Finnish membership will double NATO’s land border with Russia, adding more than 800 miles. It will also bolster the alliance’s presence around the Baltic Sea and enhance its position in the Arctic.
To justify his unprovoked attack on Ukraine, Putin cited the possibility of NATO expansion. Now, his war has brought a bigger, stronger NATO to his door.
At NATO’s headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, Turkey — the last NATO country to ratify Finland’s membership — will hand its documents to Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the United States is the depository of the alliance’s 1949 treaty.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will then invite Finland to do the same — officially making it the alliance’s 31st member.
“We will raise the Finnish flag for the first time here at NATO headquarters,” Stoltenberg said on Monday. “It will be a good day for Finland’s security, for Nordic security, and for NATO as a whole.”
But the fact that Sweden’s flag won’t go up, too, speaks to the challenge of keeping NATO allies united, even in the face of Russia’s threats.
Finland and Sweden applied for membership on the same day last spring. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine convinced both countries of the need to abandon their stance of military nonalignment. And they assessed that joining NATO in tandem, as quickly as possible, would be the best way to shield themselves from Russian retaliation.
But membership applications must be approved by all existing NATO countries. And Turkey positioned itself as a spoiler, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan using the process to extract concessions and score domestic political points. Although he ultimately came around on Finland, he has continued to hold out on Sweden, citing Stockholm’s refusal to extradite those he calls “terrorists” affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Hungary is stalling, too. Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman for the Hungarian government, laid out a list of grievances last week against Stockholm, accusing its representatives of “using their political influence to harm Hungarian interests” and lambasting the country’s “crumbling throne of moral superiority.” It is not clear whether Hungary has specific demands.
NATO officials and diplomats express confidence that both member states will eventually back down. But it is not clear how soon that might happen. Few believe there will be movement before Turkish elections next month.
There is concern across the alliance that Turkey and Hungary have been willing to hand a symbolic victory to Russia — and that the rest of NATO has not been able to stop them.
“The risk is that this brings a wedge into NATO,” said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council. “Allies need to pay more attention, collectively, to this process.”
On Monday, Stoltenberg stressed: “We should not leave the impression … that Sweden is left alone.” He noted that some NATO allies have already offered bilateral security assurances to Stockholm, and he suggested that full membership for Finland will help keep neighboring Sweden safe, too.
Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said the delay was not ideal but would indeed be temporary. “Turkey is probably close to overplaying their hand, but they will squeeze as much out of it as they can,” he said.
“Nobody should be worried about NATO,” he added. “There’s a reason there is a queue to join. Nobody is knocking on the Kremlin’s door saying, ‘Hey, let us back in.’”
Finnish officials continue to express support for Sweden’s bid. Announcing that all 30 NATO members had ratified Finland’s membership last week, President Sauli Niinisto tweeted: “We look forward to welcoming Sweden to join us as soon as possible.”
In the years since Finnish soldiers on skis helped fight off Soviet invaders, the country has aligned itself with Europe, joining the European Union and becoming a close NATO partner, while still trying to engage Russia.
But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine prompted a surge of support in Finland not only for sanctions on Russia, but also for becoming part of NATO and its mutual defense pact.
Although an election in Finland over the weekend resulted in the ousting of Prime Minister Sanna Marin, the country’s stance on NATO and Ukraine is not expected to change.
Russian officials have said they will bolster defenses in the country’s northwest in response to Finnish membership, according to Russian media.
However, NATO officials and diplomats downplay the threat of significant Russian retaliation, noting its muted response to Finland’s bid so far, as well as the fact that its forces are tied up in Ukraine.