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These countries were neutral towards Russia for decades. Now they’re starting to pick sides after the Ukraine invasion

May 2, 2022, 7:58 PM UTC

The Russian invasion of Ukraine galvanized stronger unity amongst Western countries, which shared their condemnation of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian army’s actions during the Ukraine War. 

But what about countries close to Russia’s border that have maintained a careful neutrality for decades?

As the war enters its third month, some of them are taking a stance, and it’s not to align more closely with Russia.

Finland and Sweden have recently signaled an openness to joining the NATO military alliance. It’s a big deal because both have a longstanding policy of military neutrality toward Russia, but also because of its implications for the future of the war.

Nordic countries to join NATO?

Many Western countries have been united in their condemnation of Putin under the banner of NATO’s military alliance, which includes the U.S. and most EU member countries. 

Russia has been historically opposed to countries it shares a border with joining NATO, and currently only around one-sixteenth of Russia’s land border meets with member countries of the alliance. Those are Norway, Estonia, and Latvia, while the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad shares borders with Poland and Lithuania. 

Concerns that Ukraine might join NATO and lengthen that border were one of Putin’s primary justifications for invading Ukraine, but his plan may have backfired, as the ongoing war is pushing more countries that are physically close to Russia to seriously consider joining the alliance.

Finland—which shares an 800-mile land border with Russia—may have already made its decision. 

The country will apply to join NATO as early as May 12, according to Finnish outlet Iltalehti, citing government sources.

The report suggests that the move to join NATO has support from both the Finnish presidency and the country’s largest political parties sitting in parliament.

A majority of Finns appear eager to join NATO, with one March poll finding that 62% favored joining the alliance.

Shortly after the news of Finland’s decision broke, the Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde appeared to confirm that neighboring Sweden would follow suit, when speaking on news channel SVT on Sunday.

“We know more or less that they [Finland] will apply for NATO membership,” Linde said. “That changes the whole balance…If one of our countries join, we know that tensions would increase.”

The government has otherwise remained silent on the issue, but an April poll found that 57% of Swedes were in support of NATO membership, and only 21% against. 

The ruling Social Democrat party in Sweden has historically been opposed to joining NATO, believing that doing so would infringe upon the country’s 200-year policy of military neutrality. But this position might be beginning to change, after an editorial advocating for Sweden’s entrance into NATO was published by a political editor in Aftonbladet, a national newspaper whose editorial stances have been aligned with the Social Democrats’ platform for decades. 

“I do not really see how Sweden and Finland will be able to guarantee our security outside Nato when Russia is ready in 2022 to start completely unprovoked a full-scale war against a neighboring country,” Anders Lindberg, political editor at the newspaper, wrote in the editorial.

NATO membership for Sweden is still being debated, but a decision will likely be announced on May 13 when the government will release a cross-party report on national defense policy, one day after Finland is expected to apply for membership.

The end of neutrality?

Both Sweden and Finland have employed a decades-long policy of military neutrality in international affairs. Finland—which had been part of the Russian Empire for over a century before claiming independence in 1917—adopted a neutrality policy during the Cold War that specifically sought to avoid any conflict with Russia.

Sweden’s foreign policy has also long been defined by a belief in neutrality, conflict avoidance, and freedom from international alliances. The policy has been in place since World War I, as the country aimed to distance itself from military affairs and maintain economic relations with all sides of the conflict. This policy persisted well into the Cold War and has survived to this day.

Sweden and Finland joining NATO could have potentially serious ramifications on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Putin has long been opposed to having more potentially hostile NATO countries on its borders, and Moscow officials have already issued an ominous warning with regards to Nordic countries joining the alliance.

Finnish and Swedish NATO membership could lead to Russia having to “reinforce these borders,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in April

Medvedev said that such a development would inevitably lead to a heavier military buildup in the Baltics, including nuclear weapons, as NATO expanding its border in the north would mean “no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltics.” 

The Kremlin has been steadily ramping up the threats of engaging the West in a nuclear war, with one official recently saying that the risk of nuclear weapons entering the conflict is now “considerable.” But while the country’s nuclear arsenal has been on high alert since the beginning of the war, the army has yet to go as far as placing warheads on the front lines.

A buildup of nuclear weapons on the Baltic Sea, within striking distance of as many as seven NATO countries, could significantly escalate tensions and risk factors in a conflict that already has all of Europe on edge, and increasingly taking sides.

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