Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly pointed to NATO’s encroachment on his country’s borders as a reason for invading Ukraine. But if that were, indeed, his true aim, then Putin has failed spectacularly.
Not only have NATO countries moved tens of thousands of troops closer to Russia’s border in response to his invasion and agreed to send tens of billions worth of arms to Ukraine, they are also now about to welcome Finland and Sweden as new members, bringing NATO that much closer to Russia.
However, the two countries’ march toward membership has exacted little debate within NATO so far. And membership in a military alliance like NATO is a serious matter that deserves more consideration than it has seen to date. Specifically, what impact will Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO have on European security? How would NATO defend both countries? And what would they contribute to NATO security?
Whether NATO enlargement contributes to European security has been hotly debated ever since the end of the Cold War. Even some strong supporters of NATO have argued that enlargement would be too provocative toward Russia. And, indeed, it was concern about Moscow’s reaction that stymied Ukraine’s efforts to join the alliance over the past 15 years.
Yet, it wasn’t Kyiv’s desire to join NATO that led Russia to go to war against Ukraine. Rather, it was NATO’s absence from Ukraine that enabled it to invade. Had Ukraine been in NATO, Russia would have had to go to war against the entire alliance, including the United States. That is the lesson Stockholm and Helsinki — and NATO — have now drawn.
Of course, Moscow has threatened to take retaliatory steps — including deploying nuclear weapons in the Baltic region — were the two countries to join. But that’s mainly bluster, since Russia deployed nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, the Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea, long before the war. And the Kola Peninsula in northern Russia hosts one of the largest concentrations of nuclear weapons on earth.
Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership will undoubtedly draw a bigger and bolder line dividing Europe, and more than double the amount of NATO territory bordering Russia. But that’s Moscow’s doing, not NATO’s.
Additionally, NATO membership comes with responsibilities, and by admitting Finland and Sweden, the 30 current members commit themselves to defending both countries in case of an armed attack. That commitment is particularly important at two stages of the process — before final ratification of their membership and after.
Along these lines, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has already hinted that it “will find ways to address [security] concerns . . . regarding the period between the potential application, and the final ratification.” Individual members have gone even further to reassure both countries: As EU members, Finland and Sweden enjoy a mutual defense guarantee under the Lisbon Treaties. The United Kingdom has signed mutual defense agreements with both countries in recent days, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promising to defend both countries if they come under attack.
The U.S. has also quietly reassured both countries that it takes their security seriously. But there is a good argument to be made for Washington to go further still and publicly declare that once an invitation is issued by NATO, it’s willing to come to both Finland’s and Sweden’s defense in the same way it would once they are full members.
As full members, both countries will be covered by the Article 5 guarantee that “an armed attack against one is an armed attack against all.” So, NATO will have to develop detailed contingency plans for defending both countries — something it failed to do for many years after the Baltic countries joined NATO in 2004. Separately, NATO and its new members will also need to consider whether to deploy alliance forces on their territory in peacetime — an issue that now tops NATO’s agenda when it comes to Eastern Europe as well.
Finland and Sweden will also bring major military capabilities to the alliance as new members, capabilities that enhance not only their own national defense but that of the rest of NATO as well. Both countries have long invested in land, sea and air forces that are as good and well-trained as the best European militaries. And both have participated in NATO military operations in the past, adopting NATO communications and other facets to ensure their interoperability long ago.
Perhaps most significantly, however, their accession will bolster security in Northern Europe and the Baltic region. The gap in Northern Europe that existed between Iceland, Norway and Denmark as founding members on the one hand, and Sweden and Finland on the other, will now close. And the same goes for the Baltic Sea, as its shores will be in NATO countries, except for two small outlets into Russia and Kaliningrad.
Putin’s war on Ukraine has revitalized NATO in ways few could have predicted before its onset. Finland has just officially announced its decision to join the alliance, with Sweden expected to follow suit in the coming days, and by all appearances, all 30 members are prepared to issue them an invitation for them to join NATO in a matter of weeks.
Bringing in both countries will only further strengthen an alliance that is now well into its eighth decade of successfully underwriting Europe’s security.