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NATO invites Finland, Sweden to join as alliance eyes 'direct threat' from Putin

President Joe Biden earlier announced an increased U.S. military presence in Europe as the alliance began a summit in Madrid with a series of moves made with Russia in mind.
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LONDON — Permanent American forces stationed in Poland, hundreds of thousands of troops on high alert, and a formal invite for two new Nordic members: If Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in part to ward off NATO, Wednesday made clear his war has achieved the opposite.

NATO has now officially invited Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, a sign of just how dramatically the Kremlin's war has upended the previous military landscape in Europe.

Earlier in the day, at the start of a summit in Madrid, President Joe Biden announced an increased U.S. military presence in Europe headlined by the first permanent American forces on NATO’s eastern flank and more rotating troops in the Baltic states.

The Western alliance also called Russia its "most significant and direct threat" in a joint statement, a notable shift from its description of Moscow as a "strategic partner" a decade ago.

Jonathan Eyal, an associate director at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, said these developments were prompted by a sense of alarm in Europe at seeing the Kremlin launch an unprovoked assault on a sovereign democracy.

"Now that the Russians have shown they are perfectly willing to invade a country and use force, the West cannot rely on the old system that said countries who were attacked would be helped later on," he said, referring to NATO's central Article 5 clause, which assumes allies will defend any member that’s attacked.

"You have to have the troops on the ground there and then," he said. "So in that respect, it's an acknowledgement about how the security in Europe has changed."

Biden said NATO was sending an “unmistakable message” that the alliance “is strong, united, and the steps we’re taking during this summit are going to further augment our collective strength.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday the Madrid summit would chart a blueprint for the alliance “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world.”

That blueprint appears to be designed around projecting greater strength in order to stand against Russia.

The military club has undergone a marked shift these past four months, even as the conflict has presented new points of contention over sanctions against Moscow and support for Kyiv.

For years NATO has been tortured by accusations, led by former President Donald Trump, that some member states are not pulling their financial weight. It has also struggled for a grander sense of purpose in a post-Cold War world. Russia's invasion four months ago changed all that, sending disquiet through the continent and prompting its nations to contribute an extra 200 billion euros (around $210 billion) for defense since then.

That anxiety has been palpable in Sweden and Finland, two Nordic nations that for decades have practiced an official nonaligned status between the West and Moscow.

Image: Swedish And Finnish Amphibious Forces Take Part In NATO Military Drill “Baltops 22” In Stockholm Archipelago
Finnish and Swedish soldiers have participated in NATO military exercises in the past, such as this Finnish soldier taking part in the alliance's war games near Stockholm this month.Jonas Gratzer / Getty Images

In reality they have maintained and even built up ties with Europe. Finland is haunted by the memory of its 1939 war with Moscow, in which it lost 10 percent of its territory, and Sweden has repeatedly been spooked by Russian aircraft violating its airspace. Troops from both countries fought and died alongside Americans in Afghanistan.

However, until now they have steered clear of joining NATO. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea started to change that thinking, putting both countries on higher alert about the prospect of Russian aggression. And the invasion this year saw opinion polls shift, showing most people were in favor of joining.

Their path to membership will take months, but the last real objection was lifted Tuesday when Turkey — NATO’s second-largest army, behind the U.S. — lifted its objections to the enlargement.

Asked in May whether Finland and Sweden joining NATO presented a threat to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "Definitely. NATO expansion does not make our continent more stable and secure."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde in Madrid on Tuesday, after their countries, along with Finland, signed an agreement paving the way for the Nordic nations to join NATO.Bernat Armangue / AP

Experts debate the extent to which Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was actually about NATO. Many believe it was in fact the expansion of the European Union that the Russian president feared most: the prospect of increasingly impoverished Russian citizens seeing another former Soviet neighbor thriving as part of the Western bloc.

Here too his war appears to have backfired. Last week Ukraine was granted candidate status for the E.U., starting a process that could take years or even decades.

Putin also openly stated his revanchist, imperialist goals, declaring that Ukraine was not a real country and making the ahistorical suggestion that it should be subsumed back into mother Russia.

Nevertheless, many experts say NATO’s likely enlargement is a huge blow for the Russian president, not only symbolically but practically. It means there will be no more areas in northern Europe where the alliance has to ask permission to cross, making planning exercises and deployments easier.

Finland and Sweden both have well-drilled, well-equipped armies and "will improve NATO's capabilities in the Arctic region," said Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe who is now an analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank.

"This is the direct result of a colossal strategic mistake by Vladimir Putin, whose unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has reminded all of Europe that security and stability are not to be taken for granted," he added.