Finland and Sweden have signaled their intent to apply for NATO membership as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth month. In their blind desire to stick it to Pyootin and the Russkies, American policy makers and Western leaders across the ideological spectrum have come out in support of the two countries’ NATO bid.
But letting Finland and Sweden join NATO is not a no-brainer, nor a foregone conclusion. Not only would the move upend the decades-long policy of neutrality that has allowed the Nordic region to thrive, it would more than double NATO’s current border with Russia, allow more security dependents to free-ride off of American security, and likely require America to increase its military footprint in Europe, all while increasing the possibility of a nuclear World War III.
A joint statement from Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin Thursday pledged the pair’s support for Finland’s NATO-membership application.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance,” the statement read. “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”
On Sunday, the Social Democratic Party that currently controls the Swedish government announced it will vote in favor of submitting an application to join NATO.
“We Social Democrats believe the best for Sweden and the Swedish people’s security is to join NATO,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, in a press conference announcing the decision. “Military nonalignment has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it won’t serve us equally well in the future,” she continued, adding that “this is not a decision to be taken lightly.”
It’s quite the shift in the span of just over two months. As recently as March 8, Andersson came out against a Swedish bid to join the alliance. “If Sweden were to choose to send in an application to join NATO in the current situation, it would further destabilize this area of Europe and increase tensions,” she told members of the media at the time.
By mid April, Andersson pivoted to being open to NATO membership, claiming there is “no other way to have security guarantees than under NATO’s deterrence and common defense.”
Though Finland and Sweden applied to join the European Union in 1992, entered NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, and continue to partake in military exercises with NATO outfits, both countries are still more or less considered neutral parties in Eurasian geopolitics. The two countries’ joining NATO would drop all pretense of neutrality.
Despite her statement on March 8, Andersson tried to cover for her dramatic policy shift.
“There is a before and after 24 February, the security landscape has completely changed,” the prime minister stated. “Given the situation, we have to really think [about] what is best for Sweden and our peace in this new situation.”
While the Swedish population is not as gung-ho about joining NATO as their Finnish neighbors, public opinion on the military alliance has changed dramatically since Russia invaded Ukraine. Before the war, just over a quarter of Swedes supported joining NATO. Today, that figure is 52 percent. Only 20 percent of Finns believed their country should pursue NATO membership before the war; that figure has since quadrupled to 80 percent.
In order for Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, each of the 30 member states need to unanimously agree on their accession. Thus far, the two Nordic countries’ expressed desire to join the security umbrella has been abundantly praised by several Western leaders and prominent U.S. politicians.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels that “should Finland decide to apply, they would be warmly welcomed into NATO, and the accession process would be smooth and swift.” Europe’s core is lining up to make good on Stoltenberg’s prediction. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, appearing alongside Marin and Andersson during a press conference at Schloss Meseberg, told members of the media the two countries “can count” on Germany if they were to apply for NATO membership.
“For us it is clear: If these two countries decide that they want to be part of the NATO alliance, then they can count on our support,” the chancellor said.
France and the U.K. have also separately entered into defense agreements with Finland and Sweden while the Nordic nations undertake the NATO application process. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the agreement marked “a step-change in defense and security cooperation” between the U.K. and the two Nordic countries.
“What it says is that in the event of a disaster, or in the event of an attack on either of us, then we will come to each other’s assistance, including with military assistance,” Johnson said, describing the agreement during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland. Whether that means British boots on the ground in the unthinkable event that Russia were to invade Finland, Johnson said that depends on the “request of the other party.”
The U.S. has also pledged its support to defend Sweden and Finland during the NATO-accession process—a process U.S. politicians are looking to make as swift as possible. For the U.S. to sign off on Finland and Sweden’s entrance into NATO, two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote in favor, which seems likely given statements from Democratic and Republican senators.
Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, released a May 12 statement in support of Finland’s bid to join NATO:
The United States should welcome Finland into the NATO alliance with open arms. Finland has a proud history of resisting Russian aggression and will be a valuable ally in Europe. Finland’s military will soon exceed NATO military spending requirements and averages, demonstrating its ability to contribute to the alliance. I urge President Biden and the Senate to act quickly in support of our Finnish friends.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez proclaimed during a recent Senate hearing that the committee “is already working to ensure swift consideration” for the two nations’ bid to join NATO. Republican Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, echoed Menendez’s zeal, calling Finland and Sweden’s NATO ambitions “a tremendous step forward in the future of transatlantic security.”
“The decision to move toward NATO membership is a serious one, and I extend my commitment to support Finland through this process,” Risch said on Twitter.
But it might not be smooth sailing for Finland and Sweden into NATO after all. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, would not support Finland and Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. Erdogan’s rationale, given to reporters in Istanbul on Friday, was that the two Nordic nations are “home to many terrorist organizations.”
Previously, Turkey has been critical of Sweden and other European nations for backing Kurdish militant groups, namely the PKK and YPG, as well as lending their support to followers of U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan believes attempted a coup in 2016. Thus, Erdogan said his country is “following the developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we don’t hold positive views.”
“As Turkey, we don’t want to repeat similar mistakes. Furthermore, Scandinavian countries are guesthouses for terrorist organizations,” the Turkish president said. “They are even members of the parliament in some countries. It is not possible for us to be in favor.”
While this could be part of the rationale for Turkey’s rejection of NATO enlargement, it certainly isn’t the whole story. In recent years, Turkey has come under fire from the U.S. and other NATO countries in response to its purchase of Russian defense systems and Russian energy.
Even prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Finland and Sweden there would be “retaliation” if they attempted to join NATO. After Finland announced it would pursue NATO membership, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement:
For decades, the policy of military non-alignment served as the basis for stability in the Northern European region, provided a reliable level of security for the Finnish state, and was a solid basis for building mutually beneficial cooperation and partnerships between our countries, in which the role of the military factor was reduced to zero.
Neither Russia’s assurances of the absence of any hostile intentions towards Finland, nor the long history of good-neighborly and mutually beneficial cooperation between our countries convinced Helsinki of the advantages of maintaining a policy of military non-alignment.
“The goal of NATO,” the Russian Foreign Ministry continued, is “to continue expanding towards the borders of Russia, to create another flank for a military threat to our country.”
“Finland’s accession to NATO will cause serious damage to bilateral Russian-Finnish relations, maintaining stability and security in the Northern European region,” the statement added. “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 arising in this regard.”
On Monday, after Sweden made its intent to join NATO clear, Putin seemed to understate the significance of the development, telling other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that Russia “does not have a problem” with Sweden or Finland applying for NATO. Putin did, however, add that “the expansion of military infrastructure onto this territory will of course give rise to our reaction in response.”
It’s possible that Putin is downplaying the possibility of Finland and Sweden joining NATO because he believes Turkey will ultimately prevent the two nations from joining. But even without full NATO membership, the various security agreements the two Nordic countries have already struck with the West’s most powerful militaries means that Sweden and Finland are more or less acting with strong security assurances, even if those assurances don’t match NATO’s Article 5 guarantees.
But either scenario—Finland or Sweden actually attaining NATO membership or instead relying on security agreements from large Western powers—cuts against the U.S. national interest.
Dan Caldwell, vice president of Foreign Policy to Stand Together, told The American Conservative in a phone interview that he “understand[s] why Finland and Sweden want to be part of NATO in the long run.”
“They want the American security umbrella. They want the benefits that come with being part of a collective security alliance with the United States.” Specifically, Caldwell said these countries want to be under America’s “nuclear umbrella.”
While, from a Finnish and Swedish perspective, the pros of NATO membership may outweigh the cons, Caldwell says that’s not the task of American policymakers.
“It is critical that American policymakers look at this through the prism of ‘how does this enhance American security, not just simply NATO or European security?’” Caldwell told TAC. “I do not see how adding two more wealthy, European welfare states to the American security umbrella, which includes our nuclear deterrence, is currently in America’s interests.”
“Both countries were not a part of NATO when there was a greater threat from the Soviet Union,” Caldwell said, adding that even during the height of the Cold War, “these two countries have been safe and prosperous without being part of NATO.” For America’s part, it’s been perfectly safe without mutual security guarantees from Finland or Sweden.
Even before the Cold War ended, Russia has warned the United States about NATO expansion. U.S. diplomats have paid lip service to Russia’s concerns without taking any action. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s promise that NATO would move “not one inch” eastward comes to mind. Since, NATO has expanded five times and nearly doubled in size.
Some have sought to justify NATO expansion on the grounds that NATO is purely a defensive alliance. That may have been the case during the height of the Cold War, but, in the more than three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the alliance has attempted to remain relevant and find a new identity not through pure defensive posturing, but instead through area campaigns and peace-keeping operations. All the while, NATO expansions in the late ’90s and early 2000s moved NATO’s growing number of bases right up to Russia’s doorstep, with military equipment trained on Moscow.
Allowing Finland and Sweden to enter the alliance would more than double the size of the border NATO countries share with Russia; Finland and Russia’s border spans some 830 miles. Between Finland and Norway, one of the alliance’s founding members, NATO will have a continuous border with Russia running from the Gulf of Finland to the Arctic’s Barents Sea. Adding these two Nordic countries to NATO’s ranks would take what is currently a stable, neutral border and turn every one of its 830 miles into a potential conflict zone.
In response to these concerns, defenders of NATO expansion double down. They argue, in light of Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine and the then-Soviet empire’s attempt to invade Finland, that adding Finland and Sweden to the alliance will quell Russia’s territorial ambitions in the Nordic region and reinforce the stability of the border between Russia and its Nordic neighbors.
While Finland was part of the Russian or Soviet empire at various points in its history, Russia does not have the extensive historical and cultural connections to Finland that it does to Ukraine, a Slavic country that to this day retains a large Russian minority.
Previous wars between Russia and Finland were born of the particular geopolitical contexts surrounding World Wars I and II. While neoconservatives may think it’s always August 1939, the geopolitical landscape has since changed immensely. In both wars, Finland dropped its policy of neutrality and sought the help of a larger foreign power, as it did when it allied with Nazi Germany in the Continuation War. Even in the conflicts where the Russians were able to defeat the Finns, their victories exacted a heavy toll and the territory they conquered proved too difficult to control. Finland and the other Nordic countries have always been most secure when they remain neutral players.
Like every other round of NATO expansion, allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO comes with the expectation that the alliance, particularly the U.S., has the security infrastructure in place to make good on their defense commitments.
Caldwell told TAC that American policymakers aren’t too keen on answering questions about how the U.S. would practically defend Finland and Sweden.
“To properly defend Finland and Sweden would require deploying more resources to Europe. Because the United States still comprises the bulk of the combat power of NATO, it would inevitably require a larger commitment to Europe at a time where we have a massive national debt, serious economic challenges at home, and other national security challenges in other parts of the world,” he said.
“Something we cannot ignore when we are talking about adding a country to NATO that shares almost a 900 mile-long border with Russia,” Caldwell added, is that Russia poses a serious nuclear threat. “They do not pose a conventional threat in any meaningful sense. A Russian army that cannot take Karkov cannot take Helsinki or Stockholm. They are not a conventional threat to the capitals of Eastern or Western Europe or the Nordic countries.” Therefore, he said, Russia is “going to rely more on their nuclear weapons to deter countries they view as threats, and that is an incredibly dangerous situation we find ourselves in.”
While Finland and Sweden “do have fairly competent militaries and large reserves,” Caldwell said, accepting the pair into NATO would “add two more members that aren’t even meeting the minimum threshold for defense spending.” As of 2020, Finland and Sweden spent 1.5 percent and 1.2 percent of their GDP on defense, respectively. Putting Finland and Sweden in NATO would further disincentivize those nations from investing in their own defense because they can free ride off of the American nuclear umbrella.
But Caldwell suggests there’s another way forward. “Both countries could drive the creation of a non-NATO European security architecture.” In doing so, “they can become better integrated with both NATO and non-NATO countries in Europe,” and “incentivize Europeans to take more responsibility for their security.” Not only are Finland and Sweden part of the E.U. but they are also part of the Nordic Defence Cooperation alliance along with Iceland, Norway, and Denmark.
American policymakers should welcome European states’ desire to get serious about their security, but shouldn’t force American taxpayers to provide the treasure, and American soldiers to provide the blood, to make that a reality.