Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, made on the pretext that Russia was being ‘surrounded’ by NATO, has ironically pushed countries towards the military alliance. The aggression breathed new life into an organisation struggling with an identity crisis. Its heightened prominence, however, has made it the focus of renewed questioning in several member states. Amid many European protests against soaring prices and the energy crisis, some have focused on NATO – but false claims have been made about other protests as part of a disinformation campaign mobilised by Russia and allies. Civil society must continue to combat disinformation, particularly when stakes are as high as war and peace and human rights are likely to be the casualties.

On 18 October, news broke of Finland’s latest infrastructure project: a border fence topped with razor wire and security cameras to protect some vulnerable stretches of its 1,340-kilometre-long border with Russia.

The Finnish Border Guard’s initiative was offered as a barrier against potential mass migration, which some fear Russian President Vladimir Putin might instrumentalise to build up political pressure – just as his close ally, Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, did in 2021, using Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants as pawns in his dispute with the west by pushing them towards the Polish border.

It isn’t many years since a promotional article from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs referred to Finland’s border with Russia as no longer dividing but instead uniting the two countries – a source of opportunity, prosperity and mutual learning, secured with light wooden fences installed mainly to stop livestock wandering across.

This July, the Finnish parliament amended the Border Guard Act to strengthen the border and improve the agency’s capacity to respond, including by closing border crossings and concentrating asylum seekers at specific points.

Finland rushed to strengthen its borders while it waited for approval of its application for membership of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO). In May, Finland and Sweden made the decision to apply to join NATO, precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which shot NATO up the political agenda. Since then, a series of steps that normally take years have been accomplished in a matter of months. The two countries await the finalisation of their accession, but there are significant hurdles still to be cleared. Meanwhile, Russia’s war of aggression continues, and danger lurks nearby.

The odd ones out

All Nordic and Baltic states are NATO members – except Finland and Sweden, which are also among the only six European Union (EU) member states not part of NATO.

Finland has the EU’s longest land border with Russia, and after the Second World War and throughout the Cold War, its survival as a sovereign, democratic and capitalist state was conditional on maintaining reasonably good relations with its Soviet neighbour. This meant refusing aid under the Marshall Plan and maintaining a neutral position between the two competing alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – as well as the EU’s predecessor, the European Community, and any other association of western states. Sweden remained neutral too, concerned that if it joined NATO the Soviet Union might respond by invading Finland.

A Cold War military alliance repurposed

NATO is a creature of the Cold War that found a new purpose in the post-Cold War era. It was established in 1949 by the North Atlantic Treaty, also known as the Washington Treaty, as a counterweight to Soviet armies stationed in central and eastern Europe. Its primary purpose was to offer a unified response if a western European state was invaded by the Soviet Union or its satellite states – from 1955 onwards, organised under the Warsaw Pact. It centres on the principle of collective defence, enshrined in article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which views an attack on one member state as an attack on all. This principle has only been invoked once, in response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA.

NATO had 12 founding members: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the USA. Greece, Turkey and West Germany joined in the 1950s, and Spain did so after it returned to democratic rule in the early 1980s.

As the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991, NATO’s continued existence as a military alliance came into question. While some proposed its dissolution, others advocated for its expansion, potentially to include Russia, and suggested alternative roles, including peacekeeping. It was eventually reconceived as a ‘cooperative security’ organisation fostering dialogue and managing conflict. It now defines itself as a ‘political and military alliance’, promoting democratic values and seeking the peaceful resolution of disputes – and resorting to force when diplomacy fails.

Two countries – the Czech Republic and Hungary – joined in the late 1990s – and 10 more did so in the 2000s as Europe reconfigured: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, Albania in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia as recently as 2020. It currently includes 30 member states – 28 European and two North American – and remains open to ‘any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area’.

In the post-Cold War era, NATO first resorted to military force in 1995, in the context of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following the Dayton Accords, it stationed peacekeeping troops in the region. It again launched air strikes in Serbia in 1999 in an attempt to protect the predominantly Muslim Albanian population of Kosovo, later deploying a peacekeeping force there.

By the early 2000s, NATO had a cooperative relationship with Russia – but this came to an end as Putin accumulated power and made clear his expansionist tendencies, first by invading Georgia in 2008 and then by annexing Crimea in 2014.

NATO membership has been under debate in Finland and Sweden since the early 1990s, when the association expanded. Political divides have been similar in the two countries, with left-leaning parties typically favouring neutrality and right-leaning ones more supportive of accession.

Finland and Sweden have had formal cooperation relations with NATO since 1994, when they joined its Partnership for Peace programme. They have contributed forces to its peacekeeping missions, including in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and over the past decade have participated in NATO military exercises. Both also joined the EU in 1995, adopting its Common Foreign and Security Policy. But successive governments judged there was no need to join NATO. Opinion polls showed a majority consistently supported this position.

As recently as January 2022, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said options regarding NATO membership remained open but it was ‘very unlikely’ Finland would apply during her term. An opinion poll showed barely 28 per cent of respondents wanted Finland to join NATO – up eight points since 2019 – with 42 per cent against and the rest unsure.

But the following month Russia attacked, and opinion in Finland turned instantly and decisively in favour of NATO. On the day of the invasion, Prime Minister Marin stated that ‘Finland is not currently facing an immediate military threat’ but acknowledged that the tone of the debate would change. It surely did: a clear majority of Finnish public opinion has been in favour of joining NATO ever since.

The next day, a top Russian official warned of the ‘military and political consequences’ that would result from any attempt by Finland or Sweden to join NATO. Threats, including of deploying nuclear weapons, continued for months. One of Putin’s claims aimed at presenting his war of aggression as a defensive move – that Russia was being ‘surrounded’ by NATO – became a self-fulfilling prophecy as his attack on Ukraine pushed countries into NATO’s arms.

Sweden shifted less rapidly and decisively than Finland, although Swedish public opinion reacted similarly to Finland’s. But the government decided that Sweden would apply for NATO membership if Finland did. They did so together on 18 May. Sweden has changed government since, following its September election in which the far-right Sweden Democrats made the biggest gains to finish second – but unlike far-right parties in other countries, it supports NATO accession, and the new centre-right government has announced its policy on NATO is unchanged.

NATO members invited Finland and Sweden to the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, in late June. The accession protocols for both countries were signed on 5 July and were put up for ratification by each of NATO’s 30 members.

Obstacles with a name and face

In what was characterised as the quickest process towards ratification in NATO’s history, between 5 July and 27 September 28 states approved membership for Finland and Sweden. But every state must agree, and two are holding out: Hungary and Turkey.

The thorniest challenge has come from Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seen in the crisis an opportunity to extract concessions from Finland and Sweden on their treatment of Kurdish dissidents, who Erdoğan classifies as terrorists. Both countries are home to Kurdish activists in exile, and Erdoğan has made his approval conditional on Finland and Sweden agreeing to extradite alleged Kurdish terrorists – including Amineh Kakabaveh, an independent member of the Swedish Parliament of Iranian Kurdish descent – and sell arms to Turkey.

An agreement between the three countries was reached in June, but negotiations on its implementation remain ongoing. Erdoğan may delay until after Turkey’s June 2023 elections.

Approval by Hungary had initially seemed a done deal, as both the ruling Fidesz party and the opposition publicly backed the move. But Hungary’s right-wing authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is seeking to delay ratification for political reasons. He’s a close political and business ally of Erdoğan, and may be doing him a favour by not leaving Turkey isolated in its opposition.

Orbán was long a close ally of Putin and has continued to criticise the EU’s Russian policy and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He may be happy to make things difficult for Finland and Sweden, two of the EU states that have most advocated to make EU funding to Hungary conditional on his government respecting human rights and the rule of law.

Shifting opinion elsewhere

While some countries have been driven towards NATO, others have seen public support for continued membership erode.

A Pew Research Center survey held before the war, in 2020, found that a median of 53 per cent of people in 16 member countries saw NATO in a positive light, and only 27 per cent had negative views. But perceptions varied widely across countries, with positive ratings ranging from a mere 21 per cent in Turkey – the only country where most people were against NATO – to 82 per cent in Poland.

The Pew poll also hinted at something that would be seen in 2022: in some countries – including the Czech Republic, France and Spain – there were significant, long-term declines in public support for NATO, even while others – such as Lithuania and Poland – saw a continuing upward trend.

Soaring prices and the energy crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine provided a catalyst for anti-NATO sentiment to become vocal. In early September, with a foreseeably hard winter fast approaching, a mass demonstration of about 70,000 people was held in the Czech capital, Prague. The rally was organised by the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party alongside the remnants of the formerly all-powerful Czech Communist Party. This unlikely left-right alliance was replicated elsewhere: in France, candidates placed on both ends of the political spectrum rejected NATO in the run-up to the crucial April 2022 presidential election.

On the streets of Prague, the extremes converged under the ‘Czech Republic First’ banner, demanding the resignation of the centre-right prime minister elected last October and a shift in the country’s foreign policy towards neutrality, stopping aid to Ukraine, reversing sanctions against Russia and reaching a new agreement with Putin to restore gas supplies. Protesters also complained about the roughly 400,000 Ukrainian refugees currently in the Czech Republic. Some wore T-shirts with pro-Putin slogans and others carried banners with anti-EU and anti-NATO messages.

This was possibly the largest of the anti-NATO protests held in several EU countries over the past few months. Ahead of the June NATO summit in Madrid, more than 2,000 people mobilised in the city against what they called ‘NATO’s war against Russia’. The event featured Soviet flags, although some protesters insisted they were not pro-Putin, but rather anti-war.

Civil society must play its vital role of combating the ever-circling cloud of disinformation – about Russia’s war and its rationale, the reasons behind the energy and cost-of-living crisis, and NATO.

Protests about the cost of living and the energy crisis have been held in multiple other EU countries, notably France. While they have often had an anti-NATO and anti-EU component, these have tended to be relatively marginal, and their presence grossly exaggerated. It suits Russia to present a false image that all over Europe people are taking to the streets against NATO. Disinformation is being spread about the extent to which protests focus on NATO, and much of that disinformation is likely coming from Russia and its allies.

In response to reports of one such supposedly anti-NATO protest held in Brussels in June, the Associated Press published a fact-checking assessment concluding that a disinformation campaign had been mounted on the basis of one isolated banner displaying an anti-NATO message. The march, organised by trade unions, focused on the core issue of the rising cost of living and demanded a wage increase – it wasn’t about Belgium’s membership of NATO at all.

A no-go for Ukraine

Meanwhile, war continues in Ukraine. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was one of Putin’s supposed reasons for launching his invasion, even though there never was a timeline for its accession. No steps had been taken in the 15 years since NATO announced that Georgia and Ukraine would be welcome to apply, in the wake of Russia’s 2008 attack on Georgia.

Following a series of fake referendums held in September 2022, Russia announced the imminent annexation of the occupied Ukrainian territories of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Zelenskyy responded by announcing he would apply for fast-track NATO membership, claiming that Ukraine was already a de facto NATO ally. The heads of nine central and eastern European NATO members issued a joint statement of support. But no official response came from NATO, other than reiterating its ‘open door’ policy towards all European democracies.

If it’s been hard for Finland and Sweden, it will be even more so for Ukraine. According to analysts, Ukraine is now further away from NATO membership than it ever was. If it joined, under the article 5 principle other NATO members would be obliged to join the war, going much further than the military support some countries are currently giving, and potentially triggering Russian escalation to the nuclear level. Nobody wants that. Article 5 is intended to function as a powerful deterrent to prevent military aggression against a member country. If Ukraine had already been a NATO member, perhaps Russia would have refrained from attacking it – although it’s increasingly hard to ascribe rationality to Putin’s actions.

A role for civil society

NATO membership and NATO’s role are intensely political issues, given increased salience by Russia’s invasion. It’s a deep irony of the current situation that Putin has given NATO, an alliance that was struggling to find an identity, a shot in the arm, helping boost its membership and profile.

But this shouldn’t preclude public debate in member and non-member countries alike. In non-member states, political parties should make clear where they stand on the issue and governments should ensure they enjoy public support if they take the decision to join the military alliance.

In member states, people should be able to protest against NATO, and the authorities should respect their right to do so. But civil society must play its vital role of combating the ever-circling cloud of disinformation – about Russia’s war and its rationale, the reasons behind the energy and cost-of-living crisis, and NATO.

It’s also vital to ensure that genuine protests about the cost of living and the energy crisis aren’t hijacked by fringe elements and instrumentalised towards aims that are not those of the people who mobilise. Civil society should continue working to ensure that any debate about NATO is well-informed and human rights concerns are kept at the centre of any decisions made.


  • The governments of Finland and Sweden must prioritise human rights concerns in negotiations with Hungary and Turkey to join NATO.
  • The governments of NATO member states must allow the free expression of dissent and discontent, including regarding NATO membership.
  • Civil society should promote informed dialogue and debate and combat disinformation campaigns around the roles of Russia and NATO in the Ukraine conflict.

Cover photo by Denis Doyle via Getty Images