WASHINGTON — In embracing Finland’s, and soon Sweden’s, move to join NATO, President Biden and his Western allies are doubling down on a bet that Russia has made such a huge strategic mistake over the past three months that now is the time to make President Vladimir V. Putin pay a major price: enduring the expansion of the very Western alliance he sought to fracture.
But the decision leaves hanging several major questions. Why not allow Ukraine — the flawed, corrupt but also heroic democracy at the heart of the current conflict — to join as well, enshrining the West’s commitment to its security?
And in expanding NATO to 32 members, soon with hundreds of additional miles of border with Russia, is the military alliance helping ensure that Russia could never again mount a vicious, unprovoked invasion? Or is it only solidifying the divide with an isolated, angry, nuclear-armed adversary that is already paranoid about Western “encirclement”?
The White House welcomed the announcement on Thursday by Finland’s leaders that their country should “apply for NATO membership without delay,” while Swedish leaders were expected to do the same within days. Russia, not surprisingly, said it would take “retaliatory steps,” including a “military-technical” response, which many experts interpreted as a threat to deploy tactical nuclear weapons near the Russian-Finnish border.
For weeks, American officials have quietly been meeting with both Finnish and Swedish officials, planning out how to bolster security guarantees for the two countries while their applications to join the alliance are pending.
To Mr. Biden and his aides, the argument for letting Finland and Sweden in, and keeping Ukraine out, is fairly straightforward. The two Nordic states are model democracies and modern militaries that the United States and other NATO nations regularly conduct exercises with, working together to track Russian subs, protect undersea communications cables and run air patrols across the Baltic Sea.
In short, they have been NATO allies in every sense except the formal one — and the invasion of Ukraine ended virtually all of the debate about whether the two countries would be safer by keeping some distance from the alliance.
“We have stayed out of NATO for 30 years — we could have joined in the early ’90s,” Mikko Hautala, the Finnish ambassador to the United States, said on Thursday as he was walking the halls of the U.S. Senate, drumming up support for his country’s sudden change of course. Trying to avoid provoking Mr. Putin, he said, “hasn’t changed Russia’s actions at all.”
Ukraine, in contrast, was at the core of the old Soviet Union that Mr. Putin is trying to rebuild, at least in part. And while it altered its Constitution three years ago to make NATO membership a national objective, it has been considered too full of corruption and too devoid of democratic institutions to make membership likely for years, if not decades, to come.
Key members of NATO — led by France and Germany — have made clear they are opposed to including Ukraine. It is a view that has hardened now that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is engaged in an active shooting war in which the United States and the other 29 members of the alliance would be treaty-bound to enter directly if Ukraine was a full-fledged member, covered by its core promise that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Mr. Zelensky understands this dynamic, and weeks into the conflict, he dropped his insistence that Ukraine be ushered into NATO. In late March, a month after the Russian invasion and a point when there still seemed some prospect of a diplomatic solution, he made clear that if it would bring about a permanent end to the war, he was prepared to declare Ukraine a “neutral” state.
“Security guarantees and neutrality, nonnuclear status of our state — we are ready to go for it,” he told Russian journalists, a line he has repeated several times since.
Those statements were a relief to Mr. Biden, whose first objective is to get the Russians out of Ukraine, irreversibly, but whose second is to avoid World War III.
By that, he means staying clear of direct conflict with Mr. Putin’s forces and avoiding doing anything that risks escalation that could quickly turn nuclear. If Ukraine was ushered into NATO, it would reinforce Mr. Putin’s contention that the former Soviet state was conspiring with the West to destroy the Russian state — and it could be only a matter of time until that direct confrontation broke out, with all its perils.
Under that logic, Mr. Biden declined to send MIG fighters to Ukraine that could be used to bomb Moscow. He rejected a no-fly zone over Ukraine because of the risk that American pilots could get into dogfights with Russian pilots.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
But his once-clear line has grown fuzzier over the past few weeks.
As Russia’s military weaknesses and incompetence became clear, Mr. Biden approved sending the Ukrainians heavy artillery to frustrate Russia’s latest drive in Donbas, and he has sent missiles and Switchblade drones that have been used to hit Russian tanks.
When the administration denounced reports last week that the United States was providing Ukraine with intelligence that helped it sink the Moskva, the pride of Mr. Putin’s naval fleet, and target mobile Russian command posts and the Russian generals sitting inside them, the reason for the upset was clear. The revelations showed how close to the line Washington was getting in provoking Mr. Putin.
The question now is whether expanding NATO risks cementing a new Cold War — and perhaps something worse. It is a debate similar to the one that took place during the Clinton administration when there were warnings about the dangers of NATO expansion. George F. Kennan, the architect of the post-World War II “containment” strategy to isolate the Soviet Union, called the expansion “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”
Last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the chief executive of the New America think tank, warned that “all parties concerned should take a deep breath and slow down.”
“The threat of Russia invading either Finland or Sweden is remote,” she wrote in The Financial Times. “But admitting them to the military alliance will redraw and deepen Europe’s 20th-century divisions in ways that will probably preclude far bolder and braver thinking about how to achieve peace and prosperity in the 21st.”
That is the long-term concern. In the shorter term, NATO and American officials are concerned about how to assure that Russia does not threaten either Finland or Sweden before they are formal members of the alliance. (That assumes no current member of the alliance objects; many believe Mr. Putin will lean on Hungary and its prime minister, Viktor Orban, to reject the applications.) Only Britain has been explicit on the issue, signing a separate security pact with the two countries. The United States has not said what security assurances it is willing to give.
But it has blamed Mr. Putin for bringing NATO expansion upon himself by invading a neighbor. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, loosely quoted Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, who made clear that Ukraine had forced the Finns to think differently about their security.
“You caused this,” she said of Mr. Putin. “Look at the mirror.”