One of the many justifications Vladimir Putin has offered for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that NATO’s post-Cold War eastward advance threatens Russia’s national security. But if he hoped his assault on Ukraine would push the transatlantic alliance onto the back foot, Finland and Sweden are about to disappoint him. Both are preparing to join NATO in coming months, instantly doubling the length of the border that separates Russia from the largest and most successful military alliance in history.
Many Americans may be surprised to learn that Russia’s large Nordic neighbors weren’t already members. Before and during World War II, Finland fought two wars with the Soviet Union that ended in stalemate. That allowed Finland to keep its independence in exchange for a pledge to remain neutral in the Cold War battle between East and West. For its part, Sweden has safeguarded neutrality as a central pillar of its foreign policy for 200 years.
After Soviet collapse, the two countries joined the European Union, but neither felt an urgent need to sign up for a post-Cold War military alliance whose continuing purpose was unclear. Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea persuaded both countries to build cooperation with NATO, but there was no groundswell of public opinion to join. That remained the case until Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Why would Finland and Sweden want to join now? Because growing numbers of voters in these countries are now convinced that NATO membership provides necessary and urgent protection. After all, Russia has harassed but not attacked former Soviet republics Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They are full NATO members. And non-alignment hasn’t spared Ukraine. “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was,” said Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin after its soldiers crossed Ukraine’s borders. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally,” read a statement from Sweden’s governing Social Democratic party earlier this month. “I do not really see how Sweden and Finland will be able to guarantee our security outside NATO when Russia is ready in 2022 to start completely unprovoked a full-scale war against a neighboring country,” wrote the political editor of a Swedish newspaper linked to that party, which has been historically reluctant to support joining NATO. Record numbers of people in both countries now favor NATO membership.
How quickly can they join? Finland will probably file a membership application before a NATO summit in Madrid on June 29. Sweden’s governing party has made clear its position that Sweden should follow Finland’s lead. The Biden administration and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have sent positive signals that their applications should be quickly accepted. A unanimous vote of all 30 current members will be required for acceptance. The only foreseeable opposition would come from Hungary’s Putin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban but, given the financial leverage that European officials continue to hold over Orban’s head and Orban’s willingness so far to support EU sanctions against Russia, he’s not likely to stop the process.
And from a military standpoint, the joint exercises Finland and Sweden have conducted since Russia’s 2014 invasion on Crimea have erased any possible concerns about the interoperability of Nordic and NATO forces. In addition, Finland already spends 2% of its GDP on defense, and Sweden appears headed in that direction.
NATO, Finland, and Sweden will have ample reason to accelerate the accession process. From the moment the two countries file membership applications until acceptance gives them formal NATO protection, Finland and Sweden will be especially vulnerable to various forms of Russian attack. Both countries and NATO will want to narrow that time window. As EU members, Finland and Sweden already have some protection from Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which requires all EU states to “aid and assist by all means” other members that are under attack, but NATO will still want to move quickly.
Speaking of Russia’s reaction, what’s it likely to be? Its effective options are pretty limited. Russia won’t be able to spare many troops to place in threatening positions near Nordic borders as long as the war in Ukraine grinds on. Russian officials have already warned that NATO membership for Sweden and Finland means that Russia will deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic region. That threat would mean more if Russia didn’t already have nuclear installations in its Kaliningrad region, which is less than 500 miles from both Helsinki and Stockholm.
Still, it’s a warning that will put Finns and Swedes on edge. Russia can train more cyberattacks on Finnish and Swedish government and big company networks. It can provoke both countries with submarine incursions into Nordic waters in the Baltic Sea and fighter jet intrusions into Finland and Sweden’s airspace. But Russia has done all these things in the past. The result of NATO expansion will likely be limited to heightened tensions of various kinds for the foreseeable future, but by itself it won’t heighten the risk of confrontation with Russia any higher than NATO support for Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia already have.
Yes, but… Further frustrations in Ukraine could darken Putin’s mood. In that case, another expansion of NATO can only add to the (already high) broader risk that Russia’s president, having lost face as the author of a massive strategic blunder in Ukraine, will find other ways to undermine Europe, America, and their alliance. And if the war in Ukraine begins to look like a defeat for Moscow, the risk that Putin will lash out in unexpectedly destructive ways can only rise. He’s already revealed himself to be both isolated from reality and reckless.
Still, Finland and Sweden now calculate that they’re better off within the transatlantic alliance than without its promises of protection.