STOCKHOLM — The ink was still drying on Sweden and Finland’s applications to join NATO on Tuesday when Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö arrived at the royal palace in Stockholm in a horse-drawn carriage.
Niinistö’s state visit, scheduled several weeks ago, is seen as a potential bookend to what has been a rapid process of domestic and international discussions over accession by the two Nordic states into the Western defense alliance.
Earlier Tuesday, in front of TV cameras, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde had signed her country’s official application, which she said would soon go to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg alongside a similar paper from Finland.
The putting of pen to paper ends the part of the process which was in Sweden and Finland’s own hands.
Once Stoltenberg and his team in Brussels have processed the two applications, the 30 existing members of the alliance will then get their say on the eventual accessions, a process that is expected to last well into the fall.
Speaking to lawmakers and the Swedish royal couple in parliament, Finland’s Niinistö thanked the Swedish officials with whom the Finnish side had been working closely for months.
He said his country and Sweden were preparing to take “historic steps together” that would make the two nations and their allies safer.
“Sweden and Finland’s membership of NATO would improve our own and NATO’s security,” he said.
Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf called the decision to join NATO “a historic choice which we are making side-by-side with our brother country.”
For both Sweden and Finland, the shift to NATO membership is a momentous change, which many leaders in Stockholm and Helsinki see as forced on them by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.
Sweden has stayed outside of military alliances for the past two centuries in a strategy many credit for Stockholm’s ability to avoid war during that period. For Finland, neutrality was for decades seen as a way to avoid further conflict after two brutal wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1944.
During his speech in Stockholm, Niinistö said his country and Sweden were applying to join NATO “in the shadow of a brutal war.”
He said a chain of events leading to the applications had begun last December, with a statement by Moscow demanding, among other things, that NATO accept no new members.
“Russia’s demand that NATO’s expansion be stopped was designed to limit our freedom to choose and our sovereignty,” he said.
Niinistö’s visit to Stockholm will last for two days. He will meet Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson later Tuesday and attend events at a number of cultural institutions including the Nordic Museum and the Swedish Academy.
But security policy will remain front and center, with Niinistö also set to visit Sweden’s Marine Regiment at its base in Berga, south of Stockholm.
Sweden’s military is currently experiencing a period of increased investment which the government says will reach 2 percent of economic output by 2028, meeting NATO guidelines.
It has bolstered troop numbers on its strategically placed Baltic Sea island of Gotland and also re-established five regiments across the country. At the underground Muskö naval base near Berga, docks and tunnels blasted into a rocky island have gone back into service.
Despite a drawdown in military investment for a decade until around 2015, Sweden retains a strong track record in developing and producing military equipment. Its air force flies Swedish designed and built Jas Gripen fighter planes and its navy can deploy extremely quiet, domestically produced submarines.
For its part, Finland retains one of Europe’s stronger defense forces with well-resourced artillery units. Its army claims to be able to mobilize 280,000 soldiers in the event of war, while it says its reserve consists of 870,000 Finns.
During the application process to join NATO, Swedish and Finnish leaders will be keen to show how their militaries can strengthen NATO even as they start to benefit from the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause.
Still, resistance to their accession has already emerged. Turkey repeated its objections to the new applicants on Tuesday amid claims by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Sweden and Finland are harboring terrorists.
In his speech to Swedish lawmakers, Niinistö said he remained “optimistic” that those concerns could be addressed.
“I am sure that with the help of constructive discussions we are going to resolve the situation,” he said.
In a sign that the accessions remain on track, the U.S. government said that Swedish Premier Andersson and Finland’s Niinistö would meet with President Joe Biden in Washington on Thursday.
”The leaders will discuss Finland and Sweden’s NATO applications and European security, as well as strengthening our close partnerships across a range of global issues and support for Ukraine,” the White House said.
So, another busy few days loom for Niinistö, who only recently recovered from a bout of COVID-19 that prevented a planned trip to Norway.
After Niinistö wrapped up his speech to the Swedish parliament on Tuesday, speaker of the house Andreas Norlen declared the session over and asked lawmakers to make their way to the exits.
“And then we continue forward together,” Niinistö said.