Don’t Try Bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO
Dan Drezner has offered some proposals for what Western governments could do in response to Russian actions over the last year. This one stood out as a potentially very dangerous move:
Putin needs a Security Dilemma 101 class right damn now, which means he needs to know that offensive actions will trigger balancing coalitions. Finland and Sweden are the two most significant countries in Europe not in NATO. Over the past year, these Scandinavian countries have taken steps toward closer NATO ties. At a minimum, form an exploratory committee with them to see what NATO membership would entail.
It doesn’t seem smart to try bringing either of these states into NATO, but moving towards Finnish membership is by far the riskier of the two. We have a very good idea what Moscow thinks of NATO expansion along its borders, and by now we should understand very well the lengths to which Russia will go to keep its other neighbors out of what it considers to be a hostile military alliance. Drezner presents this as a sort of punishment for Russian behavior, but unfortunately that is where his proposal stops. Like previous arguments for expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, this proposal suffers from the failure to consider how Russia will react to what it is guaranteed to perceive as a threat. Putting Sweden and Finland on a path to NATO membership would also put these countries on a collision course with Russia, and when push comes to shove the U.S. and its allies aren’t going to fight for countries that they were content to leave outside of their alliance system during the Cold War.
Will Moreland laid out some of the dangers of NATO membership for Finland earlier this year:
Yet, despite Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb’s endorsement of the NATO option, Finland’s entrance into the alliance would constitute a strategic mistake. While Russia’s actions may rattle neighbors, Moscow possesses little reason to intervene in Finland as it did in Ukraine. Finnish membership in NATO, however, would create a military threat that Russia could not ignore, inadvertently placing Helsinki in Moscow’s crosshairs.
The good news is that the alliance and these two states aren’t likely to go through with it. There is no consensus in either country in favor of joining the alliance (though Swedish opinion has shifted significantly in that direction), and there is bound to be strong disagreement within NATO about any further expansion. The Finns are understandably the most skeptical, since they would be at the greatest risk and have no compelling reason to join. Fortunately, the U.S. and NATO aren’t going to be able to bring Finland into the alliance because most Finns don’t want to belong to it. To the extent that Western leaders can lure the Finnish government into contemplating such a move, it risks repeating the experience in Ukraine between 2004 and 2008 in which the country’s political leadership eagerly wanted to bring Ukraine into the alliance while most of the people in the country were firmly against it. Neutrality has served Sweden and Finland well for many decades, and they would be as unwise to join the alliance as the alliance would be to invite them.
P.S. The most recent polling from Finland I could find shows that 58% still oppose NATO membership as of last summer.