A border crossing between Finland and Russia. Tensions are rising between the two countries since Finland applied to join NATO, along with Sweden. Photo: WikiCommons

On Wednesday in Brussels, the governments of Sweden and Finland submitted their applications to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

In a statement released on May 16, the Swedish government said: “The government’s assessment is that NATO membership is the best way to protect Sweden’s security in light of the fundamentally changed security environment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

As of now, it is widely expected that the two countries will become the 31st and 32nd members of the military alliance. Yet a number of think tank scholars and former US officials have expressed skepticism as to whether the decision on the part of the two Nordic countries was either necessary or, given Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine over the past 12 weeks, wise.

Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told me this week that in his view “the addition of new members does not necessarily improve the alliance’s effectiveness. If even a single country disagrees, about, for example, the nature of a particular threat, or the best means for addressing that threat, then that could impede or delay a timely response. This is true for the addition of any member to NATO – or any other club or group, for that matter.”

Preble’s skepticism was seconded by the Center for the National Interest’s National Security Fellow Sumatra Maitra, who forcefully pushed back on the idea that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes it imperative that Sweden and Finland join the alliance. 

According to Maitra, “it is baffling that at a time of realism’s triumph, we are determined to double down on the NATO enlargement mistake. The public doesn’t care much, Russia is incapable of controlling even Donbas, much less conquer Kiev or Ukraine, or threaten the rest of Europe.”

Maitra continued, noting that Europe “… is perfectly capable of balancing Russia, and this is a golden opportunity for the US to buck-pass the security burden of the continent to continentals, instead of adding more commitment. It is also a chance to have a grand bargain to permanently neuter Russia, have a balance of power in Europe, and focus on China.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gives a press conference during a NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels on June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

A startling about-face

The decision by Sweden and Finland to apply for membership is a startling about-face for the two countries which, up until now, had been able to usefully leverage their neutral status as forces for conciliation and compromise on the world stage. 

Some believe that the move may provoke Russian aggression on the 800-mile-long border with Finland because the move is such a powerful and public repudiation of the terms of the 1992 Friendship Treaty between Helsinki and Moscow. 

If Sweden and Finland have seemed not to have taken Russia’s potential aggressive reaction into account, the alliance, particularly the Germans and Americans who appear to be among the loudest cheerleaders for yet another round of expansion, seem to be blissfully unaware that this potentially gives Russia an opportunity to expose NATO’s Achilles’ heel, the Article 5 pledge that “an attack on one is an attack on all”, for what it really is.

As former French President Charles de Gaulle knew only too well, the guarantee is and remains meaningless in the absence of a willingness on the part of the US to trade New York or Chicago for Paris in the event of a nuclear exchange. 

As Preble notes, Finland’s accession brings with it “the practical matter of defending a very long Finnish border against a potentially revanchist Russia, and what it will cost US taxpayers.

“It seems unlikely that the mere threat of nuclear retaliation through the US extended deterrent will be sufficient. This will therefore impose additional demands for US conventional forces in Eastern Europe, perhaps right up to Russia’s border.

“Americans should better understand what will be required to carry out such a mission, which is effectively open-ended.” 

And then there is the question of the unanimity required in Article 10 of the NATO Treaty for new members to come on board. Both Hungry and Turkey have expressed reluctance.

According to Maitra, for them “it’s a matter of the right price. While they have not made any decisions yet, they are prudent enough to know they can be bought.

“The decision to admit Finland and Sweden has already been made, and history will tell that adding commitments in Europe when we should be shedding them, is a major folly, with inflation and Balkanization at home, and a rising peer rival in Asia.”

James Carden

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.