Is NATO’s northward expansion worth it?

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Written by: Noor Nahar Shukanna and Muhammad Mujtaba

The immediate impacts of the war on Ukraine have been felt worldwide, especially in the neighbouring states. It has redirected the European security order and shifted its focus towards defence budgets and security gains. NATO members have suddenly agreed on the goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence after the Russian Invasion on February 24, 2022. This can be regarded as the “security dilemma”, where, naturally, states will prioritise their national interests before the policy process. Thus, formal membership in NATO has become a vital way to survive and keep future strategic options open. 

Sweden and Finland: Historical to current shifts

By seeking NATO membership, the Swedes and Finns are breaking the long-standing principle of neutrality. During the Cold War, their foreign and security objectives were to maintain a strategic distance from the superpower conflicts and maintain friendly relations with both blocs. The 1948 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, signed between Finland and the Soviet Union after World War II, resulted in a Soviet military facility on its soil. Consequently, Finland refused to participate in the Marshall Plan to safeguard itself against a probable Soviet invasion or annexation.

After the fall of the USSR, Finland’s true neutrality was highlighted by its reluctance to join NATO, although it entered the European Union in 1995. Sweden has maintained a policy of neutrality for more than 200 years. It has been a peaceful country that has pushed for disarmament even though its arms industry is booming. After Russia annexed Crimea and moved into eastern Ukraine in 2014, Finland and Sweden have been trying to strengthen their ties with NATO. And finally, they applied for membership on May 18, 2022.. 


The impacts of Nordic expansion:

Some worry that an enlarged NATO and the United States’ role in European security is taking us back to the Cold War deterrence period. And so, many argue that the institutions like NATO and the EU should be further strengthened.

Finland and Sweden joining NATO will change the security map of the continent.This is because Finland and Russia have a 1,300-kilometre border, which would give NATO a long-connected frontier with western Russia, doubling the previous 1,200 kilometres to 2,400 kilometres. Gotland, Sweden’s largest island in the Baltic Sea, could also give NATO a strategic advantage as the countries of the alliance would then encircle Russia’s primary way to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

The military capabilities and reputation of the Finnish and Swedish armies are among the best in the world. The Finnish Defence Forces can gather 280,000 people within 30 days, capable of autonomously defending its border with Russia for a prolonged period. Having chosen the F-35 as its next multi-role fighter, Finland’s armed forces are now firmly established as the most efficient in Europe. Although Sweden has recently begun to expand its military budget, it carries an important message. NATO’s arsenal of deterrence and defence will be significantly bolstered by its maritime, air, and underwater warfare powers, among others.

There are long-term advantages of NATO’s expansion into two of the world’s most dynamic democratic nations. Finland and Sweden are the highest-rated states in global freedom rankings by the Freedom House. Thus, integrating both countries can help NATO achieve its Article 2 goal – the “development of peaceful international relations by strengthening free institutions and encouraging economic collaboration,” built on concrete security imperatives and democratic principles. In addition, given the important roles played by Sweden and Finland inside the EU, relations between the EU-US and the other bilateral ties can further improve. 

As for their military and security contributions to NATO, both have already participated in key NATO drills and contributed to the NATO Response Force. Ratification might still take a long time, but this could be shortened given the pressing need in European capitals. It is also crucial to develop backup plans because President Putin can retaliate in several ways, including cyber hacking, energy supply outages, and military demonstrations. However, Russia’s attention and military resources are now focused on Ukraine, so It would be realistically difficult to open a second front at Western border.

Russia’s Response:

Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine has reversed what he had hoped for. The renewed interest in NATO’s Article 5— which states that if a NATO Ally is under an armed attack, the Alliance will consider this as an attack on all its members and retaliate as it deems necessary to help the Ally under attack— can be seen in Finland and Sweden. If both countries are accepted, they will join the organisation as its 31st and 32nd members.

Earlier this year, Russia threatened to retaliate if Norway and Sweden applied for NATO membership, saying it would place nuclear and hypersonic missiles in the Baltic Sea as a defensive measure. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has remarked that Russia has no issues with Finland or Sweden, and NATO expansion at the cost of these countries does not directly pose dangers to them. They are more concerned about the military build-up in the region as it could lead to uncertain conflicts and security concerns. However, NATO or nuclear bases were already out of the question for both countries as they would not allow nuclear weapons or military sites to be built on their soil.

Turkey: A problem?

For the time being, the biggest roadblock in their way is Turkey, which has been a member of NATO since 1952 and rules the alliance’s second-largest army after the US. Turkish President Erdogan has argued against their applications, saying the two states have given safe haven to PKK leaders. In addition, both Sweden and Finland joined the weapons embargo on Turkey in 2019.

Admission of new members requires the agreement of all current members. Turkish President Erdogan has said that he would not accept delegations from either nation in the hope that they would alter his mind,unless they plan on making changes on PKK issues. If the resistance can be overcome, the seven-step membership procedures may take up to a year, heightening concerns in both states about a possible Russian strike.

In conclusion, NATO’s expansion would alter the security map of Europe. It will provide NATO with a long continuous border in western Russia and a strategic location to encircle Russia’s major route in the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. However, Russia’s focus and military forces are now concentrated on Ukraine. So, it is irrational to expect them to send troops to Finland or Sweden to carry out an invasion. Simultaneously, reassuring Moscow that neither nuclear weapons nor conventional military personnel will be stationed in the alliance’s new members might deter Russia from taking further actions. Although the situation seems to favor one direction, we would like our readers to observe more about the dynamics of NATO’s northward expansion.


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