Sweden and Finland took another step toward joining NATO on Tuesday after the 30-country alliance formally signed off on their membership bids and set the stage to bring the long-neutral Nordic nations into the fold within a matter of months.
NATO’s rapid decision to welcome two more members — a move driven by Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February and fears that war could spread throughout Europe — also carries a host of unanswered questions, including the financial tab that the U.S. will be expected to pick up to secure Finland’s 833-mile border with Russia. It’s also not clear when or whether Finland or Sweden would contribute troops to missions outside their borders as part of a forward-deployed NATO force in Poland, the Baltics or other areas at greatest risk of a Russian attack.
Those questions will be debated in the capitals of NATO nations over the coming weeks. All 30 countries must formally sign off on the membership approval process, though that is expected to be little more than a formality for the vast majority of countries. Denmark and Canada reportedly endorsed the moves on Tuesday, just hours after NATO offered its stamp of approval in Brussels.
The expansion effort could hit a roadblock with Turkey, which has misgivings about Sweden’s and Finland’s commitments to crack down on Kurdish rebel groups that Ankara considers to be terrorists.
NATO leaders mostly brushed aside those questions Tuesday in favor of celebrating the alliance’s most significant expansion initiative in two decades.
“This is truly a historic moment for Finland, for Sweden and for NATO,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
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“We will be even stronger, and our people will be even safer as we face the biggest security crisis in decades,” he said in reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the potential for the conflict to spill over onto NATO soil.
It’s not clear how NATO expansion could affect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thought process. Mr. Putin and his advisers routinely cite NATO expansion into the Baltics and Eastern Europe as unprovoked aggression after the Soviet Union’s collapse, when Russia was too weak to resist. Russian and Western diplomats also are still sparring over the Kremlin’s claims that the George H.W. Bush administration promised Moscow it would not expand to the east.
Sweden and Finland had long resisted formal membership in NATO, in part for fear that it would unnecessarily provoke Russia.
Public opinion was deeply mixed in both countries until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 changed the calculus almost overnight.
Moscow already has issued not-so-subtle threats toward Finland and Sweden in an effort to scare them away from joining NATO.
The Kremlin could take dramatic steps — such as further restricting natural gas shipments to Europe as winter approaches — to push back on NATO expansion and to flex its economic muscle in the region.
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Still, it appears likely that Sweden and Finland are on the path to full NATO membership. Aside from Turkey, the U.S. and all other key member states are expected to quickly sign off on the membership bids.
There will surely be some pushback about committing any additional American military resources to defend Europe from potential Russian aggression. President Biden will face increasingly tough questions from Republicans and other critics who were skeptical of the administration’s recent decision to send more troops and military equipment to the region.
“Why is Biden sending more troops, planes & ships to Europe instead of the Pacific?” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, asked last week in a Twitter post.
“Russia’s military is in no condition to invade anyone else right now and it’s China & North Korea who are threatening military aggression,” said Mr. Rubio, echoing a growing chorus of critics who believe the U.S. must send military resources to the Pacific, not Europe.
Questions about America’s long-term military commitments in Europe were brewing long before Tuesday’s step toward NATO expansion.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the number of U.S. ground troops in Europe has soared from about 65,000 to more than 100,000.
That figure will grow even higher after Mr. Biden’s announcement last week that the U.S. will establish permanent headquarters for the 5th Army Corps in Poland and take other long-term steps to position fresh American assets across Europe.
It’s a sharp turnaround from the pre-Ukraine landscape, when the Trump administration was pursuing ways to draw down American forces in Germany and pressuring NATO allies to spend more on defense.
After Russia invaded its neighbor, analysts say, it’s highly likely that more U.S. military personnel and equipment will be needed in Scandinavia, especially along Finland’s massive border. NATO’s land boundary with Russia will roughly double if Finland joins the alliance.
Andrew L. Stigler, an associate professor for national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, said Finland’s bid is especially problematic in the long term for NATO. In an online debate sponsored by the Naval War College Foundation, he noted the “disconcerting irony” that NATO has responded to Russian complaints about past expansions by expanding again.
“Now, while attempting to mitigate the problems caused by past NATO expansion, the alliance is speeding through an application that was not even on the agenda a year ago. We should not plant the seeds of expansion regret for tomorrow as we deal with the unwanted harvest of yesterday’s growth in the alliance,” he wrote.
“Nations should only make alliances that are in their interest,” he said. “While the motivation for Finland’s sudden eagerness to join NATO is easily understood, the expansion of NATO along Russia’s border is guaranteed to contribute to the current tensions between the West and Russia. The fact that NATO may get away with it, at least in the short and medium term, does not mean it is wise.”
Some specialists worry that the job of defending such a large border is at odds with the broader U.S. military strategy of transitioning toward a force built for sea and air conflict in the Pacific, not traditional ground fights in Europe.
“As the service traditionally tasked with reinforcing Scandinavia, the Marine Corps would be most directly affected. The Marines are currently in the process of transitioning to a more agile force structure, one optimized for fighting in the littoral, as contingencies in the western Pacific would require,” said Mike Sweeney, a fellow with the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates a more restrained American military role abroad.
“The Army thus might be a more natural fit for the defense of Finland particularly given that it retains large armored forces,” Mr. Sweeney wrote in a recent analysis of NATO’s defensive posture. “But that would require changes in pre-positioned arrangements at [military bases near the Norwegian city of] Trondheim in addition to discussion of potential new sites for Army equipment in Finland.
“Fundamentally, it would necessitate acknowledging that some U.S. ground force — or a NATO equivalent — is going to be needed to fight in Finland under worst-case scenarios.”
Such a ground force wouldn’t be cheap, analysts predict. For the U.S. alone, the upfront military and security costs of bringing Finland into NATO could range from $1 billion to $5 billion, depending on exactly how many American personnel and how much U.S. equipment would be stationed there, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On top of that, it could cost the U.S. as much as $730 million each year to maintain the forces in Finland, the CSIS study said. Sweden does not border Russia, so the associated costs would be much lower. Still, the U.S. could spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to bolster Swedish security.
Before those specifics can be drilled down, NATO must take several technical steps to bring Sweden and Finland aboard. The biggest potential roadblock will be Turkey. As a NATO member, the nation holds veto power during the approval process.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned this week that his country could block the process if Sweden and Finland refuse to extradite people whom Turkey considers terrorists.
The three nations signed a memorandum last week in which Finland and Sweden vowed to crack down on U.S.-allied Kurdish groups in Syria that Turkey considers to be terrorists. The two Scandinavian countries also said they would cooperate with future extraditions, but there appears to be some debate about whether the pact requires Finland and Sweden to extradite specific people wanted by Turkey as terrorists.
Sweden and Finland denied that last week’s deal contains any sort of list or that it names specific individuals.
“We will honor the memorandum fully. There is, of course, no lists or anything like that in the memorandum, but what we will do is to have better cooperation when it comes to terrorists,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.