(CNN) — The most surprising aspect of Sweden and Finland’s application to join NATO is how little debate there is about whether it is a good idea.
The entry of the two Nordic nations would be the most significant geopolitical outcome of the Ukraine war, transforming the strategic security landscape in northeastern Europe and adding hundreds of miles of direct NATO borders with Russia.
For decades, even during the most tense moments of the Cold War, neither country seemed to feel the need to join the Western military alliance despite their proximity to the Eastern giant. But that changed this year, after Putin sent tanks across the border into Ukraine in February.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on Sunday described the invasion of Ukraine as “illegal and indefensible” and expressed concern that Moscow could do something similar “in our immediate neighborhood.” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö told CNN the same day that the invasion indicated Russia was ready to attack an “independent neighboring country.”
Many analysts believe that one of the main goals of the Russian invasion was to weaken NATO by taking Kyiv’s possible future membership off the table. If so, you have failed spectacularly. The alliance is now stronger and more united than it has been in years, and could soon be much larger.
But NATO enlargement could also trigger serious repercussions. Doubling the security alliance’s direct border with Russia would be a personal blow to Putin, who has been focused on undermining the Western alliance since he first became Russia’s president more than 20 years ago. And if Putin felt that Russia was already being cornered on its western flank, could the addition of two more NATO members during the worst tension between the West and Moscow in decades exacerbate the Russian leader’s paranoia?
In the 1990s, revered American diplomat George Kennan, the founder of Russia’s policy of containing Russia during the Cold War, warned that NATO expansion would alienate Russia and provoke a backlash. A contemporary counterargument would be that Moscow’s appalling losses in the Ukraine, blunted military prowess and failure in the siege of Kyiv show that it is too weak to do anything about an expanding NATO.
Why does the joining of Sweden and Finland to NATO matter?
And why should Putin have a say in who joins the alliance anyway?
The Kremlin’s response to Finland and Sweden has not exactly been thunderous so far. But it remains a formidable nuclear power and any decision to move missiles or tactical nukes closer to NATO borders could trigger a new risk game in Europe.
There is also an internal US political angle to this: As President Joe Biden prepares to welcome the leaders of Sweden and Finland to the White House on Thursday, no one has explained to the American people why they must now defend vast expanses of the new NATO on European territory. That’s a significant omission given the hostility toward NATO among supporters of former President Donald Trump, who could end up in the White House again at some point.
The most likely outcome remains that the benefits outweigh the risks: NATO enlargement will enhance European security and be a bulwark for Western values.
But that such a change is taking place without much public debate about the consequences does not give much credit to the democracies that NATO was created to defend.