Time for a strategic pause on NATO expansion

It’s easy to understand why some would think bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO is a good idea. It would serve Putin right to have his illegal, immoral, and unjustified invasion of Ukraine end up more than doubling Russia’s border with NATO. It would reflect what appears to be the majority sentiment in Finland and a growing majority of Swedes. Both countries have “first-rate” military capabilities as well as strong democratic traditions, which would bolster NATO’s power and reputation. 

But the desire to humiliate Putin and reinforce U.S. global military dominance is shortsighted and dangerous. It risks escalating, expanding, and prolonging the war in Ukraine. It will vastly increase the probability of a nuclear exchange, which could easily spiral into a global holocaust. The U.S. Senate — which by a two-thirds majority must give its advice and consent to the ratification of protocols adding new members to the alliance — should think hard before rubber-stamping the admission of new candidates.

Escalating, expanding, prolonging the war in Ukraine

The highest priority of the United States should be to bring this war to a swift conclusion through an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated settlement that is fair and durable.

Yet the Biden administration — under pressure from Congress and the foreign policy establishment — has only ratcheted up its war aims, from containing Russia to crushing it.  Following a high-level visit to Ukraine, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described the U.S. goal as seeing “Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things it has done in invading Ukraine,” while Democratic leaders called for an outright military “victory”. 

The deepening U.S. involvement is not mere rhetoric; the United States has now admitted to providing operational intelligence that Ukrainian forces used to target and kill Russian generals as well as to sink Russia’s prized warship. Deliveries of increasingly heavy and sophisticated arms from the United States and its allies have gone beyond allowing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to defend his country; they have emboldened him to vastly expand his demands for entering peace talks. Whereas he had earlier indicated significant flexibility on the Donbas, Zelensky is now demanding “a restoration of preinvasion borders, the return of more than 5 million refugees, membership in the European Union, and accountability from Russian military leaders.” 

In this environment, pressing NATO up against Russia’s doorstep is a provocation that will only raise the stakes in the Ukraine war and make it more difficult for Putin to back down. It was a mistake to incorporate the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO after the end of the Cold War, as many leading analysts and policymakers argued at the time, and it ultimately served to reinforce Russia’s sense of isolation and encirclement. 

Indeed, Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and its receipt of arms and training from the United States were certainly key factors in Putin’s decision to invade. Expanding NATO now will raise the stakes for Putin in a way that virtually guarantees the war will drag on longer and increases the chances it will expand beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Setting back prospects for peace in Europe

Saying “yes” to Finland and Sweden will make it far more difficult to say “no” to Ukraine. More importantly, Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO could end up destabilizing Europe rather than protecting it. Neither country faced a serious threat from Russia before this crisis, but the arms bonanza that will inevitably result from their incorporation into NATO could create incentives for Russia to push back. The war has already provided a huge boon for defense contractors, as pressure ramps up to modernize and improve the interoperability of systems and flush out the last remaining Russian military equipment

What Europe needs is not a redrawing of Cold War boundaries and the creation of a larger NATO footprint, but a new architecture of security and economic institutions that all European countries, including Russia, can eventually join.

Raising nuclear risks

The world has been rightly aghast at Russian threats to use nuclear weapons if its existence is jeopardized, although the United States has also refused to rule out the first use of nuclear weapons. Given the danger that even a single tactical nuclear weapon could cause calamitous damage and quickly escalate into a full-scale nuclear exchange, keeping the war in Ukraine from turning nuclear ought to be a central objective of U.S. and NATO military planners. Which begs the question: how does expanding NATO advance that objective?

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testified that Putin might turn to nuclear weapons if he believed he was losing the war in Ukraine, especially if NATO were to intervene. Confoundingly, a “resounding military defeat” is exactly what some U.S. senators are goading the Pentagon to seek. Moreover, NATO’s expanding involvement in the war — and potentially, NATO’s expanding size — raise the ante for Putin, vastly increasing the chances of a nuclear conflagration. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts deemed the world to be “the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.”

President Biden himself seems to understand the need to avoid pushing Putin into a corner. “The problem I worry about now,”he told a gathering of Democrats, “is that he doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that.”Yet imposing debilitating economic sanctions, calling Putin a “war criminal,” and prematurely announcing U.S. support for NATO membership for Sweden and Finland only narrow Putin’s options and make Russia increasingly likely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Nuclear risks are not limited to deliberate use. As Thomas L. Friedman explains, “the longer this war goes on, the more opportunity for catastrophic miscalculations — and the raw material for that is piling up fast and furious.” The basing of more NATO troops and nuclear weapons closer to Russian soil could certainly make Putin’s fingers twitchier.

The alternative

In addition to taking NATO membership off the table for Ukraine, the West could put NATO membership for Sweden and Finland on the negotiating table with Russia. A promise not to expand NATO at all would be fairer to Ukraine and could sweeten the pot for Russia to dial back its territorial ambitions. Such a proposal would need to be part of a broader international effort to stop the fighting, address Russia’s legitimate security concerns, and prevent more people from dying inside Ukraine and around the world. After all, the war’s impacts are beginning to be felt in the form of worldwide food shortages that could end up killing far more people than the fighting does.

More broadly, Europeans and Americans should begin thinking about what kind of cooperative security arrangements would be most likely to deter violent conflict, build positive peace, and promote human development inside and beyond their borders. What they ultimately come up with may bear little resemblance to the NATO we have now — and hopefully will not require the increased spending for weapons and war that is now projected. At the very least, U.S. and NATO leaders must avoid falling prey to the same hubris to which Putin succumbed in his disastrous invasion of Ukraine.

Diana Ohlbaum served as a congressional foreign policy advisor for more than 20 years, including as a senior professional staff member of the House and Senate Foreign Affairs/Foreign Relations Committees. She currently leads the foreign policy team at FCNL, the Quaker peace and justice lobby, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy, a progressive foreign policy think tank.

Tags Finland Lloyd Austin nato expansion russian invasion of ukraine Sweden ukraine war Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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