US, allies look to fast-track Finland and Sweden joining NATO

The U.S. and its allies are trying to fast-track Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership in what would be a remarkable diplomatic and security defeat for Russia as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.

Finland’s president and prime minister said Thursday, the day after Helsinki signed a joint security pact with the United Kingdom and Sweden, that the country “must apply” for NATO membership “without delay.” 

Sweden is expected to announce its own bid to join NATO in the coming days, and the security pact seeks to warn Russia off taking action against the two Nordic countries as the path to membership plays out. Finland has an 830-mile border with Russia. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will join the foreign ministers of Finland, Sweden and NATO countries for a meeting in Berlin on Saturday, where they are likely to lay the groundwork to offer membership during a leaders-level summit in Madrid in June.

“The United States would support a NATO application by Finland and/or Sweden, should they choose to apply,” a State Department spokesperson confirmed to The Hill.

“Both Finland and Sweden are close and valued defense partners of the United States, and of NATO.”

Karen Donfried, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, told lawmakers Thursday that the discussions in Berlin are likely to include how NATO members can help provide Finland and Sweden a security pact in the intervening months.

After ascension, the two countries will be protected by NATO’s Article V mutual defense pact, which says an attack on one member is an attack on all.  

Donfried said Finland and Sweden’s turn towards NATO “marks another piece of the mounting evidence of what a strategic failure [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is suffering today.”

“I am struck by how so much of what Putin says he was seeking to avoid, he has brought about.”

Putin views NATO as an existential threat to Russia’s security and has used Ukraine’s close relationship with the alliance as one of the reasons to justify his orders to invade the country on Feb. 24.

Moscow slammed Helsinki’s announcement on Thursday, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov telling reporters that Finland has joined in “unfriendly steps” alongside the European Union “and is a reason for corresponding symmetrical responses on our side,” but did not detail those responses. 

Finnish politicians warned that Russia could cut off gas to the country as soon as Friday, Reuters reported, citing local media. Russia had cut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria last month in response to Western sanctions.

“I certainly think that Finland in particular, having been a part of the Russian Empire, is right to start considering their security,” Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council and former U.S. ambassador to Poland, told a British news program on Thursday.

“The Russians are perfectly capable of harassment, border incidents, all manner of difficulties, especially if Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, which happily, thanks to the reaction of the U.K., U.S. and Europe, is less likely than it seemed two months ago.”

NATO expansion will require each of the 30 member-state governments to ratify Finland and Sweden’s ascension. Support for Helsinki in NATO was quickly announced by member states including the U.K., France, Germany, Belgium and Iceland, to name a few. 

“Ratification timing really depends upon political dynamics and legislative scheduling across allied capitals, but could happen as quickly as in a few months,” said Gene Germanovich, international defense researcher with the RAND Corporation.

“The rapid pace of decision making and consensus-building in Helsinki and Stockholm, and the desire to get this done quickly, reflects the dramatic change in the security environment. Leadership and the public in both countries believe NATO is the best means to deter Russian aggression.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said Thursday during a hearing that his panel “is already working to ensure swift consideration” for the two countries to join the alliance. 

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the committee, said Russia needs to understand that the “30, soon to be 32 members … will defend every square inch of every piece of land in all 32 countries.”

“I think Putin has already made the calculation that he can’t do anything with these countries,” Risch said. 

The U.S. and allies have made close unity among members a key pillar of its support for Ukraine.

“Moscow’s underestimation of Ukraine’s effective resistance, Russia’s substantial battlefield losses and Western resolve to support Ukraine has undermined Moscow’s assault on Kyiv and improved prospects that Ukraine can successfully defend its sovereignty,” Lt.-Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers earlier this week. 

U.S. officials have described Putin’s war in Ukraine as entering a new phase since Russian forces have retreated from around Kyiv and moved to try to secure control over territory in the south and east of Ukraine, called the Donbas. 

Berrier and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers that the U.S. assesses the fighting to be at a stalemate even as Ukrainian forces have started to launch a counter-offensive. 

“The next month or two of fighting will be significant,” Haines said. “We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine in which he still attends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.”

Haines added that Putin is “probably counting on U.S. and E.U. resolve to weaken” in the face of food shortages and increasing inflation on commodities and in energy costs. 

But Biden administration officials have reinforced moving in lockstep with allies as key to U.S. national security. 

“Having a strong NATO alliance, a strong Western alliance, which is a defensive alliance, is good for our security around the world,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “And certainly having a strong partnership with a range of countries, including Sweden and Finland if they decide to join, should be reassuring to the American people.”

Tags Antony Blinken Finland James Risch Jim Risch NATO Putin Russia Russo-Ukrainian War Sweden Ukraine Ukraine crisis Ukraine invasion Ukraine war Vladimir Putin

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