Is it worth provoking Putin to add Sweden and Finland to NATO?

·Senior Editor
·7-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Sweden and Finland, two European nations that have long valued strategic neutrality, appear to be inching closer to joining NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The security landscape has completely changed,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters last week at a meeting with her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin. Andersson’s recent comments represent a significant shift in her view on the value of NATO membership. Early last month, she said that Sweden joining the alliance would “further destabilize this area of Europe and increase tensions.”

Andersson’s change in opinion is indicative of evolving views among the citizens of both countries in reaction to the steady stream of horrifying news out of Ukraine. In a recent poll, 68% of Finns said they support joining NATO, up from just 24% last year. For the first time ever, a majority of Swedes said they also favor joining, according to a poll released this week.

Although both nations have deep cultural and economic ties with Europe, Finland and Sweden have historically declined to pursue NATO membership — even as more than a dozen countries in eastern Europe have joined the alliance since the fall of the Soviet Union. Sweden’s resistance is rooted in its policy of neutrality, which dates back to the early 1800s. After fighting off a Soviet invasion during World War II, Finland established a formally neutral position, largely to avoid provoking further aggression.

Formed in the aftermath of World War II, NATO is a military alliance built on the principle of collective defense — meaning that all NATO countries agree to come to the defense of any individual member that comes under attack. Russia considers NATO to be a direct threat, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said the possibility that Ukraine might join motivated his decision to launch the Russian invasion. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has warned of “serious military and political consequences” if Sweden and Finland join the alliance.

Why there’s debate

Supporters say there are clear benefits to adding Sweden and Finland to NATO. They argue that the invasion serves as a startling reminder of how dangerous it can be for countries on Russia’s borders. If they were NATO members, the two Nordic countries would have the force of some of the world’s most powerful militaries — including the U.S. — as a bulwark against any Russian incursion.

Some defense analysts believe NATO and its members have plenty to gain by bringing in Sweden and Finland. Though both nations are relatively small, experts say their militaries are still formidable. The two countries would also provide a valuable strategic foothold along Russia’s northwest flank, particularly along Finland’s 830-mile border with Russia. Others say expanding NATO would be yet another nonmilitary means of punishing Putin for his assault on Ukraine.

But skeptics worry about potential retaliation from Putin, particularly at a time when he’s vulnerable and liable to lash out. Some also argue that increasing NATO’s foothold along Russia’s border would create opportunities for conflict that could spiral into another world war.

There are also those who believe that NATO shouldn't exist at all. Some on the right believe that the alliance allows smaller nations to neglect their own defense capabilities, knowing that major powers will come to their rescue. Observers on the far left, on the other hand, say that anything that promotes military force over nonviolent forms of collaboration is ultimately harmful to the world.

What’s next

There are two major steps that need to be taken before Sweden and Finland could become part of NATO. First, their Parliaments would have to formally vote to join. Then, the legislatures of each of the 30 current NATO countries would have to approve their membership — a process that has taken about a year in the recent past.

Perspectives

Supporters

The war in Ukraine has made it obvious why Sweden and Finland should join

“Who can blame the Finns and the Swedes for wanting to jump right in? … After seeing what's happening to Ukraine, they don’t want to be the next Ukraine. And it’s clear that Putin does not want to challenge any of the NATO countries directly.” — Kevin Baron, Defense One executive editor, to MSNBC

Russia probably isn’t willing to go to war to keep Sweden and Finland out of NATO

“Putin views Finland and Sweden differently than Ukraine because of their different histories. Ukraine is seen as part of an imagined ‘Russian world’ by Putin. Sweden and Finland are, therefore, less comparable to Ukraine, beyond their proximity to Russia.” — Thomas O Falk, Al Jazeera

Adding new NATO members is a sound, nonmilitary way to punish Russia

“It would be a dramatic reversal of fortunes and would demonstrate the agility of the liberal democratic countries in applying the diplomatic element of power, well below the threshold of war, that gray-zone space in which Russia — and, for that matter, China — has been so nimble in the recent past.” — Michael Miklaucic, The Hill

Both countries would bring plenty of benefits to the NATO alliance

“Finland and Sweden wouldn’t be alliance freeloaders. Their strategic location in the Baltic Sea could be critical in a wider conflict with Russia. Finland already punches above its weight militarily, and wealthy Sweden can afford its announced defense-spending increases. A secure Europe better capable of defending itself serves American interests.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Ukraine is a reminder of our responsibility to protect each other

“Ukraine is a game-changer in European security. The real threat to fellow member-states leaves us all with no option but to look again at how we see our responsibilities to one another.” — Editorial, Irish Times

NATO membership would have saved Ukraine

“If only NATO was more popular amongst Ukrainians and properly marketed as a security guarantee against Russia, Ukraine could have been saved from eight or more years of violence and suffering. The lesson to be learned is that NATO did not enlarge far or fast enough.” — Daniel Ramallo, National Interest

Skeptics

Russia might attack to keep Sweden and Finland out

“Would Russia seriously consider an attack on Finland or Sweden? While it may seem unlikely, the West should not underestimate the possibility that Mr. Putin, feeling isolated, backed into a corner, and under a time constraint, may make an otherwise rash decision.” — Sascha Glaeser, Washington Times

A greater NATO presence on Russia’s border increases the odds of catastrophic conflict

“Finland—if it allows NATO bases, troops, and weaponry within its borders—could permanently heighten the hair-trigger environment that now exists between the Kremlin and Washington.” — Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy

NATO’s expansion after the Cold War inspired Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

“If there had been no decision to move NATO eastward to include Ukraine, Crimea and the Donbass would be part of Ukraine today, and there would be no war in Ukraine.” — John Mearsheimer, political scientist, to New Yorker

NATO makes the world less safe

“To the degree that this rudderless security pact has made war easier, more salable, and more attractive for Western leaders than diplomacy, the alliance has been a liability to peace and stability.” — Chase Madar, The Nation

Greater militarism will never create a path to peace

“Europe goes ahead and arms itself to the teeth to protect itself. … So therefore, [Russia says] we have to arm ourselves to the teeth to defend ourselves from the onslaught of this extraordinarily powerful force against NATO. I mean, if anybody’s observing this from outer space, they’d be cracking up in laughter.” — Noam Chomsky, linguist and political commentator, to Intercept

The U.S. shouldn’t sign up to protect even more weak countries

“We have to understand that nothing is done in a vacuum, and for Finland and Sweden to be added to NATO adds a burden to the entire alliance. … And it adds yet another level of potential risk for the United States.” — Daniel Davis, foreign policy expert, to The Hill

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images (2)

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