One of President Vladimir Putin’s goals during his invasion of Ukraine was to upset the balance of military power in Europe. Mr. Putin achieved this goal, but certainly not in the way he had planned.
Instead of bolstering Russia and pushing NATO back to its Soviet-era borders, Mr Putin now faces an alliance that is more united than at any time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, more determined to curb Russian revanchism and – with two major Northern European powers, Sweden and Finland, vying for membership – more formidable as an adversary. At the NATO summit in Madrid this week, the way now seems clear for the alliance to expand and encompass these two nations.
But in the rush to counter Mr. Putin and deter Russia from such aggression, the United States and its allies must not lose sight of the fateful choices it is about to make. They should take a clear and sober look at what they really want their alliance to be and what inviting Sweden and Finland entails. The heart of the covenant, article 5, commits each member to defend any member.
Answering some of the alliance’s existential questions also means convincing Americans that an enlarged NATO is worth the potential costs. A Eurasia Group Foundation poll released following the end of the war in Afghanistan found that the American public was about evenly split on whether to go to war over an existing NATO member.
Some NATO expansions have come after serious debate in the US Senate, with lawmakers raising valid concerns about the alliance. For example: if its unanimous consent requirement has become unwieldy with now dozens of nations as voting members. Other concerns include the cost of US military deployments, although unlike joining smaller nations with small armies, Sweden and Finland would significantly increase NATO’s firepower. Other critics have questioned whether Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which declares an act of aggression against one member to be an act against the whole alliance, deprives Congress of its legitimate role in declaring of war.
Without the war in Ukraine, NATO enlargement to the Nordic countries was not on anyone’s radar. Sweden had not fought a war for 200 years and Finland had long cultivated a policy of military non-alignment, despite both nations being members of the European Union. But the Russian invasion changed public attitudes quickly and dramatically. Both countries immediately sent supplies and weapons to Ukraine. Public opinion polls in Finland and Sweden at the start of the war found support for NATO membership at 65% in Finland and 57% in Sweden. Both nations have strong armies that could easily be integrated into NATO operations, and both nations are strong democracies, a prerequisite for membership.
The process of joining NATO is not automatic. New member states require the unanimous consent of NATO’s current 30 member states. In the United States, enlargement will require the support of at least 67 senators. Still, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he expects the two countries to have a quick ascension process, especially with Turkey dropping its objections on Tuesday. Sweden and Finland are both part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a kind of associate member status.
The summit discussion on a bigger and stronger NATO is taking place against the backdrop of a new strategic concept document for the alliance – a vision of its trajectory for the next decade. Just a year ago, this document was poised to focus more broadly on China, climate change and cybersecurity – important priorities for sure, but superseded by events on the ground that create an opportunity for the alliance to concentrate on its core mission of safeguarding freedom and security in Europe by political and military means. The updated strategy also rightly addresses new forms of warfare, ranging from cyber and artificial intelligence to disinformation.
The changes to NATO will help European member states focus their attention on the security challenges facing the continent, and should also emphasize that all members must pay their fair share. For years, US presidents have relied on Europe to spend more on its own defense. NATO countries aim to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. Yet few nations meet this moderate threshold, leading to widespread sentiment that Americans are subsidizing European defense and freeing up these governments to spend more money on things like generous welfare states. Donald Trump, mercurial statesman that he was, was not wrong to criticize NATO partners for not shouldering their share of the defense burden.
The price of Europe’s military underinvestment became clear when Russian tanks and artillery began rolling in. Just days into the war, Germany announced it would increase its military budget by $105 billion, a much-needed injection of cash into a long-neglected fighting force. “For a long time, we believed that economic strength was enough. But the events of the past few weeks have shown that we also need a strong army,” a retired German officer told The Times.
The Russian government has warned of serious consequences if Finland and Sweden join the alliance, including the deployment of additional troops in the Baltic region, although it has also sent signals that it is resigned to enlargement. Finland and Russia share an 810-mile border and the Kola Peninsula is home to Russia’s Northern Fleet. St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest metropolis, is only 100 miles from the Finnish border. And yet, Russia is already violating the airspace of its neighbors and carrying out devastating cyberattacks. Moreover, Mr. Putin probably explains that the two countries have long been closely integrated into NATO, even if they are not official members.
Sweden and Finland will bring to the NATO alliance large modern and highly professional military forces, in particular submarines and fighter jets. (Finland is helping build the F-35, a next-generation fighter jet, as part of a consortium of the United States and a dozen other nations.) Finnish and Swedish forces are already conducting exercises with NATO troops, and much of the equipment is interoperable. And both nations are at the forefront of European efforts to tackle misinformation from Russia.
You don’t have to side with Mr. Putin or approve of his actions to understand why a Russian leader would be concerned about a military alliance stretching to the country’s border. Yet the list of Russian provocations (election interference in the United States, Britain and Spain; invasions of Crimea and Georgia; and a campaign of assassinations using chemical weapons, to name a few to name just a few) is now so long and the legitimate threat it poses to Europe is so acute that the desire of Finns and Swedes to protect themselves under the NATO umbrella is quite understandable.
Mr. Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine is changing the security balance in Europe, but not in the way he imagined. At this fateful moment, NATO must take a serious look not only at deterring Russia, but also at itself, its purpose, and its willingness to truly share this burden.