Finland and Sweden: navigating the rocky road to NATO membership

If – more likely, when – Sweden and Finland announce their intention to join NATO, President Putin will be confronted by a massive strategic failure: his plan to halt, and even reverse, NATO enlargement has backfired. Instead of facing the long-term possibility of Ukraine’s NATO membership, he now faces the imminent and almost certain prospect of Finland and Sweden’s.

Having painted himself into a corner and with wounded pride, what will a detached and deluded President Putin do, and how might NATO, Finland and Sweden prepare for that?

Obviously, President Putin will try to derail Sweden and Finland’s membership bids, and there are fears that he might be tempted to take precipitous action before the NATO accession process is complete, in other words before they would be covered by NATO’s “Article 5” collective defence commitment.

The question, of course, is how he will try to do that, and past precedents are alarming.

On 3 April 2008, NATO’s leaders declared that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO.

Four months later, Russia occupied Georgia’s territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, some 20 per cent of Georgia’ territory.

In February 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President was ousted in a popular “Revolution of Dignity” after refusing to sign an association and trade agreement with the EU that enjoyed overwhelming popular and parliamentary support.

Having painted himself into a corner and with wounded pride, what will a detached and deluded President Putin do, and how might NATO, Finland and Sweden prepare for that?

Just weeks later, Russia occupied Ukraine’s territory of Crimea and parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region.

In both cases, President Putin created territorial disputes that he could inflame at will, hugely complicating Alliance discussions on Georgia and Ukraine’s membership aspirations.

With Sweden and Finland, there is even less scope for the kind of flimsy pretexts that President Putin used as fig leaves for his land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine.

But an increasingly desperate and unpredictable President Putin might not worry about pretexts. He is already sabre rattling in the Baltic Sea with airspace violations near the Swedish island of Gotland, dark threats about siting new nuclear weapons in the region, and warning of “serious military consequences” if Finland and Sweden decide to join NATO.

And all this follows months of ominous warnings to the west in general about consequences “you have never faced in your history” and a much-publicised order to raise the alert status of Russia’s nuclear forces (although that did not seem to be followed by significant changes in nuclear posture).

"Escalate to De-escalate"

Concerns remain, however, about what is referred to as Russia’s “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine.

This is often interpreted to mean that Russia would consider launching a limited nuclear strike to intimidate an opponent into submission on Russia’s terms, although some analysts are more reassured by statements suggesting that the resort to nuclear weapons would only be made in case of a threat to national survival.

Unfortunately, the person making the judgement about threats to national survival is the increasingly erratic and unpredictable President Putin, whose interpretation of events seems to waver between the bizarre and the paranoid.

At the very least, the Kremlin will step up the full spectrum of “influence” measures, including disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and economic coercion, not just against Finland and Sweden, but against other Allies too.

All NATO members must agree to any enlargement, so President Putin will hope that some – or even one – might be more susceptible to whatever forms of coercion or intimidation he judges might be effective.

The simple fact is that if or when Finland and Sweden apply for NATO membership, the Kremlin will raise tensions with the West still further.

A Transition Plan

Obviously, NATO needs a transition plan, and its key elements have been well laid out by Hans Binnendijk and Barry Pavel.

The first is to minimize the “window of vulnerability” between application and accession by expediting all the key steps in the accession process, a view endorsed by former UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who has suggested that with sufficient political will and ingenuity, the process might be achieved in record time.

Unfortunately, “record time” might still leave a window between application and accession of weeks or, more likely, months.

Even though many of the normal steps would be pure formalities and could be accomplished extremely rapidly, as Lord Haig points out, the final step is the ratification of the amended NATO Treaty by all 30 existing members.

The current record is eight months, and the best laid plans can be interrupted by an unforeseen election and the dissolution of a parliament, as was the case in 2019 when it was not possible to complete all the ratifications in time to welcome North Macedonia as a full member at NATO Leaders Meeting in London.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has suggested that the process could be complete in 2023, while former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb suggests perhaps by the end of 2022.

These might be too pessimistic, but the process is likely to be far from instantaneous.

So what can the Allies – and future Allies – do about this potential “window of vulnerability” that President Putin might desperately seek to exploit?

As Binnendijk and Pavel point out, it should be emphasised that the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty includes a mutual defence clause: “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power…”

They, Lord Haig, and others also suggest that Allies should issue “Article 5 style” guarantees to cover the dangerous period between applications and actual accession.  That would be particularly important for those Allies who are not in the EU and therefore not bound by the Lisbon Treaty’s mutual defence provisions.

Suggestions have also been made about physical deployments of forces in the region, building upon existing cooperative arrangements and ensuring that action against Finland and Sweden would inevitably entail putting the forces of NATO member countries in harm’s way.

Commendably, these type of actions are already taking place, with the United Kingdom, for instance, offering to strengthen its naval presence in the Baltic and conducting exercises in Finland.

Furthermore, NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, in a Swedish television interview, has stated that NATO would increase its presence around Sweden during the run-up to NATO accession, and that NATO would feel a strong obligation regarding Swedish security.

Although not the Article 5 “gold standard” mutual defence commitment, these factors – overlapping EU and NATO membership, statements of support and agreements on reciprocal defence, and even a limited presence of multinational forces – would give a potential aggressor serious pause for thought. There would be many plausible ways that an attack could provoke a “cascade” of events leading up to confrontation with NATO.

Reassurance still has a role

Another suggestion relates to some quite understandable Russian security concerns.

Military planners by default tend to attach more importance to actual capabilities than mere statements of intent.

Russian planners, for instance, would inevitably eye with concern the possible limitation of sea access to St Petersburg, and Finland’s 810-kilometre land border with Russia is quite close to certain sensitive Russian military facilities. It would therefore be appropriate to underline that Finland would seek to emulate the Norway’s approach to keeping tension low in those circumstances.

Additional reassurance could be provided by reiterating NATO’s commitment in the NATO-Russia Founding Act that it has no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members,…

It will get worse before it gets better

The paths to NATO membership for Finland and Sweden are fraught with risks and imponderables, and NATO members will certainly be doing their utmost to make those paths as short and smooth as possible.

They will also be preparing to anticipate and counter the inevitable efforts to block those paths. Backing down would cede the initiative to President Putin and doubtless lead him to raise the stakes even further.

Western leaders have shown impressive resolve and solidarity since President Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. That resolve will be tested even further in the coming weeks.