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Senate votes to approve NATO membership for Sweden and Finland

Seven more NATO countries must give a green light to the expansion of the alliance, which was spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Finnish diplomat Paivi Nevala, left, and Swedish Ambassador Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter meet Aug. 3 with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) ahead of the Senate's vote to ratify NATO membership for their countries on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to admit Sweden and Finland into NATO, endorsing an expansion of the alliance that supporters believe would send a message condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The 95-1 vote made the United States the 23rd of NATO’s 30 members to ratify the proposed addition, which leaders in Helsinki and Stockholm began to contemplate this spring in response to Russia’s aggressive cross-border campaign.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the vote “a signal to Russia: They cannot intimidate America or Europe.”

President Biden cheered the Senate for the speed with which it ratified the accession protocols, adding that Finland’s and Sweden’s membership “will further strengthen NATO’s collective security and deepen the transatlantic partnership.”

The accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO would boost the alliance’s military assets, especially since the two countries’ considerable arsenals of artillery, warplanes and naval weapons are already compatible with NATO systems.

The expansion — adding Finland would more than double the amount of the organization’s territory directly bordering Russia — “is exactly the opposite of what Putin envisioned when he ordered his tanks to invade Ukraine,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

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According to Article 10 of the NATO charter, additional European countries can be added to the ranks only “by unanimous agreement.” In the United States, approving the expansion of NATO falls under the Senate’s treaty power; the House will not vote on the matter.

The seven countries that have yet to ratify Sweden’s and Finland’s membership include some where opposition could pose a hurdle, such as Hungary and Turkey.

After initially raising objections to the bid, Turkey struck a deal in late June in which it would drop its opposition to the addition of Finland and Sweden if they agreed to shut down recruiting and financial networks of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and address Ankara’s requests to deport certain affiliated people.

At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Sweden and Finland would have to “fulfill their duties” before the Turkish parliament would consider ratifying their bids for NATO accession. And in the weeks since, he has warned that Turkey could still “freeze” the process in its tracks, hinting that he was dissatisfied at their progress on the terms of the deal.

Erdogan warns Sweden and Finland to 'fulfill' duties under NATO deal

Meanwhile, Hungary, whose authoritarian right-wing leader, Viktor Orban, is expected to address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas this week, maintains an enigmatic stance on how it will handle Sweden’s and Finland’s bids.

Even in the United States, there is a small but vocal contingent opposing NATO’s expansion. In a defiant speech ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) argued that allowing Finland and Sweden into NATO would be contrary to U.S. interests because “expanding NATO will require more United States forces in Europe, more manpower, more firepower, more resources, more spending, and not just now but over the long haul.”

“Our greatest foreign adversary is not in Europe, our greatest foreign adversary is in Asia,” he insisted.

Hawley’s opposition was strongly decried by members of his own party.

“Closer cooperation with these partners will help us counter Russia and China,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor, calling accession a “slam-dunk for national security.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) stated he would vote against the expansion of NATO on Aug. 3, adding he did not believe it was in the United States’s best interest. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), meanwhile, pointed out that it would be “strange indeed” for senators who voted for North Macedonia’s 2019 accession into NATO — a group that includes Hawley — to suddenly oppose Finland’s and Sweden’s candidacy.

“Let’s be honest, who can deny the much stronger cases for Finland and Sweden?” Cotton said, arguing that those countries were “far larger, far more capable and far more strategically situated.”

Hawley’s opposition was all the more striking given that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who opposed North Macedonia’s membership in 2019 and Montenegro’s membership in 2017, voted in favor of allowing Finland and Sweden into NATO.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the only other senator to have opposed the North Macedonia and Montenegro bids, voted “present” Wednesday, noting on the floor that in the wake of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, “I am less adamant about preventing NATO’s expansion with Sweden and Finland.”

The Senate rejected Paul’s efforts to attach an amendment to the ratification that would explicitly state the United States’ Article 5 obligations to defend member nations would not supersede Congress’s constitutional right to authorize the use of military force.

Menendez said the amendment was “unnecessary” to protect Congress’s constitutional role. He told his colleagues it was potentially “deeply damaging” and “self-defeating to do anything that casts doubt on our rock-solid commitment to NATO.”

The Senate approved by voice vote an amendment stating its expectation that all NATO members spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

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