Sweden ends neutrality, joins Finland in seeking NATO berth

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden’s prime minister announced Monday that Sweden will join Finland in seeking NATO membership in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a historic shift that comes after more than 200 years of military nonalignment in the Nordic country.

The move, which is likely to upset the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, came after neighboring Finland announced Sunday that it too would seek to join the 30-country military alliance.

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson called it “a historic change in our country’s security policy” as she addressed lawmakers in the Swedish capital.

“We will inform NATO that we want to become a member of the alliance,” she said. “Sweden needs formal security guarantees that come with membership in NATO.”

Andersson adding that Sweden was acting together with Finland, whose government announced on Sunday it would seek to to join the alliance.

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The announcement came after a debate in the Riksdagen, or parliament, earlier Monday showed that there is a huge support for joining NATO. Out of Sweden’s eight parties, only two smaller left-leaning parties opposed it.

On Sunday, the Swedish Social Democrats broke with the party’s long-standing position that Sweden must remain nonaligned, paving the way for a clear majority for NATO membership in the parliament.

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Public opinion in both Nordic countries was firmly against joining NATO before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, but support for NATO membership surged quickly in both nations after that.

“The Swedish government’s intent is to apply for NATO membership. A historic day for Sweden,” Foreign Minister Ann Linde wrote on Twitter. “With a broad support from political parties in the parliament, the conclusion is that Sweden will stand stronger together with allies in NATO.”

Once a regional military power, Sweden has avoided military alliances since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Like Finland it remained neutral throughout the Cold War, but formed closer relations with NATO after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the governments in Finland and Sweden responded by swiftly initiating discussions across political parties about NATO membership and reaching out the U.S., Britain, Germany and other NATO countries for their support.

The Kremlin, however, has repeatedly warned the move would have destabilizing consequences for security in Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Moscow “does not have a problem” with Sweden or Finland as they apply for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of military infrastructure onto this territory will of course give rise to our reaction in response.”

In Helsinki, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that there is “very significant” support in the Congress and that he expects swift ratification. He said he hoped a vote could be held before the August recess.

“Some member states face more difficulties because they are more dependent, because they are landlocked,” Borrell said, and “they only have oil through pipelines, and coming from Russia.”

Muddying the waters is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s relationship with Putin. Orban is widely considered to be one of the Russian leader’s closest European allies. He has only reluctantly supported previous EU sanctions, including a phased-in embargo on Russian coal.

Since taking office in 2010, Orban has deepened Hungary’s dependency on Russian energy and says its geography and energy infrastructure make an oil shutdown impossible. His EU partners are at odds over what they believe is driving his reluctance to target oil.

“The whole union is being held hostage by one member state,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said. He said that the European Commission’s proposal offered members a phaseout of Russian oil until Dec 31, 2024, and that “everybody expected that this would be enough.”

In the Swedish Parliament, only the small Left and Green parties objected to seeking NATO membership.

Andersson said Sweden would refuse nuclear weapons or permanent NATO bases on its soil — similar conditions as neighboring Norway and Denmark insisted on when the alliance was formed after World War II.

For now, the ball is in Hungary’s court, as the most vocal member of those opposed. Officials have said that Orban appears to be seeking EU money for energy infrastructure investment. Any compromise is only likely to be found in his talks with von der Leyen, not between ministers.

The oil standoff raises questions about whether the EU has reached the limits of its unity on sanctions. Targeting Russia’s gas sector, on which many more countries are dependent, is likely to prove even tougher.

Officials said before Monday’s meeting that a political agreement is likely to be found on a fourth tranche of money to help supply weapons to Ukraine. It would bring to 2 billion euros ($2.1 billion) the total sum available to fund the purchase of arms and other nonlethal assistance.

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Though NATO officials have expressed hopes for a quick ratification process, all 30 current NATO members must agree to let Finland and Sweden in the door. Turkey voiced some objections last week, accusing the two countries of supporting Kurdish militants and others whom Turkey considers to be terrorists.

Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told public broadcaster SVT that a Swedish delegation would be sent to Ankara to discuss the issue.

_ Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.