The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s war moves Finland and Sweden closer to joining NATO

You’re reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest, including news from around the globe, interesting ideas, and opinions to know sent to your inbox every weekday.

If one accepts the rationale that Russia invaded Ukraine to thwart Kyiv’s entry into NATO and check the Western military alliance’s eastward march — and there are plenty of reasons, of course, not to accept that rationale — then on those grounds alone, President Vladimir Putin’s gambit has been a disaster. The Russian assault on Ukraine has led to an almost unprecedented moment of solidarity in Europe, waves of Western military equipment pouring into Ukraine and the mass expulsion of suspected Russian spies in European capitals. Ukraine might not be in the queue to join NATO right now, but its dogged resistance has accelerated its prospect of joining the European Union and further unmooring itself from the Russian orbit.

On Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance was now planning a much larger, permanent military presence on its borders with Russia. “Regardless of when, how, the war in Ukraine ends, the war has already had long-term consequences for our security,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. “NATO needs to adapt to that new reality. And that’s exactly what we are doing.”

Indeed, one of the lasting legacies of the Russian invasion may be how the war spurred NATO’s strengthening and expansion. Finland and Sweden, two Nordic countries with deep histories of nonalignment, now appear on the precipice of joining the bloc. A report Monday in the Times of London suggested that both nations could clinch NATO membership in a matter of months.

“I think we will end the discussion before midsummer,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told reporters on Friday, referring to imminent deliberations on NATO membership that would conclude by the June 25 holiday. “We will have very careful discussions, but we will also not take any more time than we have to in this process, because the situation is of course very severe.”

A statement Monday from Sweden’s Social Democrats, who lead a minority government in Stockholm, made clear that the center-left party was reevaluating its traditional opposition to NATO membership. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally,” the party said.

NATO says Ukraine to decide on peace deal with Russia — within limits

Public opinion in both countries lurched dramatically in favor of joining NATO after the invasion began. For the first time, a majority of Swedes support entry to the bloc, while a poll this weekend found that 68 percent of Finns would back gaining membership and that an even greater number would support the endeavor if it had the public endorsement of the country’s President Sauli Niinisto and Marin’s government. (Consider that, just in 2019, more than half of Finns were opposed to joining NATO.)

The swing in sentiment has prompted parties in and out of power in both countries to announce ongoing reassessments of their policy positions on NATO. Parliamentary processes will play out over the coming months but the conclusion seems clear: No NATO member state — not even Putin-friendly Hungary — is expected to veto the Finnish and Swedish membership bids, whenever they formally materialize.

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned the two Nordic countries against joining NATO, an alliance which he said “remains a tool geared towards confrontation.” Given the ongoing Russian campaign in Ukraine, Peskov’s admonishment — as well as a Russian foreign ministry threat in February of “serious military and political consequences” for Finland and Sweden — probably only strengthens the case to enter the alliance.

In one stroke, Finland joining NATO would more than double Russia’s existing land border with the member states of the Western military alliance, fencing in the Kremlin further. “How can this be anything but a massive strategic blunder for Putin?” a senior U.S. official scoffed to the Times.

How joining NATO and the E.U. became Ukraine’s unattainable dream

Entry into NATO would be a historic move for both countries. Since the early 19th century, for reasons initially tied up in the geopolitics of the Napoleonic wars, Swedish governments maintained a studied neutrality that lasted through the end of the Cold War. After heroically resisting a Soviet invasion more than eight decades ago, tiny Finland settled for an uneasy status quo next to the Soviet juggernaut: It adopted a careful neutrality, accepted a degree of Soviet influence in its affairs, but avoided the same fate of Soviet domination experienced by countries in Eastern and Central Europe.

This arrangement became known as “Finlandization” — a nation converted into a process of geopolitical submission — and has been repeatedly mooted as a path through which Moscow and Kyiv can find some form of peaceful understanding. More than six weeks into the war, though, it’s hard to imagine Ukrainians accepting any kind of tacit subordination to Russia. Finlandization, meanwhile, has long been viewed as a pejorative term in Finland itself.

In practice, both Finland and Sweden already have close military ties with NATO partners and E.U. neighbors. According to the Economist, some experts even suggest that Finland’s military capabilities are “more ‘NATO interoperable’ — capable of conducting joint operations alongside other allies — than some actual members.”

The political journey toward NATO has taken longer. “It was only when Russia under Putin started to demonstrate that its threshold for using military force was lower than many had hoped — first with the war with Georgia in 2008 and then the invasions of Ukraine beginning in 2014 — that a debate on possible NATO membership started,” wrote former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt in a Washington Post op-ed last month.

After Putin’s war on Ukraine, Bildt added, “there is no way back to a past of illusionary neutrality.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.