Editor’s Note: This story was excerpted from the May 19 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
The most striking aspect of Sweden and Finland’s application to join NATO is how little debate there is about whether it’s a wise idea.
The entry of the two Nordic nations would be the most significant geopolitical outcome of the Ukraine war, transforming the strategic security picture in northeastern Europe and adding hundreds of miles of direct NATO borders with Russia.
For decades, even during the most tense moments of the Cold War, neither country seemed to feel the need to join the Western military alliance despite their proximity to the giant to their east. But that changed this year, after Putin sent tanks rolling across the border into Ukraine in February.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on Sunday called the invasion of Ukraine “illegal and indefensible,” and worried that Moscow might do something similar “in our immediate vicinity.” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö told CNN the same day that the invasion indicated Russia was ready to attack an “independent, neighboring country.”
Many analysts believe that one of the main goals of Russia’s invasion was to weaken NATO by taking Kyiv’s possible future membership off the board. If so, it has backfired spectacularly. The alliance is now stronger and more united than it has been for years, and it could soon be much larger.
But expanding NATO could also trigger serious reverberations. Doubling the security alliance’s direct frontier with Russia would be a personal blow for Putin, who has focused on undermining the Western alliance since he first became Russia’s President, more than 20 years ago. And if Putin felt Russia was already being hemmed in on its western flank, could adding two more NATO members during the worst tension between the West and Moscow in decades exacerbate the Russian leader’s paranoia?
In the 1990s, revered US diplomat George Kennan — the founder of the Cold War containment policy of Russia — warned that NATO expansion would alienate Russia and cause an adverse reaction. A contemporary counterargument would be that Moscow’s terrible losses in Ukraine, dented military prowess and failure to siege Kyiv show that it is too weak to do anything about an expanding NATO. And why should Putin get any say in who joins the alliance anyway?
The Kremlin’s response to Finland and Sweden hasn’t exactly been thundering so far. But it’s still a formidable nuclear power and any decision to move missiles or tactical nuclear weapons closer to NATO borders could trigger a new game of brinkmanship in Europe.
There’s a domestic US political angle to this as well: As President Joe Biden prepares to welcome the leaders of Sweden and Finland to the White House on Thursday, no one has explained to the American people why they must now defend vast tracts of new NATO territory in Europe. That’s a significant omission given hostility to NATO among supporters of former President Donald Trump — who might just end up back in the White House one day.
The most likely outcome here is still that the benefits outweigh the risks: Broadening NATO will enhance European security and be a bulwark for Western values. But that such a change is taking place without much public debate about the consequences doesn’t really lend much credit to the democracies that NATO was set up to defend.