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NATO’s balancing act

FILE – Flags flutter in the wind outside NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 7, 2022. With Finland and Sweden taking steps to join NATO, the list of “neutral” countries in Europe appears poised to shrink. Security concerns over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine changed the calculus for Finland and Sweden which have long espoused neutrality and caused other traditionally “neutral” countries to re-think what that term really means for them. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

James Bond ordered his vodka martinis “shaken not stirred.” Shaken not stirred certainly applies to the tectonic movements in the platelets undergirding international politics today. Russia’s dastardly invasion of Ukraine and now the likelihood of Finland and Sweden seeking NATO membership have been among the most transformative events of the last decade.

The reason for this Nordic strategic volte-face is self-evident: to prevent further Russian aggression. The response by NATO’s 30 members has been very welcoming if not overwhelmingly in support. But any euphoria must be modulated with realism. Russia will regard this expansion as antithetical to its security. Already Kremlin spokesmen have promised “military-technical responses” and made nuclear threats.  

While membership seems assured, the process is neither instantaneous nor guaranteed. The interim between requesting membership and it being granted could be a period of uncertainty and even danger. More relevant is how Article 5, which guarantees that an attack against one will be considered an attack against all, will be implemented to defend not only Finland’s 830-mile border with Russia but the northern intersection with Norway and Russia. Hence, the immediate and longer-term consequences must be well understood now.

First, after application, assuming the criteria for entry are met, NATO must draft protocols for accession. Second, all 30 NATO members must agree to these protocols. Third, the governments of all 30 nations must approve or ratify changes to the NATO treaty granting new membership.  

Certainly, Russia will use all means, fair and foul, to coerce, compel or cajole at least one NATO member to vote no. Russia will fail. But the accession process could face significant challenges. For the moment, Turkey is taking a negative stand.

Though highly improbable, suppose an energized former President Trump decides he opposes NATO expansion. Would he be able to win 34 Senate votes against ratification? The defeat of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations just over a century ago under entirely different circumstances is a warning.  

Fourth, during the interim period while governments are approving membership, security guarantees must be given to the would-be entrants. Great Britain has already taken the lead with mutual security agreements with Finland and Sweden. In a visit last week to Washington, D.C., UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace did not exclude extending the nuclear umbrella during this interim period. Washington should consider similar guarantees.

Fifth, while Finland and Sweden possess very substantial and capable military forces and have years of operational experience working with NATO as part of the Partnership for Peace program, aligning changes in command structure, contingency and war plans, logistics and other related and complicated matters takes time. That was not an issue with the post-Cold War expansion of NATO. Russia had not invaded Ukraine.

But because Russia has assumed a very strong adversarial posture towards NATO, the prompt integration of new members is essential. That several NATO members are already supplying Ukraine with advanced weaponry and other support underscores the necessity of ensuring that this transition is carried out cleverly, quickly and seamlessly. Indeed, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SAC-T) in Norfolk, Va., in conjunction with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) in Mons, Belgium, no doubt are or will be examining potential contingencies and scenarios that could arise.

Of the many other issues NATO must be considering, none may be more important than considering longer term relations with Russia. How and when the Ukraine war ends, if it does, must be part of this thinking. As Russian President Vladimir Putin told then-NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson at the 2002 NATO Summit in Rome about the Soviet Union’s isolation during the Cold War, “Nothing good came of that confrontation between us and the rest of the world. We certainly gained nothing by it.”

This is not World War II, when unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers was policy.  Long-term isolation of Russia can only harden the differences, possibly for generations. Yet, making concessions to Russia in light of its invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable. Balancing these two polar opposite positions will perhaps be NATO’s greatest challenge. The likely accessions of Finland and Sweden to the alliance offer an opportunity in this regard.

A stronger alliance, if properly led, can be mobilized to ensure the current crisis does not become a new “hot Cold War” lasting for decades. One approach is to agree with Russia that a new security framework is crucial for Europe and begin preliminary discussion on that. A more powerful 32-member alliance could be the start of that process.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Ben Wallace Donald Trump Finland NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war Sweden Ukraine Ukraine-Russia conflict Vladimir Putin

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