Explainer: Finland, Sweden on verge of applying to join NATO

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STOCKHOLM/HELSINKI, May 12 (Reuters) - Russia's invasion of Ukraine has pushed Finland and Sweden to the verge of applying for NATO membership.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday that Finland - which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia - must apply to join NATO "without delay".

"We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days," they said. read more

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Sweden's ruling Social Democrats are expected to decide on Sunday whether to overturn decades of opposition to NATO membership, a move that would almost certainly lead to Stockholm also asking to join the 30-nation alliance. read more

Moscow has warned it could deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the European exclave of Kaliningrad if the two countries pursue their applications, auguring a tense wait during the months needed for ratification by all NATO members. read more

NATO and the White House have said they were confident any security concerns could be tackled in the interim. read more

Here are some issues that prompted a radical policy rethink and possible next steps towards entering the U.S.-led alliance.

WHY ARE SWEDEN AND FINLAND NOT NATO MEMBERS?

- Both have been non-aligned since World War Two despite having small military forces.

- Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917 and fought two wars against it during the war, in which it lost some territory to Moscow. Finland signed an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with Russia in 1948, cementing a degree of economic and political dependency and isolating it militarily from western Europe.

- The end of the Cold War, bringing a break-up of the Soviet Union, allowed Finland to step out of Russia's shadow as the threat from Moscow diminished.

- It has relied on its own military deterrence and friendly relations with Moscow to keep the peace. But with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a "special operation", Russian President Vladimir Putin looks anything but friendly.

- Sweden has not fought a war for 200 years and post-war foreign policy has focused on supporting democracy internationally, multilateral dialogue and nuclear disarmament.

- It ran down its military after the Cold War, hoping in the event of any conflict it could delay a Russian advance until help arrived. Putin's offensive against Ukraine has made a guarantee of aid much more appealing.

- However, many on the left in Sweden remain suspicious of the U.S. security agenda and NATO, which ultimately relies on the deterrence provided by the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

- Both Finland and Sweden switched from formal neutrality to military non-alignment in 1995 when they joined the European Union.

- Both have drawn ever closer to NATO in recent years, exchanging intelligence and participating in alliance exercises, in response to an increasingly belligerent Russia.

- Joining the alliance would bring Sweden and Finland under the umbrella of Article 5, which guarantees that an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all.

HOW BROAD IS SUPPORT FOR NATO MEMBERSHIP?

- Polls show a substantial majority of Swedes back joining NATO with support running just above 60% in the latest poll and there is a majority in parliament in support of an application. read more

- Sweden's Social Democrats - the biggest party, which has held power for most of the last century - has long championed military non-alignment but has been reviewing its objections with a decision on whether to join now due on Sunday. The party is widely expected to back membership.

- The Swedish Left Party - formerly the communist party - remains against membership, as does the Green Party, but were the Social Democrats to change tack, that would create an overwhelming majority in parliament in favour.

- Opinion polls show support for membership in Finland has run even stronger than in Sweden, with many Finns mindful of the long land border shared with Russia, while support in parliament for an application is also broad.

- The Finnish parliament's defence committee said this week that joining NATO was the best option to guarantee national security. read more

WHEN COULD THEY JOIN?

- Finland has a NATO "option", a kind of a plan of action that mandates applying if the security situation deteriorates, while Sweden's parliament will present a new security policy review on Friday, though the latter is not expected to contain an explicit recommendation concerning NATO.

- Sweden's Social Democrats have called a parliamentary debate on NATO for Monday. Should the party as expected back joining, the government could call a Riksdag vote about sending through an application, but it is not formally required to.

- Social Democrat Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who heads Finland's five-party centre-left coalition, and President Sauli Niinisto have been touring NATO member countries in recent weeks securing support for a potential application.

- Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, also a Social Democrat, has likewise held scores of meetings with NATO governments.

- While there is no set timeframe for the applications, here are the steps in NATO's membership process that would apply for Helsinki and Stockholm: read more

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Reporting by Simon Johnson and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm and Anne Kauranen in Helsinki; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Clarence Fernandez

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