Viewed from the cabin of a B-52H Stratofortress high over Sweden, three Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets emerge from the clouds as escorts during a recent bomber task force mission. Sweden, long a nonaligned ally, will soon join NATO as a full member of the alliance, an expansion driven by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Tech. Sgt. Corban Lundborg
Photo Caption & Credits

Strategy & Policy: After Ukraine, A Stronger NATO 

Aug. 30, 2022

Whether Vladimir Putin calculated that the West would shrug off his invasion of Ukraine or respond with little more than sanctions, he now faces a far stronger NATO—enlarged with new members, invigorated with more troops on alert, equipped with more advanced equipment, and committed to increased defense spending. 

The U.S. Senate voted 95-1 in early August to approve the inclusion of Finland and Sweden into NATO. The two countries were officially invited to join the alliance on June 29; every NATO ally must agree to adding new members. All but a few alliance members have ratified their admission thus far, and none are anticipated to oppose their inclusion. 

Russia’s closest ally among NATO members, Turkey, offered mild objection, but quickly relented when it received assurances that Finland and Sweden would moderate their support for Turkish opposition groups that Ankara brands as terrorists.   

The addition of Finland and Sweden will bring to 32 the number of full NATO members, and put all of Scandinavia—Denmark and Norway in the NATO column. It adds 800 miles of NATO border to Russia’s frontier, including nearly all of the Baltic Sea (except for Russian access on the Gulf of Finland near St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, Russia’s isolated enclave on the Polish coast).  

The two new members also bring under the NATO banner hundreds of combat aircraft with modern gear and weapons, thousands of armored combat vehicles, dozens of modern naval vessels, and nearly 100,000 military personnel. In addition, while Sweden alone has some 60,000 personnel under arms among its Active, Guard, Reserve, and conscription forces, Stockholm intends to increase that figure to 90,000 by 2025. 

Finland ordered 64 F-35s prior to its NATO application, which will give it one of the largest stealth aircraft fleets in Europe when the jets are delivered over the next eight years, eventually replacing Finland’s 55 U.S.-made F/A-18s. Finland also has more than 60 U.S.-made AGM-158 JASSM stealthy ground-attack missiles and an array of American air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance. 

Although there Russian and Swedish or Finnish forces held goodwill visits over the decades, the two Scandinavian countries more often exercised with NATO. They also share Western equipment—Sweden uses U.S. GE F404 engines in its frontline generation 4+ Gripen fighters, for example, and they also use U.S. weapons. Integration with NATO should be quick and practically seamless.

The only “no” vote in the Senate came from Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who said “expanding NATO … will commit us to sending more troops and spending more money and devoting more resources to Europe,” distracting from China’s threat. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) countered that a stronger NATO “allows us to focus on China.”

No Downsides

James J. Townsend Jr., adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security program, said neither Finland nor Sweden come with any baggage such as Hungary’s autocratic-leaning Viktor Orban, or Turkey’s Recip Erdogan. 

“Basically, there are no downsides,” he said.  Neither Finland nor Sweden come with any “pre-existing conflict” that could be “flashpoints” with Russia, and each has thousands of trained troops and top-of-the-line military equipment and training.

“They are not going to cost us anything,” said Townsend, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for NATO and European Defense for eight years during the Obama administration. Neither country needs NATO to build any bases in their country, and when exercises are run on a member’s soil, “typically … it’s the host nation that pays,” he said. 

As for facilities, those would be funded by NATO when needed. If NATO needed a warning radar in Finland, for example, NATO would pay, just as NATO funded a tank disembarkation port in Bayonne, N.J., because the facility benefited the alliance, not just the U.S.

Adding Sweden and Finland expands NATO’s ability to monitor Russian activities in the Arctic, particularly submarine activity, Townsend continued. 

Finland and Sweden are “as solid as they come” as independent democracies, and both “learned a bitter lesson” from Denmark and Norway being seized by Nazi Germany in WWII. Finland “fought the … Soviets twice,” Townsend said, and both have “kept up with their defense.” 

Today, they have two of the most modern defense enterprises in Europe, Townsend said, with an intertwined defense and commercial industry. In fact, they are in far better shape than some NATO members, in particular former Warsaw Pact countries that are still using old Soviet hardware.  

Finland and Sweden might have stayed out of a conflict in the Baltics in the past, Townsend said, but now, “they’ve solidified our northern flank.” 

For Russia, their joining NATO is “more a complication” than “catastrophic,” because neither poses a direct threat to Russia.  

“What’s happened is that it’s … removed the ambiguity” for Russia over whether it would face the two countries in a fight with NATO, he said. Until now, “they didn’t know” if Finland and Sweden would join a war on the side of NATO; “now they do.” Under Article Five of the NATO charter, an attack on any member is considered an attack on all.

The two countries also have a long history of standing alongside NATO “in real world operations … like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. They played various roles” in those countries, “so they’re not an unknown quantity” to the alliance. 

NATO’s 12 charter members included Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the U.K., and the U.S (1949). Greece and Turkey came aboard in 1952; Germany in 1955, and “NATO’s 16 Nations” was set when Spain joined up in 1982. It would be 17 years before the next big expansion in 1999, when former Warsaw Pact nations Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland signed on, followed by the “big bang” expansion of 2004, when Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were added. Albania and Croatia were admitted in 2009; Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020.

Ukraine was put on the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2008, but its membership was put off in 2010 when then President Viktor Yanukovich wanted to remain unaligned. Following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, the government resumed talks to join NATO and at the 2021 NATO Brussels summit, Ukraine was back on the MAP, which sets conditions for membership, including military readiness and interoperability requirements. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia would not have a “veto” over Ukraine’s membership, but Putin disagreed, invading Ukraine earlier this year. With war underway, admitting Ukraine now would be tantamount to declaring war on Russia.  

NATO’s Biggest Overhaul

In the wake of Russia’s invasion NATO has stepped up defense spending, accelerating a trend that began a few years earlier. Since 2014, when NATO nations committed to spending at least 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on defense, alliance members have collectively increased defense spending “well over 350 billion U.S. dollars,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in June. The U.S. alone added $58.1 billion increase to its 2022 funded programs the Pentagon didn’t ask for, however. 

In a press conference on the eve of the NATO Madrid summit in June, Stoltenberg said Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had made Russia “the most significant and direct threat to our security.” NATO increased the number of “our highest-readiness forces” from just 40,000 in the NATO Response Force to over 300,000, and agreed to alliance-wide “pre-positioning … and stockpiles of military supplies,” he said. It has added “more forward-deployed capabilities, like air defense,” strengthened command and control, and upgraded its defense plans, he stated, “with forces pre-assigned to defend specific allies.” 

These forces “will exercise together with the home defense forces” of individual countries, to become better acquainted with the terrain, facilities, and pre-positioned gear, he noted, “so they can respond smoothly and swiftly to any emergency.”

Overall, Stoltenberg said, “this constitutes the biggest overhaul of our collective deterrence and defense since the Cold War.” 

Nine allies have reached or exceeded the goal; 19 have plans in place to reach it by 2024, and “five have made commitments to meet it thereafter,”  according Stoltenberg.  That’s a huge change since 2014 when only three countries met the 2 percent threshold. What’s more, he said, 2 percent is “a floor, not a ceiling.” 

The alliance has committed billions in defensive gear to help Ukraine defend itself and has “a new 1 billion Euro NATO Innovation Fund” to invest in dual-use emerging technologies.

Stoltenberg noted that NATO is deepening ties to allies including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, all of which attended the NATO summit “for the first time.” Georgia—which Russia invaded in 2008—also participated, as did representatives of the European Union. Concerns about China were a consistent theme during the Madrid summit. 

Article 5 Is Real

Expressing confidence that Putin “understands our collective security guarantees … and the consequences” of attacking any NATO member Stoltenberg voiced concern about “the military buildup in Kaliningrad,” where Russia has deployed its most advanced S-400 air defense systems. That gives Moscow the potential ability to shoot down aircraft long before they approach Russia, while they’re still deep inside Germany and Poland, or high over the Baltic Sea. 

Stoltenberg touted increased Baltic Air Policing and an influx of 40,000 troops under NATO command, “most of them in the eastern part of the alliance and many in the Baltic region.” The intent: “to send a message that we are ready to defend every inch of allied territory.” 

He said that military actions go hand-in-hand with economic sanctions, which the alliance rapidly imposed on Russia and which members are sticking with.

Russia agreed as recently as 2010 to be open to arms control talks with NATO, and to have “strategic dialogs” aimed at peaceful conflict resolution. But that’s done now, Stoltenberg said, …  Russia is “no longer … a strategic partner.” 

Stoltenberg noted the billions of dollars’ worth of both lethal and humanitarian aid NATO countries are providing, individually, to Ukraine and promised the flow will continue.

“The allies are prepared for the long haul,” he said. Ukrainians are “fighting for their independence …but also fighting for the values which are important for NATO, fundamental for NATO: the sovereignty [and] territorial integrity of every nation. Therefore, this matters for our security.”