(CNSNews.com) – Finland has increased defense spending significantly in recent years, and it is now closer to NATO’s goal of devoting two percent of national GDP to military spending than more than two-thirds of the current members of the alliance it hopes to join.
Finnish defense spending has risen from 1.22 percent of its GDP in 2017 to 1.96 percent this year. With a government announcement last month of an additional two billion euros ($2.07 billion) for investment in defense over the next four years, it is in line to exceed the NATO two percent benchmark next year.
That puts it ahead of most of the 30 countries already in NATO.
In 2014, NATO’s then-28 members committed to ensure that their defense spending amounts to at least two percent of national GDP, by 2024. At the time only the U.S., Greece, and Britain were spending that amount or more.
Seven years on, the number in the now 30-strong alliance to have reached or exceeded the two percent of GDP target had risen to eight, according to estimates for 2021, released by NATO in March.
They are Greece (3.59 percent), the United States (3.57 percent), Poland (2.34 percent), Britain (2.25 percent), Croatia (2.16 percent), Estonia (2.16 percent), Latvia (2.16 percent), and Lithuania (2.03 percent).
(Defense spending in Germany, the European Union’s leading economy, stood at 1.49 percent in 2021, while France and Italy, which have the second and third-largest GDPs in the E.U., were at 1.93 and 1.54 percent respectively, according to the NATO estimates.)
Sweden, another prospective NATO aspirant, is further behind than Finland, although it too has increased military spending in recent years. Its defense budget for 2022 is estimated to be around 1.3 percent of GDP, up from 0.9 percent in 2015.
The Swedish government said last March it is aiming to achieve the two percent of GDP target. While the defense minister said it was too early to say how long that would take, the Swedish Armed Forces suggested last month that 2028 would be likely.
Finland and Sweden have both been militarily non-aligned for decades, but Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine since 2014, culminating in the invasion that began in February, has seen major shifts in public opinion in favor of joining NATO.
Finland’s president and prime minister on Thursday confirmed their backing for seeking NATO membership, and major political parties signaled their support, ahead of formal parliamentary approval.
Sweden is also expected to decide in the coming days whether to apply to join NATO.
If Finland and Sweden do formally apply and are admitted into NATO, the alliance’s mutual defense guarantees – an attack on one is considered an attack on all – will be extended to them.
At the same time, both are well placed to make an important contribution. They have effective and highly-regarded armed forces, which have trained and operated alongside NATO counterparts for many years – as “partners” rather than allies – and have contributed to NATO missions in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The 2022 Global Firepower index, comparing the strength of nations’ armed forces, places Sweden in 8th place in Europe (out of 37 countries, some of which are not in NATO), and Finland in 18th place.
Globally, the index ranks Sweden in 25th place and Finland in 53rd place out of 142 countries’ armed forces assessed.
Finland, which shares an 820-mile-long border with Russia, agreed late last year buy 64 F-35 stealth fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, to replace its ageing fleet of U.S. F-18 Hornets. The $9.4 billion deal was signed in February, with the first F-35s expected to be delivered in 2026.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday the U.S. would support NATO applications by Finland and Sweden if they formally apply to join, describing them as “thriving democracies” that have “worked closely with NATO for years.”
Asked whether President Biden is concerned that additional NATO expansion risks further provoking Russia, she reiterated that it is an defensive alliance and said it has “no aggressive intent at all.”
In its reaction to the announcement from Finland’s president and prime minister, Russia’s foreign ministry took a different view.
“The goal of NATO, whose member countries vigorously convinced the Finnish side that there was no alternative to membership in the alliance, is clear – to continue expanding towards the borders of Russia, to create another flank for a military threat to our country,” it said in a statement.
Finland joining NATO will seriously damage bilateral relations, the ministry said.
“Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security that arise in this regard.”