Spring this year could herald a new security order for Finland and Sweden as the two countries prepare to submit their NATO membership applications.
In January, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin reiterated her country’s traditional stance that it had no plans to join the security alliance. But in early April, she noted that “everything had changed” since Russia attacked Ukraine.
“Finland must be prepared for all kinds of actions by Russia,” she told reporters during a visit to Sweden, adding that Helsinki would decide “within weeks” on NATO membership.
While public support for Finland’s NATO membership has fluctuated between 20 and 30 percent, recent polls have shown that since the war in Ukraine, about 70 percent of the Finnish population wants their country to join NATO.
Al Jazeera spoke to the former Prime Minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, to understand what led to this dramatic change.
Stubb, who was also Finland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance, is currently a professor and director at the School of Transnational Governance, located at the European University Institute in Florence.
Al Jazeera: How would you describe Finland’s national awakening to join NATO? What has changed?
Alexander Stubb: I think the decision on Finland’s NATO membership was made on February 24, at 5 am, when… [Russian President Vladimir] Putin attacked Ukraine. Then public opinion essentially turned 180 degrees.
From 50 percent against and 20 percent for, to 50 percent for and 20 percent against. At the moment we are 68% in favor and 12% against, and when our political leaders come out with the application together with Sweden in mid-May, I predict that our numbers will be over 80% for NATO membership.
The basic idea is that if Putin can slaughter his siblings and cousins in Ukraine, he can also slaughter his siblings in Finland and Sweden.
For the Finns, this evokes memories of the Second World War. So NATO membership would be one way to increase our own security and that of the Alliance.
Al Jazeera: But this is not the first time Russia has attacked Ukraine. In 2014, when you were Prime Minister of Finland, Russia annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine. Did you consider NATO membership at the time?
stub: I am one of the few people in Finland who has always advocated Finnish NATO membership. In fact, I think we should have joined NATO in 1995, when we became part of the European Union.
In 2008 I tried to push for NATO membership. At the time, I was Finnish Foreign Minister and Chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and had brokered peace in the war in Georgia.
After these mediation conversations I gave a speech [on August 8, 2008]it was called 080808. In the speech, I explained how Russian aggression is back and that Finland should consider NATO membership. But I met a lot of resistance and since then, even when Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014, I have not tried to advocate for NATO membership because I was outnumbered.
Now, however, things are different.
Looking at how Russia attacked Ukraine in 2022, it seems that this invasion provoked the people of Finland and changed their minds. When public opinion changes, political leaders also change their minds.
Al Jazeera: Prime Minister Sanna Marin spoke about Finland’s accession to NATO when a security report warned that Finland’s potential membership could further exacerbate Russia, sparking tensions along the Finnish-Russian border.
Do you think the Prime Minister should have waited for the current war in Ukraine to calm down?
stub: I think we are past that debate for now. We don’t expect any conventional military threats, if at all, because we have one of the largest standing armies in Europe – 900,000, reserves 280,000 to mobilize, we just bought 64 F-35s and we have the excellent defense missile systems.
I think we are more ready for NATO than most member states of the alliance themselves.
But what we’ll see from the time we sign up in mid-May, to the time we join NATO, there will be hybrid threats. There will be cyber threats and there will be an information war, and we are prepared for that.
For example, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke in the Finnish parliament about two and a half weeks ago, the homepages of the Finnish Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went off the air. And, you know, it was clearly a Russian attack.
At the same time, there was a violation of our airspace, again Russians, of course.
So these are the kinds of threats that we will continue to get and we are ready for them. In the bigger picture, Finnish and Swedish NATO membership will also increase the region’s security.
Al Jazeera: Is there any opposition Finland could face from NATO members regarding its ascension bid?
Alexander Stubb: I am subjective, but it is very difficult to use a rational argument to admit Finland and Sweden to NATO. In addition to strong military forces, we both have the largest western telecommunications service companies in the world – Nokia and Ericsson, and this is important for the overall security infrastructure.
In addition, we have the experience of waging wars with Russia, given our own history with the Kremlin. NATO members are aware of our capabilities and will not be hotheaded when it comes to our membership.