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Is NATO Membership for Finland and Sweden a Bad Idea?

JAS 39
Sweden's JAS 39. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

At its Madrid summit on Wednesday, NATO formally invited Finland and Sweden to join the alliance. In its Summit Declaration, NATO said inviting the two countries “will make them safer, NATO stronger, and the Euro-Atlantic more secure.” In the emotional environment of a major war burning in Ukraine at the hands of an aggressor-Russia, it’s not hard to understand why Finland and Sweden would desire to join NATO. But America must look at this move through rational eyes, looking to the long-term interests of our country, and not just the reflexive anti-Russian flush.

A sober analysis exposes that the NATO declaration is wrong on two major counts: accession of Helsinki and Stockholm will neither make NATO stronger nor make the Euro-Atlantic more secure – and it will definitely add more burden and risk to the United States.

First, let’s examine this invitation from the perspectives of Finland and Sweden. It is entirely understandable and logical that these two nations would desire to be in NATO. Both have a complicated and strained history with Russia, and given the war currently raging in their neighborhood between Russia and Ukraine, Helsinki and Stockholm realize that if Russia were to attack them, regardless of the reason, they would have very little hope of emerging victorious.

At present, Russia’s offensive capacity is greatly diminished from what it was prior to 24 February, as it has lost thousands of combat vehicles to enemy fire and tens of thousands of troops. But this condition is not permanent. In time, Russia will rebuild its strength, and again have an active force of approximately 168 battalion tactical groups, manned by an Army of approximately 280,000 soldiers (Russia had about 900,000 total active troops prior to the war, including army, navy, air force, and other specialties). Finland and Sweden don’t have anywhere near enough troops to hold off such a force.

The Finnish military currently has 200 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles, and is staffed with about 23,000 active troops. The Swedish Armed Forces have 121 tanks, 3,300 armored vehicles, and 16,000 active troops (of which, less than 7,000 are ground combat troops). Combined, the active forces of the two countries have roughly the same firepower as a reinforced American armored division (of four armored brigade combat teams). They would be able to slow down a Russian invasion, but not stop it. Thus, without question, the two nations would feel safer knowing they had the entire heft of NATO over their shoulder to protect them in the event of war.

But as my Defense Priorities’ colleague Mike Sweeny points out in his most recent explainer, it would be a logistics nightmare for NATO to defend Finland. First, in the event of hostilities, it would be incredibly difficult to send large numbers of NATO troops to defend the country, as Sweeny points out, there are “no direct land route to Finland” from continental Europe. Everything would have to be deployed via airlift.

Second, as hard as it would be to send ground troops to Finland and Sweden (there is likewise no direct land route to Sweden), supplying a sustained conflict to either or both countries would also have to be conducted by air, which Russia has demonstrated in its war with Ukraine it has an effective capacity to neutralize. If Russia were able to limit or prevent sustained flights of NATO troops and supplies, the Finns and Swedes would be unable to fight for long.

Third, and most importantly, as bad as it would be if Russia ever went to war with Finland or Sweden, it would not pose a direct risk to the security of the rest of Europe and NATO. But if the Atlantic Alliance has Article 5 obligations and joins a war directly against Russia, the chances of the conflict escalating to a nuclear confrontation rises dramatically. Once the nuclear threshold has been breached in a NATO-Russia war, the chances of American cities being attacked would become probable, not merely possible.

It would be bad if, in the future, Russia and Finland or Sweden went to war. But like the current conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, it would not affect the security of the United States or NATO, as our collective security would provide a powerful deterrent to Moscow escalating into existing NATO territory. If Finland and Sweden were part of NATO, Article 5 may indeed deter any future Russian leader from attacking – but if it didn’t, then the West would see a tragedy for two states turn into a potentially existential fight for the entire alliance.

Ultimately, NATO is supposed to be a defensive alliance that exists to preserve the security of the current members. America is already burdened by having to provide security guarantees for 29 other countries. Adding two more countries – especially one that has a large land border with nuclear-armed Russia – is adding risk to our country that is not offset by any measurable benefits.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Björn Forsman

    June 29, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    Interesting article, but the numbers of soldiers each of those two countries could muster in case of a invasion is wrong in the article, Finland has 280000 men in the warplaned defenceforce and a total of 900000 reservists.
    Sweden has only in the local defence (Hemvärnet) 22000 men that can mobilize with in hours. And around 30000 in the field army, on top of that there is a unregistred reserv of ex conscripts that has no placement in one of the active units. So there is more to bite in for a agressor than is mentioned in the article.

  2. Eric-ji

    June 29, 2022 at 2:20 pm

    In the sense that the Ukraine conflict threatens Europe, this statement is patently false: “…if Russia ever went to war with Finland or Sweden, it would not pose a direct risk to the security of the rest of Europe and NATO.”

    Second, to come to the defense of either Sweden or Finland, it may not be necessary to immediately deliver NATO personnel and materiel to either country. What might be more effective is for NATO to open up a MASSIVE second front. Say, through the Baltic states to St. Petersburg (and neutralizing Kaliningrad in the process). That certainly would get the Russian’s attention and take the heat off Sweden or Finland.

    Such action should be massive to be effective.

    Fortunately this is all hypothetical and likely to stay that way.

    To sum up, while admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO certainly puts the USA on the hook for more responsibilities, it makes total sense for the rest of NATO given the events in Ukraine. Happily NATO is bulking up it’s forces in light of Putin’s folly.

    • Him

      June 30, 2022 at 8:31 am

      Same as my thoughts.

    • Sam

      July 4, 2022 at 6:17 am

      War in Ukraine has not had any implications for the rest of Europe protected by article 1.

      If you can prove otherwise please state the case. Russia has not engaged any NATO countries with hostilities. I know Zalinski repeats that every five minutes to get more weapons and aid.

  3. GhostTomahawk

    June 29, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    It’s a bad idea if our goal is to honor our pledge with Russia for detente. Since we in the west decided to start gobbling up former eastern bloc nations into NATO Russia started to increase hostilities. Honestly I would too. If you’re going to put missile defense systems in my neighbors yard with the intent to use them on me for no reason… Ill be forced to increase my defensive abilities.

    The answer. Eliminate NATO. Alliances only create war. Time to stop being stupid.

    • Him

      June 30, 2022 at 8:30 am

      This statement – “the west decided to start gobbling up former eastern bloc nations into NATO” – is propaganda speech. The opposite is more true, where former eastern bloc countries, after suffering under Russian occupation, sought permission to join NATO to protect against the barbarism of Russia. After having suffered under Russia, these countries never against want to go through being under Russian domination. I appreciated these things from visiting the occupation-museums in the Baltic States showing evidence of Russian death camps where thousands of Baltic citizens died under the hands of Russians, similar to what Russia did to Ukrainians in the war crimes in Bucha and other cities.

      • Biggus the Roman

        June 30, 2022 at 4:56 pm

        It absolutely is true. The military industrial complex could not survive the fall of the Soviet Union. Therefore, instead of jumping on the opportunity to turn Russian into an ally, disband NATO, and restore peace, we chose to double down on military investment, build emplacements along their borders, and ostracize them on the international stage whenever possible. The complex needed an enemy to justify expenditure and thus even though the cold war ended in history – financially, militarily, and diplomatically, the US continued to wage it against Russia. We are our own worst enemy – we’ve created, instigated, and enabled the Russia we see today – honestly, into the image of exactly the perceived “threat” those that benefit want it to be. C’mon – can you image how the US would have reacted if Mexico joined the Warsaw Pact? Canada allowed Russian Missile Defense emplacements in Quebec? The US has led or been covertly involved in the overthrow and manipulation of more than 60+ regimes throughout the world over the past 50 years – we do so for the political and financial benefit of our elite class. Even Zelenksy was the product of continuous US intervention in Ukrainian politics. Russia is tired of it – and likely they are justified in the defense of real threats to their sovereignty. We’ve been poking the bear for years hoping for exactly the response we are seeing.

    • iGreg

      July 1, 2022 at 3:22 am

      I have to agree. As soon as the Soviet Union fell we began enlarging NATO right up to the Baltic States. There was no reason for that. The West was fully capable of helping the newly free states with financial and military aid without bringing them formally into NATO. They are close neighbors of Russia, and they will have to be neighbors with them forever. Making them part of an anti-Russian alliance only exacerbates the tensions. There is also the fact that Russia is no longer an international imperial Communist threat, its culture has been reverting to a more Czarist/Orthodox Christian tradition.

  4. Interesting article....

    June 29, 2022 at 3:45 pm

    What an article. Daniel Davis, im sorry, but your isolationist articles have been caught up by reality.

    In the case of the wish of Russia to conquer parts of Europe, European countries would fall one by one if they were picked off individually. They are strong together because of NATO and that makes the threshold high enough to not be attacked unless there is no other way for Russia. That threshold will only become higher, because Sweden and Finland have proportionally strong military’s.

    Russia has proven that we don’t have to be afraid of their military. So lets not act like we should be scared when we should stand form together against this monsterous regime. In short, Russians pretend they have balls, but we have them.

  5. S Smith

    June 29, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    The Author appears to be unaware of the Oresund Bridge that connects both the road and rail networks of Europe and Scandinavia.

  6. Bill in Houston

    June 29, 2022 at 4:27 pm

    There is a direct land route from Europe to Sweden. The Oresund Bridge. It goes from Copenhagen to Malmo. Mind you, it would make quite a target for Soviet… errr, Russian forces.

    • S Smith

      June 30, 2022 at 9:20 am

      How is that different from all the other road and rail bridges. Back in the days of the cold war the Schildesche viaduct carried 90% of the rail traffic to Hamburg.

  7. ton

    June 29, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    the finnish have fought much bigger russian armies before, with plenty of succes, and yes they lost in the end but that is because they had no resupply of backing

    the swedish militairy is world class it might be light on armour, but have you seen the map of sweden? its navy and airforce are equal to all and use localy produced weapons designed for the needs of their armed forces.

    i doubt russia would have an easy time

    • Begemot

      June 29, 2022 at 8:14 pm

      If Finland and Sweden are such formidable military powers, as you say, it would seem they really have no need to join NATO.

  8. Jerry Mander

    June 29, 2022 at 5:07 pm

    This is Globalist expansion, not “NATO” expansion. Ukraine is Globalist. We are Globalist. Western Europe is Globalist. This is about crushing Russia and turning it Globalist. Look into it if you don’t know this already.

  9. Error402

    June 29, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    Inclusion of sweden and finland into the 21st century Tripartite Pact is reason enough to increase and maximize one’s nuclear arsenal.

    The 21st century tripartites are always eager to employ military force (libya, iraq, etc..), economic force (sanctions, bans, etc..), subversion (proxy wars, social unrests, etc..) and gunboat policy (provocations, demands, etc..) to force nations into obedience and submit to their takeover and be annointed with the mark.

    NATO is thus forcing those without the mark of the beast to face nuclear struggle – the unavoidable struggle to equip adequately with nuclear weaponry.

  10. Goran

    June 29, 2022 at 9:41 pm

    “If Russia were able to limit or prevent sustained flights of NATO troops and supplies, the Finns and Swedes would be unable to fight for long.” (Daniel Davis)

    If.

  11. Slava

    June 30, 2022 at 12:54 am

    What a dumb take. After this Putin incursion, there will be no threat other than the tried and true ‘nuclear’ one. Already shown is the RF airforce is rather, can I say, lacking. You are talking about a time years hence should the RF ever recover from their lacking. If it’s all nukes, well end of story, otherwise you are quite wrong. Having stronger alliances is ONLY good in MO, of course.

  12. ronjamin

    June 30, 2022 at 9:38 am

    The article and the comments are mired in propaganda and BS.

    The ENTIRE raison d’être for Russia in Ukraine is GAS & OIL.

    Ukraine discovered a massive oil/gas reserve in the early 2000s, right when fracking came on strong world-wide. Russia saw that this directly threatened their own Gas Mafia dominance, so they started with poisonings, rigged elections, assassinations, nuclear terrorism, etc. The Donbass and Crimea are swimming in oil and gas. It’s nothing else. Nato expansion is BS. Bringing in ethnic Russians is BS. “Attacks on Russians” is BS.

  13. Steven

    June 30, 2022 at 9:43 am

    Russia’s air ability would be neutralized. NATO (USA) would own the skys.

    Disappointing article.

  14. Neil Ross Hutchings

    July 1, 2022 at 8:12 am

    An excellent article. There is no strategic benefit for Russia to invade and occupy either Finland or Sweden. If only the U.S. hadn’t rejected the Soviet Union’s application to join NATO in the 50s, Europe would likely be better off today.

    • Neil Ross Hutchings

      July 1, 2022 at 8:14 am

      Just more offensive behaviour from NATO.

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