US and other Western leaders are beaming at the impending addition of Sweden and Finland to NATO, although there still is an outside chance that Turkey might block their admission to the Alliance. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted darkly that he may do so, unless the two candidate countries make certain concessions. He professes to be especially concerned about Sweden’s reluctance to extradite Kurdish "terrorists." Given Erdogan’s long record of cynical opportunism on other issues, it is more likely that his threat is merely a bargaining tactic to show Ankara’s clout.
In addition to wanting policy concessions from Stockholm and Helsinki, he has sought concessions from the United States as NATO’s leader. His diplomatic hardball has already produced one benefit: Biden’s decision to approve a major sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey, a sale that had been on extended hold. Biden denied that there was any connection to Ankara’s position on NATO’s Nordic expansion, saying that "there was no quid pro quo with that; it was just that we should sell." The timing of the White House approval, however, suggested otherwise. In any case, once Erdogan finishes with his diplomatic drama, NATO will have two new members.
Both countries bring significant military assets to the Alliance. Sweden, in particular, has a very capable, modern military, including a first-class air force. Finland possesses a smaller, less significant military force, but it has an 830-mile border with Russia. For NATO hawks, that situation is considered a major benefit, rather than another dangerous provocation toward Moscow. One might think that seeing the disastrous results of the West’s policy of making Ukraine a NATO military pawn would inhibit such recklessness with regard to Finland. Clearly, that is not the case, however.
The Kremlin’s reaction to the latest phase of NATO’s expansion has thus far been surprisingly mild. Moscow did inform both countries that if they joined the Alliance, Russia would be compelled to reposition its nuclear forces to focus more on Scandinavia, but there have not yet been any warnings that adding Sweden or even Finland crosses a "red line"—a warning that Vladimir Putin and other officials issued on several occasions with respect to Ukraine. One can hope that such restraint continues.
Nevertheless, joining NATO is an imprudent, potentially very dangerous, step for Sweden and Finland to take. Sweden, in particular, has benefited greatly from its posture of strict neutrality for more than 170 years. The country even managed to avoid becoming entangled in either world war—something very few other European countries could claim. Neutrality spared Sweden from the enormous destruction and loss of life that engulfed the rest of Europe. Abandoning a policy that has provided such extensive benefits is an act of folly unless there are compelling reasons to do so. Whatever one concludes about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the notion that today’s Russia poses a greater threat to Sweden and the rest of democratic Europe than did the larger, far more powerful Soviet Union is utterly implausible. A military that is encountering serious problems achieving its limited objectives in Ukraine is not a credible threat to the rest of Europe.
Finland’s history is quite different from Sweden’s, and Helsinki’s desire for NATO protection from Russia is more understandable. The country was part of the Czarist Russian Empire, and its experiences during the Soviet era were not much better. Moscow’s forces attacked Finland during the 1939-1940 "Winter War" and seized a key portion of territory. During the Cold War, Helsinki was on a short leash from Moscow. Unlike the Kremlin’s outright puppet states in Eastern Europe, Finland was able to maintain self-government. However, it dared not differ from Moscow’s position on any significant foreign policy issue. At least some Finns fear that Putin might eventually move to restore such a suffocating patron-client relationship.
It is a far-fetched fear, and Helsinki’s decision to join NATO actually increases rather than decreases the danger of tensions with Russia and the onset of a military confrontation. Moscow especially will consider any effort to station U.S. troops and weaponry on Finnish territory a very serious provocation. With their new policy, the Finns risk being caught in the middle of a geostrategic power play between Russia and the United States.
The decision by Stockholm and Helsinki to join NATO could not be more ill-timed. Those countries are becoming part of NATO’s policy and military apparatus at the very moment that relations between the Alliance and Moscow are at their worst point since the depths of the Cold War. Even the chances of an armed clash are on the rise. Sweden and Finland could have chosen to remain aloof from the growing Russian-NATO spat, but they have made the opposite choice.
Their actions are reminiscent of the decision that the Republic of Texas made in 1845 to join the United States. Superficially, the Texans had decent reasons for doing so. The republic’s public finances were dire, Mexico continued to pose a looming military threat, and major European countries all eyed the infant country as a possible geopolitical pawn. Nevertheless, the decision to join the Union soon proved to be disastrous, since Texas did so just in time to become part of America’s slide into civil war. The Swedes and Finns must now hope that opting for NATO membership does not lead to a similar calamitous outcome.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 13 books, including Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and US Foreign Policy (forthcoming, October 2022).