NATO Shouldn't Rubber-Stamp Finland's Bid to Join | Opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dug Russia into a massive geopolitical hole. The country he so desperately wants to develop as a 21st century superpower is now weaker today than it was before the invasion of Ukraine. His war of choice was supposed to be a relatively quick and painless affair, where Russian soldiers would easily strut into Kyiv, push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into exile and be thanked by a grateful Ukrainian population with cheers and flowers. It hasn't worked out that way.

The invasion is nothing short of a hard, long slog for the Russian soldiers who are unfortunate enough to execute orders from incompetent officers. While Moscow may be making small territorial inroads in the east (according to Ukrainian security officials, Russian forces have taken about 80 percent of the Donbas), the gains are coming at a steep cost in Russian lives and equipment. Outside the battlefield, Putin's war is diminishing Russia's geopolitical position and threatening its economy with an 11 percent contraction. Nearly 4 million Russians have left Russia this year, including tens of thousands of high-skilled technology workers who no longer see a near-term future in their own country.

Putin can now pat himself on the back for something else: convincing a Finnish political elite that was wedded to military non-alignment between NATO and Russia for plunging fully into the Western camp. This week, after weeks of intense deliberations, Finland's President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin released a joint statement endorsing Helsinki's bid to join NATO. Finland's neighbor Sweden is likely to submit its own application to NATO as soon as next week.

Finland's application for NATO membership will likely be approved rapidly. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg all but confirmed that the alliance would essentially rubber-stamp Finland's (and Sweden's) accession without so much as a furrowed brow. "It's their decision," Stoltenberg told reporters last month. "But if they decide to apply, Finland and Sweden will be warmly welcomed, and I expect that process to go quickly." Washington immediately praised Helsinki's decision, with Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby calling it "historic." Western diplomats have indicated that Finland's acceptance into the alliance is a done deal, even if lawmakers in all of NATO's 30 member states need to approve it.

NATO, however, would be making a mistake fast-tracking Finland's accession. This isn't because Finland has a mediocre military or fails to meet NATO standards. Given the Finnish military's recent history of training exercises with the alliance, it wouldn't take much work to fully integrate the Nordic nation into NATO structures.

Bringing another member into NATO, however, is a weighty decision that comes with serious and solemn defense responsibilities for the rest of the alliance. This is particular true for the United States, which by virtue of its size, military heft and leadership role in NATO's own institutions—the alliance's top general has always been an American—has carried NATO on its back ever since the organization was established 73 years ago.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint press conference. VESA MOILANEN/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images

Whether or not one supports expanding NATO into the Nordic region, the very least we can expect is an honest debate about the matter. The West has tended to view NATO enlargement as a net benefit for European security. But as my colleague at Defense Priorities, Benjamin Friedman, pointed out, one must be mindful of the risks as well.

Russia, for instance, won't take too kindly with NATO doubling the size of its joint border. The Kremlin has already telegraphed that it could respond to the decision with deployments of nuclear missiles in the Baltic region. The Baltic Sea could become a highly congested body of water with NATO and Russian vessels in more frequent contact. Moscow may not hold a veto over who gets to be a NATO member state, but it does have the power to retaliate at a time, place and mode of its own choosing.

The more fundamental point, though, is that NATO's enlargement comes with inherent and unavoidable risk. Simply stated: the larger the alliance is, the more territory its member states will need to defend in the event of a security crisis. By granting Finland membership, the U.S. and the rest of the alliance are in effect saying they are willing to fight a war with Russia, even a potentially nuclear one, in order to defend Finnish territory.

This wouldn't be as big of an issue if responsibilities within the alliance were spread out evenly among its members. But this has never been the case. Most of the burden lies on Washington's shoulders. It is the U.S. that is often called to duty and expected to lead the response, with token European military support. The crisis in Ukraine is no different; the U.S. troop presence in Europe has surged to 100,000 (a 20 percent increase since January), the highest since 2005. The U.K., which decided to station 8,000 personnel in Europe between April and June, is a distant second. France, one of the most capable militaries on the European continent, has deployed 500 troops to Romania and another 200 to Estonia since Russia's invasion, less than 4 percent of what the U.S. has contributed during the same time.

If the U.S. chooses to support Finland's NATO accession, then it should insist that Europeans, not Americans, are the ones deploying troops to Finnish territory and helping Helsinki defend the 830 mile-long Russian-Finnish border. Such a step would not only introduce a little more equitability into NATO operations, but would go a long way toward matching Europe's newfound rhetoric about defense with concrete action.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.