WASHINGTON — With Finland’s and soon Sweden’s move to join NATO, President Biden and his Western allies are doubling down on bets that Russia has made such a huge strategic mistake over the past three months that it is now time to President Vladimir V. Putin pays a heavy price: He must endure the expansion of the Western alliance he was trying to break.
But the decision leaves a number of important questions lingering. Why not allow Ukraine – the flawed, corrupt but also heroic democracy that is at the heart of the current conflict – to join in, with which the West is committed to its security?
And by expanding NATO to 32 members, soon with hundreds of miles of extra border with Russia, will the military alliance help ensure Russia could never again commit a brutal, unprovoked invasion? Or does it just widen the gap with an isolated, angry, nuclear-armed adversary who is already paranoid about Western “encirclement”?
The White House on Thursday welcomed the Finnish leadership’s announcement that their country should “apply for NATO membership without delay”, while Swedish leaders were expected to do the same within days. Not surprisingly, Russia said it would take “retaliatory measures”, including a “military-technical” response, which many experts interpreted as a threat to deploy tactical nuclear weapons near the Russian-Finnish border.
For weeks, US officials have been quietly meeting with both Finnish and Swedish officials to consider how to strengthen security guarantees for the two countries while their applications to join the alliance are pending.
For Mr. Biden and his aides, the argument to let Finland and Sweden in and keep Ukraine out is quite simple. The two Nordic states are model democracies and modern armies with which the United States and other NATO countries conduct regular exercises, working together to track down Russian submarines, protect submarine communications cables and conduct air patrols over the Baltic Sea.
In short, they have been NATO allies in every way except the formal ones — and the invasion of Ukraine put an end to pretty much all debate over whether the two countries would be safer by keeping some distance from the alliance.
“We’ve been out of NATO for 30 years — we could have joined in the early 1990s,” Finland’s ambassador to the United States, Mikko Hautala, said Thursday as he walked the corridors of the US Senate calling for support. for the sudden change of course of his country. In an effort not to provoke Mr Putin, he said, “Russia’s behavior has not changed at all.”
Ukraine, on the other hand, was the core of the old Soviet Union that Mr Putin is trying to rebuild, at least in part. And while it changed its constitution three years ago to make NATO membership a national goal, it was considered too corrupted and devoid of democratic institutions to make membership likely for years, if not decades, to come.
Key members of NATO – led by France and Germany – have made it clear that they are against Ukraine. It is a position that has hardened as President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration is engaged in an active gun war in which the United States and the other 29 members of the alliance would have a treaty obligation to enter directly if Ukraine were a full member, covered by the core promise that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Mr. Zelensky understands this dynamic, and weeks into the conflict, he dropped his push to admit Ukraine to NATO. At the end of March, a month after the Russian invasion and at a time when there still seemed to be some prospect of a diplomatic solution, he made it clear that if the war ended definitively, he was ready to declare Ukraine “neutral”. stands.
“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state – we are ready to go for it,” he told Russian journalists, a statement he has repeated several times since.
Those statements were a relief to Mr. Biden, whose primary goal is to irreversibly get the Russians out of Ukraine, but whose second goal is to prevent World War III.
By that he means staying away from direct conflict with Mr Putin’s forces and avoiding doing anything that risks an escalation that could quickly turn nuclear. If Ukraine were ushered into NATO, it would bolster Mr Putin’s contention that the former Soviet state colluded with the West to destroy the Russian state – and it could only be a matter of time before that direct confrontation broke out, with all its dangers.
By that logic, Mr. Biden refused to send MIG fighters to Ukraine that could be used to bomb Moscow. He rejected a no-fly zone over Ukraine because of the risk that American pilots could have dogfights with Russian pilots.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
But his once clear line has faded in recent weeks.
As Russia’s military weaknesses and incompetence became apparent, Mr. Biden agreed to send the Ukrainians heavy artillery to frustrate Russia’s latest attack on Donbas, and he has sent missiles and Switchblade drones that have been used to hit Russian tanks. .
When the government last week denounced reports that the United States was providing Ukraine with intelligence that would help it sink the Moskva, the pride of Putin’s naval fleet, and targeting Russian mobile command posts and the Russian generals inside them, it was the reason for the upset was obvious. The revelations showed how close Washington came to provoking Putin.
The question now is whether NATO enlargement risks sparking another Cold War – and perhaps something worse. It is a debate similar to the one that took place during the Clinton administration when warnings about the dangers of NATO enlargement were issued. George F. Kennan, the architect of the post-World War II “containment” strategy to isolate the Soviet Union, called the expansion “the most fatal mistake of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”
Last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the chief executive of the New America think tank, warned that “all parties involved should take a deep breath and slow down”.
“The threat of Russia invading Finland or Sweden is a long way off,” she wrote in The Financial Times. “But admitting them to the military alliance will re-draw and deepen Europe’s 20th-century divisions in a way that is likely to rule out much bolder and bolder thinking about how to achieve peace and prosperity in the 21st.”
That is the long-term concern. In the shorter term, NATO and US officials are concerned about how to make sure Russia doesn’t threaten Finland or Sweden before they officially join the alliance. (That’s assuming no current alliance members object; many believe Mr Putin will lean on Hungary and its prime minister, Viktor Orban, to deny the applications.) Only Britain is explicit about the issue and has signed a separate security pact with the two countries. The United States has not said what security guarantees it is willing to give.
But Mr Putin blames himself for incurring NATO enlargement by invading a neighboring country. White House press secretary Jen Psaki loosely quoted Finnish President Sauli Niinisto as making clear that Ukraine had forced the Finns to think differently about their security.
“You caused this,” Mr Niinisto said of Mr Putin. “Look in the mirror.”