NATO should think twice before accepting Finland and Sweden

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One of the ironies of Russia’s war against Ukraine — ostensibly fought to prevent that country from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — was its impact on two of Europe’s traditionally neutral states, Finland and Sweden. On May 18, just 84 days after the invasion, Swedish and Finnish ambassadors handed over applications to join NATO in a public ceremony at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

“This is a historic moment that we must seize,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “You are our closest partners and your membership in NATO will enhance our shared security.” It seems likely that their applications will be approved soon and NATO will soon grow to 32 member states.

But in the rush to give Putin a black eye by embracing Finland and Sweden, US and NATO leaders may not consider the potential costs of including two more countries in what is, after all, intended to be a collective defense organization. .

There are only two clear advantages to bringing in the two Scandinavian countries. The first is symbolic: a clear demonstration of European and democratic solidarity against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. The second is technical: admitting Finland and Sweden would align NATO membership more closely with that of the EU, avoiding the unlikely but problematic scenario where an EU member state is exposed to aggression but not covered by the NATO treaty for mutual defense of Article 5 .

In every other respect, however, the issue of Finnish and Swedish membership is more complex and worrying. Consider the overall European defense capability.

Yes, Finland and Sweden have very advanced economies. Through national champions such as Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj, they could make a net contribution to NATO’s technological capabilities. They are also more militarily capable than some other European states, notably Finland, which has maintained conscription into the post-Cold War period and has a relatively wide range of military powers, including the continent’s largest artillery force.

But from the point of view of existing NATO members – especially the US – it is still not necessarily a victory. Finland and Sweden have long focused their armies on the defense of their own territories, expressing doubts about their value in contributing to a common defence, which is at the heart of the NATO charter.

And while both countries have pledged to increase their military spending and bolster Europe’s wider defenses, it’s also possible they wouldn’t. Instead, they can piggyback on America’s military strength — and its nuclear umbrella — as so many European states have done for years. Neither country comes close to NATO’s target of spending 2% of GDP on defense, according to the International Monetary Fund.

History suggests the most likely outcome is two more states increasing the US defense burden at a time when Washington should be turning to Asia.

Consider also the issue of the defensibility of new NATO territory. Admitting Sweden could be strategically beneficial, as NATO forces can better control the Baltic Sea and use the island of Gotland, a major bottleneck for the Baltic states, as a staging post for any future conflict.

Finnish territory, on the other hand, is a strategic nightmare. It would dramatically increase the alliance’s exposure to future attacks by Moscow: The country shares an 800-mile border with Russia which, as a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it, “is highly exposed to Russian military threats. †

There are other reasons for caution, including the usual concerns about expanding the alliance to an increasingly unmanageable set of member states. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that 32 countries will be even harder to manage than 30. Before the moment in Ukraine, NATO struggled to maintain peace between Greece and Turkey, but few met the 2% spending target, and President Emmanuel Macron of France had made headlines for suggesting the alliance was undergoing “brain death.”

Even despite Russian aggression, support for adding the two members is not unanimous. Turkey’s fierce opposition to Finland and Sweden may be an attempt to extract political concessions from the alliance, but it also owes much to these countries’ support for Kurdish causes.

Alliance leaders must also consider the risk of an overreaction from Russia. Moscow has started three wars over possible NATO expansion – invading Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 before the current war. While Moscow is clearly incapable of conducting another major military campaign at this point, it cannot be ruled out that President Vladimir Putin may do something irrational in response to a NATO expansion that would bring the alliance within 200 miles of his hometown of St. Petersburg. .

At the same time, it is not clear that Finland and Sweden are at increased risk unless they gain NATO membership. They have long relied on their neutral status and domestic defense capability to prevent crises. Refusing to admit them to NATO is not to hang them out to dry, but simply to maintain a workable status quo.

The symbolic value of admitting two new member states as a prize for Russia’s brutality in Ukraine may bear the day in Brussels. But before moving forward with the accession process – which offers leaders and legislatures in every member state an opportunity to think – policymakers need to consider the whole strategic picture and see whether admission strengthens the alliance or not.

Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty makes it clear that existing members may invite new states to join if they “contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”. By that standard, the strategic argument for admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO is not a slam-dunk.

More from other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• NATO must close the deal with Sweden and Finland quickly: Andreas Kluth

• What Ukraine can learn from Finland’s state 80 years ago: James Stavridis

• Russia is right: US is waging a proxy war in Ukraine: Hal Brands

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. She is the author of the upcoming book Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates.

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