Finland and Sweden appear to be edging closer to joining NATO, a move that leaders and experts see as the best way to confront Russia as it escalates its rhetoric on nuclear weapons.
The conflict in Ukraine has forced the two Nordic nations to reconsider their absence from the alliance forged after World War II, which commits members to defending one another if attacked.
“Mr. Putin is proving NATO relevant and necessary,” said Sean Monaghan, a visiting fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “If NATO didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.”
“Finland in particular but also Sweden are very stoic on these matters and see Russia with clear eyes. And that’s why I think ultimately they will join NATO because they’ve seen Russia’s revisionist threat has been building. And now it has boiled over with the invasion of Ukraine, and there’s kind of no way back, and the best way for them to secure themselves against the threat posed by Russia is to join NATO.”
As politicians and poll results in the two countries have reversed course on the prospect — favoring joining NATO after decades of abstaining — Moscow has renewed its threat of using nuclear weapons.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and former president of Russia, wrote in a Telegram post on Thursday that “there can be no talk of non-nuclear status for the Baltic” if Finland and Sweden join NATO, adding that “the balance must be restored.”
He said that should Finland and Sweden become part of the alliance, Moscow would need to “seriously strengthen the grouping of land forces and air defense, deploy significant naval forces in the waters of the Gulf of Finland.”
It’s a particularly concerning threat to Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia.
Finnish Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen said Friday that it is “highly likely” her country will join NATO, calling Russia’s “brutal” war in Ukraine a “wake-up call to us all.”
That eagerness could also put more pressure on Sweden, which would be left as the only Nordic country outside the alliance and which would break its longstanding practice of neutrality by joining.
“The fact that these countries were not on track to join NATO three months ago and now they are is definitely a response to Russian aggression. Russia should realize its aggression against Ukraine has spooked a lot of countries, even to the point that a country like Sweden, which has a 200-year history of nonalignment, is now looking at actually joining NATO,” said Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO who also served as a special envoy on Ukraine.
“Finlandization was coined as a word to describe the Soviet Union’s insistence that Finland does not exercise its own choices on security. Now they’re going to do it anyway. So in that sense, these are definitely responses to Russian aggression, and it’s probably good for Russia to realize that,” he added.
NATO expansionists are hopeful the two countries will formally signal their intention before NATO’s June meeting in Madrid, where members could sign an accession protocol that would also need to be individually approved by each country’s legislative body.
Experts say they are likely to be welcomed into the alliance.
“They have advanced, modern militaries and are seen as security providers versus security consumers,” Monaghan said.
But beyond the practical defense implications, the move would also send a significant message.
“This takes place within the context of what President Biden has called the contest between autocracies and democracies. So certainly membership would project an image of Western solidarity, transatlantic solidarity and I think would be an injection of democratic values into NATO, so that would be visible to Russia as well,” said Gene Germanovich, an international defense researcher with the Rand Corporation.
Once newcomers are invited by NATO members, each of the 30 member countries would have to go through their own process for approving the treaty, a task that can last years but one that experts are hoping with proper motivation could take as little as a few months .
Volker said he was hopeful Sweden would complete its own internal decision-making prior to the June summit.
“NATO summit leaders … want to be able to make this decision once and then they want to close any gray zone between going to be a member of NATO but not yet a member of NATO and ultimately becoming a member of NATO — they want to close that gap as quickly as possible,” he said.
But there are a few potential sticking points.
Leo Michel, a former director for NATO policy at the Department of Defense, said Hungary is the international player most likely to slow walk the ratification, while any opposing word from former President Trump, a frequent NATO critic, could complicate getting consensus in the US Senate, where a two-thirds vote for approval is needed.
“Given the closeness of Viktor Orban in Hungary to Putin, I could imagine at least that Hungary might be slow to ratify,” said Michel, now a fellow with the Atlantic Council.
“Given the way Trump treated NATO … I’m a little bit nervous that they will get all of the necessary Republican votes. Maybe they will in the end… [but] I actually don’t think it will be easy,” he said.
“If he finds this something else to attack the administration on, there may be some people who listen to that and don’t want to go crossways with him,” he added.
It’s not clear how Russia might respond to a NATO expansion, though experts view ground action as unlikely.
“If you look at Russia’s current predicament, from a conventional forces perspective they’re very occupied needless to say in Ukraine, so it would be difficult to redirect substantial forces to the North,” Germanovich said.
But Russia would seek to punish alliance members via other means such as disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks as well as potentially acting on its nuclear threats.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” CIA Director William Burns said in a speech Thursday.
“While we’ve seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin about moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven’t seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern,” Burns said. “But we watch for that very intently, it’s one of our most important responsibilities at CIA.”
Joining NATO would show Finland and Sweden do take Russia seriously, even as they buck any pressure from Putin.
“Presumably Mr. Putin will be unhappy with Finland and Sweden joining NATO. One of the purported reasons for going into Ukraine was to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, so if Finland and Sweden do join, he’ll have only have himself to blame,” Monaghan said.
“And there will be quite some kind of poetic justice, as it were, if NATO could prove the open-door policy that Putin wanted to slam shut,” he added.