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Is the West Isolating Russia or is Russia Isolating the West?
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When NATO alliance members meet in Madrid this week, one of the featured agenda items is Finland and Sweden’s request to officially join the alliance. The NATO leadership has welcomed their ascension, with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg saying the two countries’ “membership in NATO would increase our shared security.” Though member state Turkey originally signaled it objected to the idea, it lifted its opposition after a breakthrough on Tuesday that clears the way for the Nordic states.
While enlarging NATO might seem like a wise thing to do in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it doesn’t take much sober analysis to conclude that adding yet more NATO members is likely to have the opposite effect of what the secretary general hopes.
Instead of lowering the chances of war, the membership of Finland and Sweden would increase the risk of future conflict for the entire alliance; adding two more triggers for Article 5 — the provision in the NATO charter that stipulates that an attack on one is an attack on all — would add to the risk of war for the entire alliance. That would be an unwise course in any case, but it’s particularly ill-advised given that it would make Finland and Sweden more vulnerable, as well.
Russia poses no realistic threat to Sweden or Finland. Since World War II, Russia hasn’t exhibited the slightest interest in territorial acquisition in either country, and in fact, Finland and Russia were on friendly terms during the Cold War. In contrast, Russia was consistently and emphatically clear for 15 years that it regarded any NATO expansion along its border in either Ukraine or Georgia as an existential threat that it would use force to prevent — and in fact has done so twice (Georgia 2008 and Ukraine 2014). Thus Georgia and Ukraine had reason to fear a Russian attack. Finland and Sweden don’t.
Extending NATO membership to these two countries wouldn’t only burden the U.S., which would be expected to go to war on behalf of these two Nordic states if they are attacked. It would saddle Helsinki and Stockholm with troubles, as well. Up to now, if a war ever broke out between NATO and Russia, both Finland and Sweden would have been protected by their neutral status. If membership were extended to both, that protection would be gone.
If the two became NATO members and the alliance went to war with Russia in the future, both countries would be thrust almost immediately into an armed conflict whether they wanted to be or not — and even if their national interests weren’t otherwise threatened. Given their status as NATO members, the Kremlin would almost certainly attack airfields and ports in both countries to prevent other allies from using their facilities to stage attacks against Russia.
But there is an even more fundamental reason to oppose expanding the alliance at present: It isn’t needed. Russia has exposed itself as being shockingly weak in conventional military power, and it is now clear, beyond any question, that Russian ground forces don’t even possess the capacity to invade the NATO alliance. It isn’t entirely clear that Moscow will be able to capture the entirety of the Donbas region, in the single country of Ukraine, directly on its border. Russia is constrained in its ability to project power beyond its country by systemic flaws in its logistics system. It is very difficult to get supplies beyond more than 180 miles away and virtually impossible beyond that without dedicated rail links.
It is understandable that people who live near Russia would be afraid that one day Russia might invade them as it invaded Ukraine, and that, no doubt, led Sweden and Finland to make a sudden U-turn on their long-held preferences for neutrality. But an unemotional evaluation of their neighborhood shows their fears are misplaced. Sweden and Finland are at no clearer risk of an attack from Moscow than they have been for the past 70 years.
Though the U.S. has also recently shown itself eager to expand the alliance to these countries, the accession of Sweden and, especially, Finland could hardly be said to further the American national interest. Finland shares a roughly 800-mile border with Russia that NATO would be committed to defend, and this defense — or the stationing of NATO military infrastructure in Finland — would risk antagonizing Russia.
Washington should at least be clear that if Finland becomes a NATO member, it expects that the Europeans would be tasked with defending Finland’s border, as the U.S. itself is already doing too much for the defense of wealthy and capable European countries.
None of this is to say that Russia doesn’t pose a danger to Europe, however. It does. But the nature of the threat isn’t conventional military power; it’s the massive Russian nuclear arsenal that could nearly wipe out the U.S. and Europe in an Armageddon-type scenario.
Author Harry Kazianis participated in a 2019 U.S. government exercise in which NATO and Russia eventually came to nuclear blows during a Ukraine war scenario — and the study predicted that at least 1 billion people would be killed in the ensuing exchange (no matter who fired the first shot).
The conventional Russian military has now been exposed as too weak to significantly threaten NATO in its current composition, and Finland and Sweden are under no apparent threat from Moscow if they remain outside the alliance — while the risk of nuclear escalation if they join could destroy our country and theirs. The U.S. has a great incentive to resist the knee-jerk emotional desire to expand NATO at this time. The risk to our national security is great, while the benefit is nonexistent.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the Army who was deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.