Expanding NATO: Make way for more members

Finland and Sweden are tourist destinations for many Americans and other foreigners, but they are also key countries in the war Russia is waging in Ukraine. Now both have signaled interest in joining the NATO alliance, which is precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin rails against and exactly what he used to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

So, what is the Biden administration’s view of making room on the couch for two new nations, and what obligations do we, as citizens, incur to protect those potential new members?

First, some background.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949 and currently consists of 30 nations — 28 European countries plus the U.S. and Canada. All members are committed to protecting other members, viewing an attack on one as an attack on all, as articulated in Article 5 of its founding treaty.

Sweden and Finland are not traditionally interested in military alliances. Sweden has avoided joining defense clubs for over 200 years. Finland adopted a position of neutrality after its defeat by the Soviet Union in World War II. We think of both countries as being like Switzerland.

But remember that Finland shares an 810-mile-long border with Russia. It has a great deal to lose if Russia is emboldened in the region. Its citizens have begun to ask for help, and NATO is its best reassurance.

It should be no surprise that Russia has reacted negatively to the possibility of its neighbor joining NATO. For Putin, Finland inside NATO is worrisome. Russia would be surrounded by nations in the Baltics and the Arctic — basically penned and hemmed in.

Putin is threatening “retaliatory measures” should Finland and Sweden join NATO. But Putin has escalated his rhetorical attacks before — indeed constantly during these 75 days of war. The West is getting used to his bluster. To date, his rhetorical outbursts on dangerous issues like using nuclear weapons have proven hollow. To date.

Adding Finland and Sweden will bolster U.S. and European security and further undermine Putin’s objectives. Finland and Sweden are modern armies with sophisticated technology that is additive to our own defenses. America has trained with these nations in the past, and there are shared goals and capabilities that will help bolster Ukraine and deter Russian aggression. Getting more nations to cut off Russia, economically and militarily, holds the consensus of the willing and deepens opposition to Moscow. Russian citizens will feel even more isolated knowing Finland is part of NATO.

It will be interesting to watch the NATO process unfold. There is a time lag between applying to NATO and admission. How we meet the requirements to protect Finland and Sweden in the intervening months will be important.

Another twist in this story is the early public discussion of NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, which reflects this new era of public diplomacy and public persuasion Ukraine has enabled. We are now talking about sensitive diplomatic and military issues in public in advance of them occurring.

Communicating foreign affairs to citizens around the world builds trust. Remember that the U.S. de-classified intelligence early in the war between Russia and Ukraine. We publicly flagged false flag operations by Russia and got ahead of its narrative. Recall that we were told about things like the potential of Russia blaming the U.S. for chemical or biological weapons before Putin even said it.

That sets the table for U.S. public support for the war, and it can alter the battlefield. The U.S. and Europe are getting ahead of Russian propaganda these days by providing more information about Russian intentions in a timely and relevant way, which has thrown Putin off his game and kept him guessing. This is the kind of public diplomacy that has advanced Ukraine’s position along with highly effective messaging from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Talking too much about NATO’s plans is delicate. Giving away diplomatic and military intelligence is a balancing act. We must protect intelligence sources and methods and maintain the ability to transfer weapons, for example, from Europe to locations in Ukraine. And we must avoid a full-scale U.S. war with Russia. Accidents happen. Russia still has military might. Thankfully, we have a “deconfliction phone line” with Moscow and still maintain relations with Russia’s military through our embassy.

We live in frightening times. We need as many allies and friends as possible. So, let’s welcome Finland and Sweden into NATO.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Finland NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Sweden Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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