BRUSSELS: Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the NATO alliance on Wednesday (May 18), a decision spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and setting in motion an accession process that is expected to take only a few weeks.
Sweden and Finland were both neutral throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join NATO is one of the most significant changes in Europe's security architecture for decades, reflecting a sweeping shift in public opinion in the Nordic region since Russia's Feb 24 invasion.
"This is a historic moment, which we must seize," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a short ceremony in which the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the alliance handed over their application letters, each in a white folder embossed with their national flag.
"I warmly welcome requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO will increase our shared security," Stoltenberg said. The alliance considers that the accession of Finland and Sweden would hugely strengthen it in the Baltic Sea.
Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say.
Both countries announced theirs bids to join NATO on Wednesday despite Turkey's threat to block the military alliance's expansion.
Finland, which shares a 1,300km border with Russia, and Sweden have been rattled by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
Their applications will jettison decades of military non-alignment to join the alliance as a defence against feared aggression from Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday warned NATO's expansion may trigger a response from Moscow.
But the main obstacle to Finland and Sweden's membership comes from within the alliance, despite Stoltenberg repeatedly insisting the two countries would be welcomed "with open arms".
Turkey has accused Sweden and Finland of acting as a hotbed for terrorist groups and its president insists Ankara will not approve expansion.
Any membership bid must be unanimously approved by NATO's 30 members.
Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that he thought the issues could be resolved.
"We are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions," Stoltenberg said, noting strong support from all other allies.
NATO ambassadors are expected to discuss the applications on Wednesday and could give the green light on opening formal talks with the pair on their bids.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto are to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington Thursday to discuss their historic bids.
Several NATO allies, most notably Britain, have offered security assurances to Finland and Sweden during the application period before they are covered by alliance's mutual defence pact.
"Over the past few days we have seen numerous statements by allies committing to Finland and Sweden's security. NATO is already vigilant in the Baltic Sea region and NATO and allies forces will continue to adapt as necessary," Stoltenberg said.