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The Russia-Ukraine war drives countries to consider NATO membership

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he said it was partly to stop Ukraine from joining NATO. Instead, the war is driving more countries toward the military alliance. Finland shares a long border with Russia, and the country's lawmakers say they're horrified by the assault on Ukraine, so they're debating whether they should join NATO. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Helsinki.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CAWING)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Most Finns have opposed joining NATO for decades. And why not? Staying outside of the Cold War-era alliance has avoided provoking the Russian bear across the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCORDION)

LANGFITT: People such as Yoni Kaipia (ph), an architect and a photographer, didn't want Finland to become caught up in military competition. We spoke on a gloriously sunny day in Helsinki's harbor, as a man played an accordion for change.

YONI KAIPIA: I always thought myself being a pacifist, and NATO for me was part of the militarization of the world.

LANGFITT: But the invasion has transformed thinking in this Scandinavian country of 5 1/2 million. A recent poll showed that as many as 68% of Finns now want to join the alliance, which has pushed politicians here to fast-track the process. Kaipia says joining NATO is not only a way to protect Finland but also to teach Putin a lesson.

KAIPIA: If he has used the threat of NATO as a justification for his acts, now we could show that the NATO has to expand because of his acts.

LANGFITT: Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia. The two countries have lived peacefully for decades, but Finns now see Russia very differently. Atte Harjanne is a legislator who serves on the Parliament's Defence Committee.

ATTE HARJANNE: The intensity, the scale of the attack, the brutality, I guess, woke many people into a world where we have an aggressive authoritarian regime as our neighbor.

LANGFITT: That realization is a big reason why a NATO bid seems all but certain. Another reason is that the war in Ukraine really resonates here. A little history - Finland spent most of the 19th century as a part of the Russian empire before declaring independence in 1917. In 1939, Moscow demanded Finland trade land that Russia wanted to protect what was then Leningrad. Finland refused. The Soviets sent in troops. This was the start of what became known as the Winter War.

HARJANNE: Soviets suffered massive losses. But Finland remained as an independent state, although it lost some land area in the following negotiations. That's something that we somehow in our collective memory that - something like that should never happen again.

LANGFITT: Russia's Foreign Ministry has warned of military and political consequences for Finland if it joins NATO. Harjanne, who's also a captain in the Finnish Reserves, says the threat isn't abstract. He says just look over the Finnish border, where Russian units were stationed until recently.

HARJANNE: The same units that we were expecting, if Russia would attack here, are now locked in fighting Ukraine, and that makes it a bit more concrete - Ukraine is fighting not just for themselves but for Europe and, in some sense, for us as well.

LANGFITT: Of course, the redeployment of troops to Ukraine makes it much harder for Russia to threaten Finland in the short run. And Finland has a substantial army - 180,000 soldiers in wartime, plus 200 tanks and 800 artillery pieces. Some here say public support for NATO membership is driven more by shock over the invasion than an evaluation of risk.

ERKKI TUOMIOJA: I think there's a huge degree of emotions involved.

LANGFITT: Erkki Tuomioja is a lawmaker with the Social Democratic Party, whose leader serves as prime minister.

TUOMIOJA: Public opinion plays a big role in this, but there is also this ingrained fear, which is actually fueled also by our media, which is in a state of, I would say, war psychosis in a sense (laughter) that...

LANGFITT: War psychosis.

TUOMIOJA: Yes. I mean, that Finland could any day expect to be attacked - I don't think this is realistic.

LANGFITT: What do you think are the downsides of joining NATO?

TUOMIOJA: Well, it would create tensions with Russia, obviously. And we have had a very pragmatic relationship with Russia in terms of logistics, environment and regional cooperation.

LANGFITT: Are you concerned that the country could actually take a policy decision based on fear and emotion?

TUOMIOJA: I'm also concerned about the level of the public debate. Anybody who questions membership is being vilified as a Putin agent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FERRY AMBIENCE)

LANGFITT: One day here in Helsinki, I took a ferry to a nearby island where I met Adam Lundgren (ph). He's Swedish and serves in the military there. Sweden is considering NATO membership as well. The country had maintained a policy of military neutrality for about two centuries to avoid becoming embroiled in wars. However, a recent poll shows 57% of Swedes now want to join the alliance. But Lundgren worries his country could be forced to defend another NATO ally and get dragged into a war.

ADAM LUNDGREN: I'm not so happy with NATO. The military service in Sweden has the approach of protecting Sweden. If we say yes to NATO, then we are not only protecting - if another country has problems, then we have to leave the country and fight.

LANGFITT: Do you think Sweden could defend itself alone?

LUNDGREN: I must think so. Our military is quite small right now, but we have many volunteers that has waken up from their slumber. So we're growing now.

LANGFITT: In the first week or so after the invasion, nearly 10,000 Swedes applied to serve in the military reserve. That's about twice the number of applications in a normal year. To get a sense of how NATO might receive bids from Finland and Sweden, I called Tomas Valasek. He's a former NATO ambassador from Slovakia.

TOMAS VALASEK: I think, honestly, what took you so long (laughter) will be probably the general sentiment.

LANGFITT: Valasek says not only can NATO help protect both countries - Finland and Sweden can play a valuable role for NATO. In the Baltic Sea, they could provide naval support to NATO allies - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - if they ever came under Russian threat. And given Finland's and Sweden's proximity to Russia, they could also provide real-time military intelligence.

VALASEK: You can't really ignore geography. If you are in Sweden or Finland, you have the capacity to see things via electronics or radar deep inside Russia that the Portuguese or the Spanish simply don't have and never will.

LANGFITT: Finland and Sweden are expected to apply to NATO before leaders meet in Madrid at the end of June. That process could take many months. But if all goes to plan, NATO, which numbered 30 members before the war, will grow to 32.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Helsinki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.