Analysis |

Biden's Resolve, Putin's Calamity: NATO Will Be Stronger With Finland and Sweden

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the Finns and Swedes against joining NATO, but then did the one thing that would push them to join. Now the military alliance needs to get Turkey and Hungary on board

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Swedish and Finnish tanks are seen during a military exercise called "Cold Response 2022", gathering around 30,000 troops from NATO member countries plus Finland and Sweden
Swedish and Finnish during a military exercise with troops from NATO member countries Credit: YVES HERMAN/ REUTERS
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

When Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson arrive in Washington Thursday to jointly meet U.S. President Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin’s strategic calamity will be cast in iron in the annals of strategic follies. The man whose flawed assumption that NATO was inevitably weakening managed to do what no U.S. president or European leader succeeded in doing for decades: bolster and consolidate the alliance.

On the flip side, the visit will coronate Biden’s masterful management of the crisis due to his experience, resolve, determination and tenacity. Whether that helps Democrats in the congressional midterm elections in November is a questionable premise. Voting will be affected more by inflation, gas prices, abortion and immigration than by Ukraine, but Biden’s presidency at home and abroard has undoubtedly been amplified by his handling of the Russian president.

In a speech to Sweden’s parliament on Tuesday, visiting Finnish President Niinistö said that Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership would bolster the Nordic nations, which already “form a strong northern European quintet.”

In fact, despite their ostensible and official neutrality, both countries became official partners to NATO back in 1994, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Both have participated in large-scale NATO exercises, but officially becoming a member is a force multiplier – even though Sweden already indicated that, similarly to Denmark and Norway, it will not allow nuclear weapons to be deployed on its soil nor host NATO bases. That serves both Sweden’s ideological neutral stance and to alleviate potential tensions with Russia

The stakes are high not only because Finland and Sweden intend to join or Russia riling against it. In addition, it may not go as smoothly or quickly as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has pledged if Turkey – and conceivably Hungary – remain adamant in opposing the process.

The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is a very significant development in European security architecture that should not be reduced to merely an issue of “NATO expansion.” The United States knows that, NATO knows that and, judging by the vociferous reactions and warnings it has issued, so does Russia.

A soldier in the Swedish Army during a field exercise on the Swedish island of Gotland on Tuesday.Credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND - AFP

There are three main factors to consider:

1. NATO is strengthening and gaining two advanced economies and modern militaries with strong navies. With Finland, NATO is now adding a 1,335-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia and advanced intelligence capabilities regarding Russia. Both countries have strong standing armies and Finland is the only [potential] NATO country to have a conscription law and strong reserve armed forces.

Sweden spends $7.2 billion on defense annually and Finland $5.8 billion, though their contribution may not be limited to the defense expenditure figure but to both countries’ concept of “total defense”: conscription, mobilization, trained reserve army and high-quality advanced equipment. By comparison, Britain spends $52 billion on defense annually, but cannot deploy a fighting force the size or as well trained as either Finland or Sweden.

2. The Baltic Sea region will become a NATO basin: With the exception of Russia, all Baltic-area countries will be part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will create a diplomatic and military counterbalance, and a potentially hostile region for Russia.

3. It represents a major setback for Russia. That’s quite a strategic blunder for Mr. Putin, who used “NATO expansion” as an excuse and the pretext for his invasion, miscalculated NATO’s resolve and estimated that the alliance would crumble under internal dissent and discord once he threatened to invade Ukraine.

Turkey, however, isn’t impressed with these advantageous factors.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during a ceremony to mark Sweden's and Finland's application for membership, in Brussels on Wednesday.Credit: JOHANNA GERON - AFP

Article 10 of the NATO treaty, on the accession of new members, specifically requires unanimous consent of all existing members: “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.”

This is a very simple article. Any country can veto the admittance of any other country, and NATO has no built-in, organic mechanism of overruling one country’s opposition, whatever that country’s arguments may be.

In early March, 10 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Finland and Sweden indicated their interest and later their intent to join NATO, the conventional wisdom was that Hungary would raise problems because of the illiberal, semi-autocrat and Putin crony Viktor Orbán. NATO politicos and experts were confident that if and when Finland and Sweden expressed their practical and official desire to joint the military alliance, Hungary’s possible opposition will be allayed by the European Union, which would partially exempt Budapest from sanctions on energy imports from Russia and avert a NATO crisis.

But then came Turkey, a country with a mixed record and history in NATO.

“Turkey is not favorable,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last Friday. “There is no need for [Finnish and Swedish diplomatic delegations] to come here.” Turkey’s main contention is that Finland and Sweden support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the movement of exiled political and religious leader Fethullah Gülen, both of whom Ankara regards as terrorist groups.

Sweden, Erdogan charged Monday, is a “hatchery” for terrorist organizations. It is worth remembering that Sweden suspended all arms sales to Turkey in 2019, in response to violent incursions into northeastern Syria and clashes with the Kurds that Turkey cynically called Operation Peace Spring.

Finnish reservists taking part in a local defense exercise in southeastern Finland in March.Credit: Lauri Heino/AP

While it should be stressed that at no point has Turkey clearly expressed that it intends to veto the two Nordic countries joining NATO, it does create a major political headache. Optimists believe the differences are surmountable, that Turkey can be negotiated with and Erdogan – facing an election in 2023 – is just playing tough, catering to the Turkish nationalistic vote that despises the PKK, and will eventually settle for the semblance of a political compromise.

Yet pessimists see a potentially bigger problem if Turkey remains intransigent and Hungary follows suit. The fundamental political problem is that there’s very little NATO can do, since there is no “expulsion mechanism.” Article 10 explicitly states the criteria and process of joining, but effectively no country can be suspended or expelled from the alliance.

Twice in recent times there were calls to expel Turkey from NATO. In 2016, following the coup attempt, Erdogan initiated a ruthless campaign against those he believed to be the perpetrators. At around the same time, Turkey – a NATO member and participant in the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program – announced that it was acquiring the advanced Russian S-400 air-defense system. The idea that a NATO member, about to receive the most advanced U.S. jet, would then buy the one system that could possibly cope with the plane was unfathomable. The United States ended up removing Turkey from the program, but tensions with NATO persisted.

Then, in 2019, Turkish incursions into Syria and military activities against the Kurds, who are considered U.S. allies, led to a second demand to consider ejecting Turkey. In both instances, Turkey’s critics had a justifiable and strong case. In both instances, it was deemed impossible due to the absence of a suspension provision in the treaty’s covenant.

This is actually a strange and very conspicuous absence. Articles 5 and 6 of the UN Charter allow for suspension and expulsion. The Statute of the Council of Europe has such a mechanism, as does the EU Treaty (Article 7).

NATO is ostensibly a values-based organization, as detailed in the preamble and again in Article 10. Disputes are to be resolved through diplomatic negotiations. When the idea and concept of NATO was conceived, in 1947 and 1948, the only country that insisted on an expulsion mechanism was Canada. The rationale was that if a country ceased to adhere to the core values forming the foundation of the alliance, or refused to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, then that country would not belong in the mutual defense organization.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arriving for a ceremony at the presidential palace, in Ankara on Monday.Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

The United States and United Kingdom had a different, more practical and political perspective. In the context of the developing Cold War and the zero-sum game being played with the Soviet Union, a public debate on expelling a member would expose internal discord and deep differences, and weaken the alliance.

The U.S. Senate wasn’t convinced, partly on substance and partly because of politics: alliance management would relinquish constitutional powers on issues of war to the executive branch, so Congress should at least maintain authority to review membership.

In a series of hearings in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that eventually led to the Vandenberg Resolution of June 1948, effectively establishing NATO, the debate continued. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was skeptical, although he was the one raising the possible problem of a member state turning communist – specifically referring to Italy, where the Communist Party was powerful in the postwar years.

The Senate committee, headed by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg – a Republican who cooperated closely with Democratic President Harry S. Truman in shaping the post-World War II world – then raised the issue and term “material breach.” This was cited as an argument against Turkey in 2016 and 2019, and may be rehashed in 2022.

The concept of “material breach” here came from Article 60 of the Vienna Convention on law treaties, which deals with cases where a signatory country repudiates a treaty or violates provisions “essential to the accomplishment of the object of purpose of the treaty.”

This principle exists and can theoretically be applied – though it’s highly unlikely – to Turkey and any other country that vetoes the Finnish and Swedish accession.

On balance, NATO will be substantially strengthened by the addition of Finland and Sweden. While NATO would naturally prefer to avoid a public debate and display of disunity which might become acrimonious, and will try to ameliorate whatever concerns – real or manufactured – Turkey and perhaps Hungary have, ultimately even that debate is worth the price of a revamped and more muscular alliance.

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