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Finland and Sweden joining NATO could put Trump’s GOP in the hot seat

President Donald Trump speaks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House in 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For several weeks, there have been signs that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could backfire for President Vladimir Putin in one key respect: by bringing NATO closer to Russia’s doorstep.

As The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor reports today, Finland and Sweden have taken steps toward potentially joining NATO, after decades of resisting such action. Ukraine might not be joining anytime soon (or at all), but including Finland in particular in the alliance would add more than 800 miles of NATO presence to Russia’s border. Russia’s western border north of the Black Sea would suddenly be all NATO countries except one: Belarus.

The latest big news: As Finland has leaned in recent weeks into the prospect of joining NATO, Sweden’s Social Democrats, who have long opposed NATO membership, issued a statement indicating they are reevaluating that position.

Of course, joining NATO isn’t just a matter of Finland and Sweden deciding to become members; it is also about whether current members would agree to this. The conventional wisdom is that both countries would be welcomed with open arms. In the United States, that would require at least two-thirds of the Senate voting to ratify their membership.

During a news conference on April 13 in Stockholm, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said she expects a quick decision regarding NATO membership. (Video: The Washington Post)

But exactly how that debate would go down could be quite interesting — especially in light of the GOP’s slight-but-significant Trump-era drift into more skepticism of NATO. And the looming unknown would be Donald Trump himself weighing in on the process — and not necessarily in favor.

The last two major NATO expansions came in 1999, when Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined, and in 2004, when seven former communist countries and Soviet republics joined. The latter was utterly uncontroversial, with the Senate voting 96 to 0 to ratify their membership. But the former presents some important lessons about how an addition of Finland and Sweden could unfold — and who might resist it.

The vote wound up being strongly in favor, 80 to 19, but there was plenty of uncertainty at the outset. Throughout the debate, senators from both parties worried that the move would be viewed as provocative by Russia. They warned about Russia perceiving the NATO expansion as an “iron ring” around its borders.

“I do believe this replaces, symbolically, the Iron Curtain that was established in the late ’40s, which faced west, with now an iron ring of nations that face east to Russia,” Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said during debate on the subject. “That causes this senator a great deal of concern.”

Warner proposed an amendment that would have barred any new NATO admissions for three years, and it got 41 votes — including many proponents of the expansion being debated.

In the years afterward, plenty of prominent foreign policy observers questioned the wisdom of the expansion, as we summarized last month:

… You need not look far into the past to see studied minds cautioning about a situation much like the one we find ourselves in today. Former Clinton administration defense secretary Bill Perry said in 2016 that Putin bore most of the blame for Russia’s aggression in Crimea but that “I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame” for supporting NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. George Kennan, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, called it “a tragic mistake” after the Senate in 1998 ratified NATO expansion, even as Russia was still picking up the pieces from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) warned at the same time, “We have no idea what we’re getting into.” Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski argued relatively recently that Ukraine should not join military alliances and instead stick with a Finland-esque approach of remaining neutral while cooperating with the West in other ways.

All of that plays into the looming debate over Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Expanding the alliance has been a consensus issue — and even a unanimous one in 2003-2004 — but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brings into stark relief the prospect of perceived provocation that critics had warned about.

Admitting Finland and Sweden would be a strong repudiation of Putin, but it would also no doubt be provocative. Russia has made clear its strong opposition, saying that NATO “remains a tool geared towards confrontation” and that Finland and Sweden would face “serious military and political consequences” if they joined.

While concerns about provocation historically have been bipartisan, the question today seems to concern how Republicans might respond.

Just last week, more than 30 percent of House Republicans voted against a symbolic measure reaffirming support for NATO. Their reasons were varied and often not totally apparent, but it followed from years of the GOP tilting toward NATO skepticism — with some not-so-gentle nudging from Trump.

As president, Trump claimed he supported NATO, but he regularly attacked other countries for not paying enough, and plenty of reporting indicates he wanted the United States to exit the alliance altogether in his second term. That’s a prospect that remains real and important if he’s elected in 2024. And it could also color his posture toward NATO expansion, especially since much of this lengthy process could play out when he’s a formally declared 2024 candidate.

Layer on top of that Trump’s regularly Putin-friendly commentary, and it’s not difficult to see him adopting a view more in line with Putin’s desires — and in line with some of the skeptics of the 1999 NATO expansion.

For all of Trump’s commentary on NATO over the years, he wasn’t generally asked about the alliance’s expansion. During the 2015 campaign, he offered an indifferent response about Ukraine’s potential membership.

“I wouldn’t care,” Trump said. “If [Ukraine] goes in, great. If it doesn’t go in, great.”

In 2018, Trump suggested to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson — after some prodding — that perhaps Montenegro joining NATO wasn’t a good idea.

“You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. ... They are very aggressive people,” Trump said. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”

By early 2020, Trump did float the prospect of some additional NATO expansion — but into the Middle East rather than Eastern Europe. (There didn’t appear to be much, or any, follow-up on this proposal.)

Republicans did challenge Trump’s NATO skepticism during his presidency. In 2018, the Senate voted 97 to 2 to affirm support for NATO as Trump was attending a summit in Brussels — a pretty direct message to him on the eve of the gathering, as well as what became his infamous news conference with Putin in Helsinki. In 2019, just 22 House Republicans voted against a bill that would have prevented Trump from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO.

Given those votes, and given that this would be in the hands of the Senate, where Republicans have been more likely to buck Trump on foreign policy, it’s not clear he could prevent his party from signing off on Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Nor would he necessarily try. But for a guy who made questioning NATO a calling card — and whose views on the subject were often outside the party’s mainstream — it would be an important development that could result in some uneasy dynamics in his party.

This post has been updated.