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Russia Is Pushing Finland and Sweden Toward NATO

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All eyes are on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his demands about Ukraine, backed by 100,000 troops and a buildup of military capability on the Russia-Ukraine border. Putin wants guarantees from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the alliance, effectively giving him veto power over the membership, which today stands at 30 nations.

But less noticed are two countries to the north that are strong and independent democracies and have long ties to NATO, although neither is a member: Sweden and Finland. Late last month, the Russian foreign ministry made comments about both, indicating displeasure with the idea of either joining the alliance.

But this approach may well have backfired on the Russians, and increased the desire of both Nordic nations to seriously consider membership. It represents an opportunity for NATO, given the character, geography and military capability of the two countries. How should the U.S. and the alliance respond?

When I was NATO’s supreme allied commander, I often interacted with troops from Sweden and Finland, and visited each country several times for talks. I knew I was in the presence of fiercely capable warfighters. My security detail in the Balkans, for example, was provided by tall Swedish soldiers who seemed like modern-day Vikings. When I was in Finland and toured the museum of the “winter war” against Russia of 1939-40, I could sense the pride. 

Technologically, both nations operate high-end combat equipment, notably the Swedish Air Force, which flies locally produced Saab Gripen strike fighters.  These were used to excellent military effect in the combat operations in Libya in 2011 under my command.  Finland just ordered 64 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters, the most advanced combat aircraft in the world.

Both Finland and Sweden had significant troop contributions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Both maintain universal conscription, and have traditions of military training across their societies.

Over the decades of the Cold War, Finland and Sweden maintained a highly prized neutrality, and diplomatic and trade relations with both the West and the Soviet Union. Back then, polls consistently showed strong majorities of Swedes and Finns felt such independence from either side was the best course.

But more recently, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, attitudes are shifting. In his New Year’s address, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto opined that his nation would consider NATO membership, although polls continue to show a divided electorate.

NATO should welcome the Finns and Swedes with open arms, but not put any external pressure on them to join. In my conversations in Stockholm and Helsinki with senior military leaders, I found the best course was always to make clear that they would be welcome in the alliance but that there was no obligation. 

I would often say, “If you ever want to join NATO, let us know on a Wednesday and we’ll have you in by Friday.” This in contrast to the long and tortuous path that other nations including Macedonia to Montenegro have undergone, to say nothing of the endless Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia.

For now, NATO should quietly assure both Finland and Sweden that the door to membership is open; continue to hold significant military-to-military exercises; and welcome deployments of Finns and Swedes on NATO military operations.

The U.S., in addition to working through alliance channels, should address the issue with the European Union, as both Sweden and Finland are part of that organization.

Bringing both these highly capable nations into NATO would be a huge plus for the U.S. It would also make clear to Putin that he does not hold a veto card when it comes to expanding the democratic alliance.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Russian Troops Aren’t the Answer for Kazakhstan: Editorial Board

• Kazakh Protests Will Only Tighten Putin’s Grip: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Four Ways the U.S. Can Keep Putin From Invading Ukraine: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”

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