One of President Vladimir Putin’s goals for his invasion of Ukraine was to upend the balance of military power in Europe. Mr. Putin has achieved that goal, but surely not in the way he intended.
Instead of strengthening Russia and pushing NATO back to its Soviet-era frontiers, Mr. Putin now faces an alliance more united than at any other time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, more determined to curb Russian revanchism and — with two major Northern European powers, Sweden and Finland, seeking membership — more formidable as an adversary. At the NATO summit in Madrid this week, the road now looks clear for the alliance to expand and encompass those two nations.
But in the rush to counter Mr. Putin and deter Russia from such aggression, the United States and its allies should not lose sight of the fateful choices they are about to make. They should take a clear and sober look at what they really want their alliance to be and what inviting Sweden and Finland entails. The heart of the alliance, Article 5, pledges every member to come to the defense of any member.
Answering some of the alliance’s existential questions also means convincing Americans that an expanded NATO is worth the potential costs. A poll from the Eurasia Group Foundation published in the wake of the end of the war in Afghanistan found the American public about evenly split about going to war for an existing NATO member.
Some expansions of NATO have come after serious debate in the U.S. Senate, with lawmakers raising valid concerns about the alliance. For instance: whether its requirement for unanimous consent has become unwieldy with now dozens of nations as voting members. Other concerns include the cost of U.S. military deployments, although, unlike the accession of smaller nations with tiny armies, Sweden and Finland would significantly increase NATO’s firepower. Other critics have wondered whether Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which declares an act of aggression against one member an act against the entire alliance, deprives Congress of its rightful role in declaring war.
Without the war in Ukraine, expanding NATO to the Nordic nations wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Sweden had not fought a war for 200 years, and Finland had long cultivated a policy of military nonalignment, though both nations are members of the European Union. But the Russian invasion shifted public attitudes swiftly and dramatically. Both countries immediately sent supplies and weapons to Ukraine. Public opinion polling in Finland and Sweden as the war began found support for joining NATO at 65 percent in Finland and 57 percent in Sweden. Both nations have strong militaries that could easily be integrated into NATO operations, and both nations are strong democracies, a prerequisite for membership.
The process for NATO membership isn’t automatic. New member states require the unanimous consent of all 30 existing NATO member states. In the United States, the expansion will require the support of at least 67 senators. Yet Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of NATO has said he expects the two countries will have a speedy ascension process, especially with Turkey dropping its objections on Tuesday. Both Sweden and Finland are part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a sort of associate member status.
The discussion at the summit about a larger, stronger NATO is playing out against the backdrop of a new strategic-concept document for the alliance — a vision for its trajectory for the next decade. As recently as a year ago, that document was poised to focus more broadly on China, climate change and cybersecurity — important priorities to be sure, yet superseded by events on the ground that create an opportunity for the alliance to focus on its core mission of safeguarding freedom and security in Europe by political and military means. The updated strategy also rightly addresses newer forms of warfare, ranging from cyber and artificial intelligence to disinformation.
The changes to NATO will help European member states focus their attention on the security challenges the continent faces, and it should also underscore that all members should pay their fair share. For years, American presidents have leaned on Europe to spend more on its own defense. NATO nations have a target of spending 2 percent of their G.D.P. on defense. Yet few nations meet that moderate threshold, which leads to the widespread sense that Americans have been subsidizing European defense and freeing those governments to spend more money on things like generous welfare states. Donald Trump, mercurial statesman though he was, wasn’t wrong to chide NATO partners for not carrying their share of the defense burden.
The price of Europe’s military underinvestment became clear as Russian tanks and artillery pieces started rolling. Just days into the war, Germany announced that it would increase its military budget by $105 billion, a much-needed infusion of cash to a fighting force that’s long been neglected. “For a long time, we believed that economic strength was enough. But the events of the past few weeks have shown that we also need a strong military,” a retired German officer told The Times.
The Russian government warned of serious consequences if Finland and Sweden join the alliance, including deployments of additional troops to the Baltic region, though it has also sent signals that it is resigned to the enlargement. Finland and Russia share an 810-mile border, and the Kola Peninsula is home to Russia’s Northern Fleet. St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest metropolis, is a mere 100 miles from the Finnish border. And yet Russia already violates the airspace of its neighbors and conducts withering cyberattacks. Moreover, Mr. Putin probably reasons that the two countries have long been tightly integrated with NATO, even if they are not formal members.
Sweden and Finland will bring important modern, highly professional militaries with them into the NATO alliance, particularly submarines and fighter jets. (Finland is helping to build the F-35, a next-generation fighter jet, as a part of a consortium of the United States and about a dozen other nations.) Finnish and Swedish forces already conduct exercises with NATO troops, and much of the equipment is interoperable. And both nations are at the forefront of European efforts to combat disinformation flooding out of Russia.
One need not side with Mr. Putin or endorse his actions to understand why a Russian leader would be concerned about a military alliance expanding to the country’s border. Yet the list of Russian provocations (election interference in the United States, Britain and Spain; invasions of Crimea and Georgia; and a campaign of assassinations using chemical weapons, to name but a few) is now so long and the legitimate threat it poses to Europe so acute that the desire of Finns and Swedes to seek protection under the NATO umbrella is entirely understandable.
Mr. Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine is changing the security balance in Europe, though not in the way he imagined. In this fateful moment, NATO must take a serious look not only at deterring Russia but also at itself, its purpose and its readiness to really share that burden.