What Is NATO, and Why Is There Drama About Expanding It?

Flags of NATO member countries forms a circle outside the glass NATO headquarters building

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a 30-member security alliance formed after World War II to protect the nations of Europe from the Soviet Union. Its hallmark is something called “Article 5,” which states an attack against one member is an attack against all.

In addition to the member nations, several others routinely cooperate with NATO, countries like Finland and Sweden. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have applied for full NATO membership – a move Russia sees as a potential threat.

UVA Today asked Eric Edelman, a practitioner senior fellow at the Miller Center, to explain how the alliance works and what effect including Sweden and Finland would have. Edelman is retired from the U.S. Foreign Service, having served in senior positions at the Department of State, Department of Defense and the White House. He is a former ambassador to Finland and Turkey.

Q. After all these years outside NATO, why do Finland and Sweden want to join now?

A. If you look at both of their defense white papers and national strategy documents over for the last 30 years – since the Cold War ended – they have always been predicated on non-alignment and close cooperation with NATO; in the case of Finland, the closest possible cooperation with NATO. Both of them operated together with NATO in Afghanistan and in Kosovo, so they have already developed very close relationships.

Eric Edelman smiles for the camera. An American flag hangs in the background.

In both countries, public opinion swung in favor of NATO membership after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, which from their point of view, changed the assessment of the security situation in Europe and convinced the majority.

In the case of Finland, support in the polls now is around 76% and its parliament voted 188 to 8, with four abstentions, to join NATO because the threat from Russia was significantly changed by what they saw going on in Ukraine.  

Q. Is the Russian invasion of the Ukraine the only driver here?

A. It is the major thing. For a long time, cooperation with NATO was an objective for Finland and Sweden, but there is a difference between cooperating and working with NATO and being beneficiary of the Article 5 guarantee [in the NATO Charter] that an attack on one is an attack on all. It was a sense that they were safer in a collective defense and in a collective security organization than they would be on their own.

Q. And all the NATO members need to approve their joining?

A. Yes. NATO is an organization that operates on consensus, and all 30 members of NATO have to approve and ratify through their national ratification processes that amended North Atlantic Treaty that would now include Finland and Sweden.

Q. Turkey is voicing objections?

A. Yes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has raised objections ostensibly about Finnish and Swedish support for Kurdish Nationalists, the PPK [Kurdistan Workers' Party which launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey]. It is really more an issue about Sweden than Finland, but honestly, it is more about a pretext.

Q. How will Turkey’s objections affect the rest of the alliance?

A. Privately, I have been told by very senior U.S. officials in Brussels at NATO headquarters that the other NATO members are furious that Turkey has thrown a spanner in the works here. The Turks were beneficiaries of one of the early rounds of NATO enlargement themselves. In 1952, Turkey and Greece came in and they supported all the post-Cold War rounds of 1999 and 2002 individual states, such as Croatia and Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, that have entered since 2002.

So there is a lot of anger at Turkey because this has happened before with the Turks. They blocked [former Danish Prime Minister] Anders Fogh Rasmussen from becoming the secretary general of NATO for awhile back in 2009 and ultimately relented. They blocked the new defense plans NATO worked up for the Baltic states and Poland after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Q. If Turkey prevents this, will it be perceived as a victory for Putin?

A. It certainly serves Erdoğan’s purpose to remind Putin that he is useful to Putin by creating problems in NATO, but I don’t think at the end of the day he is going to stop it from happening. That would really be unprecedented and there would be a lot of costs to Turkey, notably including the potential sale of F-16s from the United States to Turkey which is in the cards now. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the foreign relations committee in the U.S. Senate, has already expressed himself in no uncertain terms that he is quite angry at what the Turks have done in regards to Sweden and Finland and NATO, and there is a chance that they are going to screw these sales up if Erdoğan doesn’t watch himself.

Q. The Swedish population seems slightly less enthusiastic than the Finns. Is this a package deal, or could Sweden still opt out?

A. It is possible, but unlikely. There is a little bit of a history here. The Swedes applied for European Union membership in 1991 without telling the Finns, and the Finns applied the next day. To some degree, the Finns have been pulling the somewhat less-enthusiastic Swedes [towards NATO], but it still has majority support in Sweden. I don’t want to suggest that the Swedish population is not supportive. It is just not as supportive as the numbers are in Finland, although several people have pointed out to me that Sweden, if you look at the Swedish polling and ask, ‘Do you support it if Finland goes in, too?’ the numbers actually go up.

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I think from a strategic point of view, it makes sense for the two of them to come in together. It always has. It would be very unlikely to pull them apart; it is going to take a lot of hard diplomatic work before the Madrid summit to get the Turks into a place where they will relent.

Q. What do Finland and Sweden bring to NATO? What does NATO bring them?

A. What NATO brings to them is the Article 5 guarantee and inclusion into the integrated military structure of NATO, so it provides a defense guarantee and being a part of the most successful military alliance in the history of the world.

For the alliance, it brings some geopolitical benefits. It means control of the Baltic. It means that all of Scandinavia will be part of NATO. It gives NATO access through the high north to the Arctic which, with climate change, is going to become a more intense cockpit of great power competition among the West, Russia and China that has already been playing out for some years. It gives the opportunity to close the Baltic completely and bottle up the Russian Baltic fleet in its home ports. Control of the Danish Straits. No one should forget how absolutely crucial it was in the Crimean War of 1853.

And they both bring enormous military capability. These are highly modern militaries; both fly high-performance aircraft.  

The Finns have the largest artillery complement in Europe and I think the Ukraine fight has reminded us that artillery still matters in warfare. The Finns can put, when fully mobilized, 285,000 troops into the field. And with full national mobilization, as many as 900,000.

Sweden has a much smaller military, but highly professional. They let their military go for a number of years, but they reinstated conscription in 2018 and started increasing their defense spending, so they are a very well-trained, very capable military, one that has been operating with NATO for a number of years.

Q. How has Putin reacted to this so far?

A. The reality is, there is not much he can do about it. Since he received the phone call from President Sauli Niinisto of Finland in the past few days, he has actually been much more sanguine about this. He spoke at the CTSO summit - a summit of former Soviet states that have a treaty organization - and he basically said that Finland’s and Sweden’s membership was no problem. He said if they put a lot of NATO infrastructure there, that could be a problem, but he said basically membership is not a problem. I think Putin is a realist and that is the reality he heard from Niinisto.

Niinisto is an interesting man. He has maintained a very good relationship with Putin over the years as president of Finland – meets with him regularly and handles him almost better than any other Western leader. He listens to Putin, he lets him rant, he listens respectfully, but he is very forthright, very direct, telling him what Finland’s national interest is and what Finland is going to do. And with this instance, the phone call in which he told him, ‘We are doing this because you invaded Ukraine.’ Very direct and very straightforward. And I think Putin accepts that.

Q. Will this help bring to an end the conflict in Ukraine?

A. I don’t think it will have any direct impact. The Finns and Swedes have both provided some military support – some wheeled vehicles, some artillery, etc. to the Ukrainians. But I don’t anticipate that this will have a direct impact on the war. That will be determined on the battlefield.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications