What started out as a mostly hypothetical discussion prior to the invasion of Ukraine has now turned into a distinct possibility if not a probability. Two traditionally “neutral” European nations, Finland and Sweden, now appear to be quickly moving toward a decision to apply for membership in NATO. Recent polling in both countries is showing a significant shift in public sentiment and elected officials in each nation appear to be listening. Last year, support for NATO membership in Finland was below 25%. This month, that number has rapidly swelled to 68%. Similarly, a majority of Swedes now feel the same way. Particularly in Sweden, this could produce some dramatic changes in the geopolitical landscape. Yahoo News senior editor Mike Bebernes examines the ramifications this week.
“The security landscape has completely changed,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters last week at a meeting with her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin. Andersson’s recent comments represent a significant shift in her view on the value of NATO membership. Early last month, she said that Sweden joining the alliance would “further destabilize this area of Europe and increase tensions.”
Andersson’s change in opinion is indicative of evolving views among the citizens of both countries in reaction to the steady stream of horrifying news out of Ukraine. In a recent poll, 68% of Finns said they support joining NATO, up from just 24% last year. For the first time ever, a majority of Swedes said they also favor joining, according to a poll released this week.
Although both nations have deep cultural and economic ties with Europe, Finland and Sweden have historically declined to pursue NATO membership — even as more than a dozen countries in eastern Europe have joined the alliance since the fall of the Soviet Union.
We looked at this question a few weeks ago and discussed some of the potential fallout. It was noted by foreign policy analysts that such a move would “infuriate Moscow” and raise the hackles of Vladimir Putin personally. It didn’t take the Kremlin long to respond to these reports. Putin warned of “serious consequences” if NATO were to expand in that fashion. And he was making threats against not only Finland and Sweden, but the United States and the rest of NATO as well.
Bebernes offers commentary from a collection of foreign policy analysts on both sides of this debate Most of these viewpoints boil down to two basic premises. One suggests that the dangers of adding Finland and Sweden to NATO are likely being overstated. Considering how badly the Russian army has been faceplanting in Ukraine, Putin is unlikely to open up another front in the war to the northwest while most of his military is bogged down in the south. Also, unless he’s completely lost his mind, Putin would realize that if Finland achieved NATO membership and he attacked them he would be going to war with all of Europe, along with the United States and Canada. That would be an ugly situation for everyone, but Russia would undoubtedly lose.
But then there’s the other view that rests with the aforementioned caveat “unless Putin has completely lost his mind.” Not everyone is willing to write that possibility off at this point because Mad Vlad really does seem to be a few eggs short of a dozen these days. And he wouldn’t have to muster an entire army for a ground invasion of Finland. He could just start lobbing missiles over the border, assuming he isn’t running out of them because of the fighting in Ukraine. And if he doesn’t have enough conventional missiles, he still has thousands of nukes.
Sascha Glaeser at the Washington Times makes this point, writing, “While it may seem unlikely, the West should not underestimate the possibility that Mr. Putin, feeling isolated, backed into a corner, and under a time constraint, may make an otherwise rash decision.”
Personally, I still can’t see Putin being that far gone mentally. He has consistently maintained that Ukraine is still “a part of Russia,” and that was one pretext for his decision to invade. I wouldn’t even entirely rule out the possibility that he’s considering invading Moldova next on a similar theory. But Finland and Sweden would be a different matter entirely. They were never part of the Soviet Union, though Finland does share a long border with Russia.
So that brings us to the point of potentially answering the questions that were raised at the top. Does it make sense to vote Finland and Sweden into NATO if they apply? And would it be worth the risk of further angering Putin? Perhaps the better question would be precisely how far we’re going to let Putin go in the name of appeasing him and preventing a vastly expanded war that the Kremlin would likely be hesitant to start. Personally, I think we may just have to roll the dice on this one and expand NATO yet again if everyone agrees on the plan.