Putin wanted to block Ukrainian NATO membership. Now more countries are eager to join

Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s brutal campaign to deter Ukrainian admission to NATO has inadvertently boosted the military alliance’s popularity among other prospective member states.

As Russia’s assault on its neighbor intensifies, nearby Finland and Sweden are rethinking their long-standing positions of military neutrality, with a majority of voters now favoring membership of the 30-member alliance for the first time.

In opinion polls released Friday, half (51%) of Swedes and 48% of Finns said they would support their country joining NATO, while around one-quarter opposed it. An earlier poll conducted in February indicated majority Finnish support too.

Speaking to CNBC Monday, Finland’s former prime minister said the recent Finnish poll represents a “reversal” in public opinion reflecting the “rational fear” currently felt by the public.

“[It’s] fear of an aggressive superpower in the form of Russia. Fear of an aggressor and a military power,” Alexander Stubb told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe.”

A complex process

Prospective NATO members can apply to the defense bloc by meeting certain political and economic requirements, with eventual admittance being voted on by existing member states.

However, any move for the two Nordic states to join is unlikely to be speedy or straightforward.

Right now, we do not want to escalate the crisis or the war up here to the northeastern part of Europe.

Alexander Stubb

professor and director, European University Institute

Putin has long viewed NATO’s refusal to block its neighbor, Ukraine, from the alliance as an act of military aggression, listing it among a series of preconditions for halting his current assault. Admitting Finland — which shares a 1,300 kilometer land border with Russia, the European Union’s largest — or Sweden would likely be met with similar resistance.

Indeed, Russia’s defense minister has previously said such moves would be met with military consequences. Already, Russian warplanes have reportedly been intruding into Swedish airspace.

Jeff Overs | BBC News & Current Affairs | Getty Images

Authorities in Sweden and Finland have so far shown no signs of testing that resolve.

Sweden’s Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told reporters last week that despite deepening its cooperation with NATO, it would not change its position overnight based solely on opinion polls.

Meanwhile, Stubb, who served from 2014 to 2015, said the current government was increasing military spending but stopping short of NATO membership.

“Right now, we do not want to escalate the crisis or the war up here to the northeastern part of Europe,” said Stubb, who is currently a professor and director of transnational governance at the European University Institute.

Still, the shift in public mood is a historic one for two countries with previously amicable relations with Russia, and another potential miscalculation in Putin’s war.

“I predict that as the war is prolonged, day by day, support for Finnish NATO membership will increase,” said Stubb.

“The train has left the station,” he added.