As the conflict involving Ukraine and the Russian Federation prolongs and accentuates, different European countries holding a status of military neutrality face more and more skepticism (from both the political sphere and from the general population) regarding its effectiveness and consider NATO membership as a future option. Currently, some of the main (militarily) neutral countries of Europe are Sweden, Finland, Moldova, Switzerland, and Ireland, with the first two being the countries considering NATO membership the most, due to their proximity of the Russian Federation and the slight acts of aggression they have experienced from Russia.
The loss of their neutral status would be very bad news for the Kremlin, as the main Russian leaders have emphasized previously how much they value this status. As early as January of this year, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, emphasized that the neutrality policy of these nations is ensuring the stability of the European continent. In practice, Russia favors having Finland and Sweden as neutral countries, because otherwise they would be playing a key strategic role for NATO and expand their military options and capabilities.
It is first in order to give some brief information about neutrality as a legal concept and how it is seen from the perspective of international law. Neutrality is usually defined as “the attitude of impartiality adopted by third States towards belligerents and recognized by belligerents . . . creating rights and duties between the impartial States and the belligerents.” More easily put, it relates to the relationship between parties to an armed conflict or another type of dispute and third States. Customary international law regulates neutrality since this concept has been around for a long time, developing in what we have today during the 19th Century. It is codified in the Hague Convention V of 1907 which is dedicated entirely to the rights of neutral States and persons. The neutral status can be seen as a political choice of a State and a formal declaration of this is never required for a State to act as a neutral actor. This means that it can be implicit or explicit (for example when stated in a national Constitution). On the other hand, the recognition of this status by other States is also a political decision, and even though not required in order for the neutral State to exercise its right not to participate in armed conflict or other disputes, it is usually desirable to have such recognition.
In the following sections, each of the neutral countries mentioned before will be briefly analyzed, looking at the circumstances that brought their neutrality, the Russian aggression that they experienced, and how that changed the perspectives of the nation leaders and of the general population regarding the NATO option.
Sweden has a long tradition of neutrality, starting in 1814, but it did stretch the margins of this status previously, by collaborating with NATO on intelligence issues during the Cold War. Nowadays, despite the fact that neutrality can be considered a part of Swedish national identity, Sweden has a close relationship with NATO, collaborating with it on virtually anything that does not violate its neutrality status (technical development, joint exercises etc.). Russia’s current behavior pushes Sweden even closer to NATO, as the population is favoring NATO membership more and more. Currently, support for NATO in Sweden has rose to a historic 46%, being motivated not only by the conflict in Ukraine, but also by Russian aggressive behavior directly pointed towards the Nordic country. As such, in 2020, two Russian warships entered Swedish waters without authorization, and more recently, a Russian man was caught and arresting for flying drones near the Royal Palace and near nuclear power stations in January of this year. Sweden would be a great addition to the NATO member states, due to its strategic position, especially through the island of Gotland, which would represent a major military vantage point for protecting the Baltic Sea and the Baltic States, and which has been previously used in military exercises.
In short, Sweden is readier than ever before to renounce its 200-year-old neutrality soon, and join NATO, which would put the Kremlin in an even more cornered position.
Finland acquired its neutrality status in 1948, after the Second World War, as a method to prevent any type of Soviet aggression. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland maintained and still maintains its neutrality. Considering that Finland, as opposed to Sweden, shares a large border with Russia, one would assume that support for NATO would be considerable. In fact, although Finland-NATO collaboration is deep, on issues such as military exercises, cyber defense, or disaster management, it has less public support for entering NATO (as compared to Sweden, for instance). One issue that prevents Finland to fully commit to NATO is its trade dependence to Russia, as it imports 60% of its energy from them, Russia being the fourth importer of Finnish goods. It also has a significant Russian minority, representing 1.2% of the population. Currently, the proportions stand as such: 42% of the population is against NATO membership, while 28% supports this policy, and the rest is undecided.
Nevertheless, Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, recently mentioned that Finland’s freedom of choice also includes the possibility of NATO membership, and although joining NATO would be a harsher process, from a diplomatic and economic point of view, it would represent a security guarantee that Finland might want to obtain sooner rather than later.
In sum, Finland is further away than Sweden in its road to NATO membership, but the current geopolitical situation has made Finnish authorities demand a confirmation from NATO that the door is open at any time for them, which they have received.
Their neutrality is not externally recognized, but it is stated in the nation’s constitution. It has started in 1994, as a mechanism perceived to initiate an international procedure that would remove Russian soldiers from the unrecognized breakaway state of Transnistria (no recognized state has acknowledged Transnistria’s statehood, thus not passing Art. 1(D) of the Montevideo Convention), but it has failed to do so. Nevertheless, the current pro-European government that is in power in Moldova has been active in emphasizing that “constitutional neutrality does not mean the isolation of the country”, and that closer NATO collaboration is desirable. Considering the internal shortcomings (such as being Europe’s poorest country) that Moldova currently has, membership is and will remain highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which is in its proximity, combined with the political orientation of the government, have created circumstances in which Moldova is closer to NATO than ever before, in Russia’s detriment.
Probably the best-known neutral country in the world, Switzerland is the country from this list that has the most distant relations with NATO, as it promotes a de-escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict through the OSCE, which Russia is part of. NATO membership is not an option for Switzerland, but the conflict did raise concerns among Swiss politicians, which again could jeopardize Russia’s relations with yet another European country, one which is a valuable ally and partner, especially from a financial point of view.
As peculiar as it might sound, even a country as far away from Russian territory as Ireland has been lately threatened not only by the Ukrainian situation, but also directly, through their trainings. Just a week ago, in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russia was planning naval exercises in international waters, 240 kilometers away from the Irish coast, but in Ireland’s airspace and economic zone. These intentions were severely punished by the Irish fishermen, who declared they will send their fishing boats in that maritime area to disrupt the exercises.
Although Ireland’s neutrality is mainly declarative, its intentions of NATO are low, but nevertheless, the conflict could in the future motivate them to pursue a closer relation with NATO.
The Russian Federation’s aggressive foreign and military policy has managed to not only emphasize the antagonistic relationship with NATO, but also provoke and intimidate most of Europe’s neutral States, some of them considering membership as a viable option more and more. While it is not guaranteed and, all in all, highly unlikely for all the nations mentioned above to join NATO, Russia’s current policies have created new potential adversaries, that increase the chances of the Kremlin’s political and diplomatic isolation, that they most deeply fear.
Marcu Andrei Solomon & Alexandra Ivan