That distant boom you heard last week was Vladimir Putin’s head exploding as he heard the news of a formal request from both Finland and Sweden to join NATO. These are two highly capable and professional militaries, whose nations have scrupulously maintained neutrality for decades, and they will add significant firepower and geopolitical advantage to NATO. It is a dramatic change that their populations, who for decades generally agreed it was better not to antagonize the Russian Federation by formally joining the Alliance, have now committed to this new course.
The invasion of Ukraine has had a crystallizing effect on the security thinking of both of these Nordic nations. What will the process look like, and what are the implications of a Finnish-Swedish ascension to the decision table at the NATO headquarters in Brussels?
I know both of these militaries very well. When I was Supreme Allied Commander of the Alliance less than a decade ago, both Finland and Sweden participated in many NATO operations and trained frequently with our forces.
The Swedes were part of NATO operations in Afghanistan, Libya, and the Balkans. At times I was personally protected by a Swedish military security detail in the Balkans, where they also deployed forces. Swedish Gripen fighters, highly capable jets equal to a US F/A-18 Hornet were part of the air campaign over Libya.
Finland likewise has been a strong partner to NATO in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and even Iraq, where NATO maintained a strong training mission when I was Commander. The Finns have a long tradition of universal conscription and keeping their reservist training very up-to-date. I watched their highly proficient ground forces exercise on bases around Helsinki. Their defense spending is respectable and aligned with NATO objectives.
A glance at a map shows how the addition of these two nations expands NATO’s strategic options to the north. The long border with Russia provides the opportunity for NATO forces to operate and train along the flanks of any further Russian military operations directed against the alliance.
It is worth noting as well that both countries are deeply engaged in Arctic operations. Both have capable seagoing and aviation forces who are trained to operate under harsh Arctic conditions. When I would complain about bad weather during NATO exercises in the north of Sweden, my Swedish counterpart, the commander of their armed forces, would say, “There is not bad weather, only bad equipment.” Having more NATO capability focused on the high north is a major plus for the alliance.
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Some critics will say that admitting Sweden and Finland to the alliance is provocative and risky. Yet we need to remember why we are here: this is a war of choice, conducted by Putin, which will end badly for both him and the Russian Federation. It has been a campaign filled with documentable war crimes, massive Russian incompetence (thankfully), and an inspirational performance from the Ukrainian. Putin knows that he has shot his bolt in Ukraine—the idea of him taking some kind of military or diplomatic attack against Finland and Sweden for joining NATO seems unlikely. He simply doesn’t have the resources to do so—for now.
We cannot completely rule out a Russian asymmetrical response, which might come in the area of cyber – a dog that hasn’t loudly barked yet in this conflict. It is likely that Putin is holding back some of his cyber options until sanctions begin to bite harder, at which time he may unleash them against the west. At that point, the Finns and Swedes might be targets. But the good news is that both countries have very skilled cyber forces and sophisticated cyber defenses.
I used to say in Helsinki and Stockholm, “Tell us you want to join NATO on a Wednesday, and we’ll get you in by Friday.” The process won’t be quite that swift or smooth (already President Erdogan of Turkey is throwing a few yellow flags), but they will both be hoisting the NATO flag by the fall, if not sooner. There is nearly unanimous acclimation for their membership and Turkey—after perhaps extracting a few concessions—is expected to acquiesce.
Russia is in the process of getting everything they don’t want out of this war of choice. They have thousands of killed in action and wounded; a sunken flagship at the bottom of the Black Sea; hundreds of millions of rubles lost in military capital stocks, from helicopters to tanks to armored personnel carriers; massive economic sanctions and the shutdown of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, with concomitant revenue loss; oligarchs under sanctions; and diplomatic isolation from the western world, representing 70% of the world’s GDP.
To that bloody butcher’s bill, you can add a serious and important expansion of NATO. It is a good day to have a NATO membership card, and the addition of these two nations will only strengthen the Alliance for the turbulent years ahead.
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