Though fundamentally geared toward defense, NATO looms as a mortal threat to Russia in President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical imagination. Mr. Putin has grown increasingly agitated with NATO’s eastward expansion since the Cold War’s end three decades ago, which has brought most of Europe under the alliance’s mutual security guarantee. Mr. Putin cited the need to prevent NATO from reaching Russia’s borders via the inclusion of Ukraine as one of his reasons to invade that neighbor on Feb. 24.
In addition to the military setbacks Ukraine’s forces have inflicted on Russia, Mr. Putin’s aggression has also backfired by raising the likelihood that NATO will, indeed, expand to his borders — via membership for Finland and Sweden. This is a prospect that the United States and the rest of the alliance should welcome.
Heretofore, the two Nordic democracies have avoided NATO membership, because of historical factors unique to each. In Finland’s case, those reasons included bloody mid-20th century wars with the Soviet Union — and a postwar settlement that left Finland neutral and subject to its next-door neighbor’s influence. As recently as 2021, Finnish public opinion was cool to NATO membership, with only 24 percent in favor, according to an annual government survey. Russian cross-border aggression against Ukraine — and the prospect of more — has changed Finnish attitudes dramatically. Now, support for NATO membership exceeds 60 percent in unofficial surveys.
Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, announced Wednesday that Finland expects to decide on applying to the alliance by late June. This decision is likely to be positive, given the publication this week of a Finnish defense ministry report that said Russia’s invasion had caused “a fundamental change” in regional security — and went on to discuss Finland’s accession to NATO in detail.
For its part, Sweden’s governing Social Democratic Party has long favored a neutral posture but also seems likely to bow to increasingly pro-NATO public opinion in the country. Ms. Marin spoke alongside Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in Stockholm, a symbolic acknowledgment of the fact that the two have long maintained close defense ties and would likely find it safest to pursue NATO accession in coordination.
Finland has an 830-mile border with Russia, which would become the new front line between NATO and Mr. Putin’s realm. For the United States, this is no small consideration, given the prospective obligation to defend new Nordic NATO members from outside attack. Mr. Putin’s regime has threatened Sweden and Finland with what one foreign ministry spokeswoman has called “military and political consequences” if they join. However, both Sweden and Finland already work closely with NATO. As full members, they would readily integrate into its command structure and be more than capable of sharing the collective defense burden. They would add substantial resources — financial, diplomatic and military — to the alliance. The result would be a stronger NATO deterrent, making war less likely in Europe.
Finnish and Swedish accession would have to clear procedural hurdles, starting with the two countries’ own parliamentary debates and votes. The U.S. Senate, too, ultimately would have to weigh in. A strong “yes” vote would signal yet another defeat for Mr. Putin.