Russia’s Vladimir Putin has indeed succeeded in reshaping Europe — just not in the way he probably had in mind when his forces invaded Ukraine in February.
The announcement Thursday by Finland’s leaders of their intention to pursue NATO membership, “without delay,” will end more than a half-century of neutrality. The Russian invasion is also expected to be the final tipping point for Sweden, with a history of more than 200 years of neutrality.
The sheer brutality of Russia’s unprovoked aggression — the civilian executions, indiscriminate bombing, attacks on civilian train stations and hospitals — has helped convince the Scandinavian countries that remaining outside the alliance is riskier than joining. And while it might seem unlikely that Russia would actually attack Finland, with which it shares an 830-mile border, Finland was at one time part of the Russian empire that Putin seems to believe he’s got a right to reassemble by force. (Disputed territory provoked the 1939-40 “Winter War” between Russia and Finland.)
Each NATO country has to approve the addition of new members. When the time comes, the Senate should welcome Finland and Sweden with open arms. The traditional argument against NATO expansion — that it would provoke Russia — has never seemed thinner than it does now, as Putin’s attack on Ukraine shows neighboring countries exactly why NATO exists in the first place.
The effect of pushing those two nations into NATO will be to further divide the continent into an alliance of the free and the democratic on one side and Russia and its like-minded puppet state Belarus on the other as Ukraine continues to fight for its very existence.
In a joint statement issued Thursday, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said, “NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance.”
The nation’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, told a meeting of European lawmakers, “The war started by Russia jeopardizes the security and stability of the whole of Europe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has altered the European and Finnish security environment.”
A debate and vote by Finland’s Parliament ratifying the formal application is likely to come by Monday. Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Ann Linde, in a Twitter post, called the decision by the Finnish leaders “an important message” and one that would be taken into account when Sweden makes its decision, which according to one published report could also come as early as Monday.
Earlier this week both nations entered into defense accords with Britain, which agreed to come to their aid in the event of a crisis or an attack.
All of which has provoked the usual saber-rattling from Russia’s Foreign Ministry threatening “retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature.”
And while that’s no small thing — even a successful Russian-generated cyberattack could be disruptive — the devastation and the atrocities being carried out by Russia in Ukraine have turned public opinion around in a relative heartbeat and stiffened the spines of European leaders. Six months ago only about 20 percent of Finns supported NATO membership. Recent polling has shown nearly 80 percent are in support.
This isn’t, of course, some act of charity on the part of existing NATO nations, nor will it be the first time Finland has stood side by side with members of the alliance as it did in the Balkans and in Afghanistan.
Finland’s military has been described by several security experts as small but technically advanced and its weaponry already compatible with that of existing NATO members. It finalized the purchase of 64 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin just prior to the invasion of Ukraine. And its mandatory conscription for men and voluntary conscription for women means it can assemble a wartime force of some 280,000 troops plus 900,000 reservists. Sweden has also recently reinstituted national conscription.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg predicted that if Finland applied for NATO membership its acceptance would be “smooth and swift.”
That will be key to keeping this already valued ally — along with neighboring Sweden — safe during that brief interim period before the mutual defense commitments under NATO’s Article 5 kick in. The agreement with Britain should help deter Russian mischief during that period.
It shouldn’t have taken a brutal war to build and to strengthen this alliance, which also had to endure four years of President Donald Trump’s threats and disparagements. But NATO remains through it all an alliance of nations that share not just interoperable weaponry but bedrock values including a respect for the rule of law and national sovereignty in the face of would-be international bullies.
Putin underrates that at his peril.
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