little straighter. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin also mentioned Finland’s right to join the alliance in her New Year’s address. NATO advocates leaned forward a little more. Then, just in case the excitement was becoming too much, Niinistö released an online note, saying that Finland’s position toward NATO membership is unchanged.

So what’s going on? The Russian borderlands are shaking from the reverberations of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bellicose rhetoric, including demands that his neighbors do as they’re told (last week’s deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan will have underlined the point.) The Kremlin has made plain that Finland and Sweden are included in these expansive demands. On Christmas Day, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted by RT as saying that NATO wanted Finland and Sweden to join the alliance and warned that if they did so, this “would have serious military and political consequences that would require an adequate response from the Russian side.”

A series of similarly aggressive statements and the deployment of close to 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders have prompted fears of imminent conflict and have sparked a renewed discussion among Finns. Until now, the issue was whether Finland might choose to join, but this time Russia is demanding formal assurances from NATO that no further expansion will happen. In other words, it wants to shut the door on Finland’s freedom to decide. That demand is going down badly — a number of Green Party (Vihreät) politicians have expressed support for alliance membership, joining the long-standing pro-NATO wing within the center-right party (Kokoomus.)

Sweden too has responded. The country’s supreme military commander, General Micael Bydén said simply that acceding to Russians demands would mean the end of the country’s security strategy, while Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, a Social Democrat, spoke to the Finnish President, and pointedly also to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, noting in between that her country makes its own decisions on security.

Living next door to a bear means listening very carefully when it’s out on the hunt. This was clear following a routine December call between Niinisö and Putin. The transcript and notes released by the Russian side were unusually long and detailed for the usual run-of-the-mill conversations. The Russian side emphasized its demands for Finland’s formal abnegation of NATO membership. 

Niinistö had been actively promoting a revival of the “Helsinki Spirit” to mark the founding of the Helsinki Accords (with a 50th anniversary coming up in 2025.) Putin made these talking points his own, saying that the Russians support Finland’s celebration of the Helsinki spirit, and that its demands for alliance limitation fit neatly into Niinistö’s vision.

But while Finland is currently clear it will not seek NATO membership, that may change. Events in Kazakhstan and potentially in Ukraine underline that neutrality can be a poor option in troubled times. More relevant still is the Swedish angle: Finland’s calculus would radically change if neighboring Sweden sought membership. Recently, the biggest daily in Sweden ran headlines about whether Russia could invade the Åland Islands, sitting between Sweden and Finland, which would be a key base if there were a military confrontation between Russia and NATO. Russian missile batteries on Åland would give significant control of the Baltic Sea, blocking NATO’s access and supply lines to the Baltic states. The current Swedish left-wing coalition government has not signaled interest in alliance membership, although the right-wing opposition openly advocates it.

If the two countries did opt for membership, Finland’s and Sweden’s accession could be swift. As a recent article by Finnish public broadcaster YLE points out, their democratic systems and armed forces — which are comparable to and meet NATO requirements — make them ideal candidates. Piotr Szymański of the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (ÓSW), says the parliaments of NATO countries would swiftly agree with timelines running from a few months to a few years.

And yet, public opinion in the two countries is mixed. Swedes are more pro-NATO than previously, but are split three ways between those in favor, those against, and the undecided. In Finland, popular support for NATO membership remains relatively low. The latest polls, from October 2020 (so before the troop buildup near Ukraine) show that 26% of Finns support joining the alliance, while 40% are actively opposed. These figures have remained stable over the years. However, in surveys where respondents are asked to consider a hypothetical where the president recommends membership, support rises. A survey in August 2018 showed that backing for NATO membership would rise from 20% to 35% in the event of presidential endorsement (although half would still be opposed.) Proponents argue that if political leaders joined in making the case for the membership, the majority would shift toward support. To appease opponents, Finland might consider some mollifying pledges to calm Russia’s inevitably furious response.

But political leaders have not openly advocated membership. While Niinistö was pro-NATO before and during his initial presidential bid, he toned down his support and became cautious after assuming office. Some analysts speculate Niinistö’s NATO skepticism is the result of one-on-one discussions with Putin. But it is hard to know for sure. Those close to Niinistö’s foreign policy circle, like Hiski Haukkala, have advocated a no-membership status quo, arguing that joining NATO would reduce Finland’s agility and make the country dependent on those it relies on for military aid, without any promise of a decisive role at the decision-making table.

Membership is an inherently political question, as Henri Vanhanen, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) points out in an informative Twitter thread. For now, the status quo is likely to hold: Finland and Sweden want to keep the door open to NATO but will not take the decisive step any time soon.

Given close ties with NATO and warm relations with the alliance, both may even feel that they are members in all but name. In reality, however, they are not. The two could only rely on one another in any conflict.  

 Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek is a Clarendon Scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where she is researching public-private investment into extractive industries.