Sweden finally joins NATO in expansion spurred by Putin’s Ukraine war

Sweden officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Thursday, a historic shift that highlights how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is transforming European security in ways he may not have foreseen.

At a meeting in Washington, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson deposited the final paperwork with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the last step needed for the former militarily nonaligned nation to become NATO’s 32nd member. Sweden’s neighbor, Finland, joined last year.

To justify his aggression in Ukraine, Putin cited the possibility of NATO expansion. Now, in one of the conflict’s many twists, his war has brought a bigger, stronger alliance to his door. Russia will have to live with the consequences for years.

“There is no clearer example today of the strategic debacle that Ukraine has become for Russia,” said Blinken Thursday, standing beside an elated Kristersson.

“Everything that Putin sought to prevent, he has actually precipitated by his actions, by his aggression.”

Four maps explain how Sweden and Finland will alter NATO’s security

The addition of Sweden and Finland will strengthen NATO in the far north, where Russia keeps much of it second-strike capability, and boost its presence around the Baltic Sea, particularly around the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Illegally annexed by Russia in March 2014

NATO countries not shown:

Portugal, Iceland, United States and Canada

Illegally annexed by Russia in March 2014

NATO countries not shown:

Portugal, Iceland, United States and Canada

NATO countries not shown:

Iceland, United States and Canada

Illegally annexed by Russia in March 2014

Sweden’s navy has experience operating in — and under — Baltic waters, and its fighter jets will patrol the region’s skies, making it easier for NATO to supply or defend Baltic allies, should the need arise. Stockholm has already said it will send troops to join a multinational force based in Latvia.

“Sweden’s accession makes NATO stronger, Sweden safer, and the whole Alliance more secure,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Kristersson said it was a “historic moment” and pledged that his country would from this year onward meet the alliance’s defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP.

“Unity and solidarity will be Sweden’s guiding light as a NATO member,” he said. “We will share burdens, responsibilities and risks with other allies.”

Although Sweden’s NATO bid was blocked at various points by Turkey, and then by Hungary, the fact that it made it in sends an important signal to Putin as he wages war in Ukraine and threatens other neighbors, said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council.

That message: “That he cannot dictate, and if he does, there will be pushback.”

Hungary’s parliament approved Sweden’s long-delayed bid to join NATO, paving the way for the second expansion of the military alliance in a year. (Video: Reuters)

Russia did not immediately comment on the news. The country’s response to Finnish membership was muted, though Russian officials have talked in general terms about the need to adjust their military posture in response to NATO’s new borders and plans.

How Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine pushed Finland toward NATO

A few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Sweden joining NATO. Military nonalignment was a part of the country’s identity.

But Russia’s February 2022 invasion seemed to rouse Europe from a post-Cold War slumber, spurring deep changes in how the region’s relatively wealthy democracies think about their own security.

The European Union began the process of weaning itself of Russian oil and gas. It dug into its stockpiles to send weapons to Ukraine. And it has started to step up defense spending — albeit more slowly than many at NATO headquarters or in Washington might like.

Global military spending hits record $2.2 trillion amid multiple wars

NATO, meanwhile, began its biggest overhaul since the Cold War, drawing up new battle plans that are more squarely focused on deterring Russia and defending every inch of NATO territory from day one should Moscow try anything.

When Russian tanks rolled on Kyiv, Finnish sentiment on NATO shifted quickly. Sweden took slightly longer to come around, but applied for membership alongside its neighbor in May 2022.

In his remarks Thursday, Blinken noted that most Swedes were not interested in NATO before Russia’s invasion, but Moscow’s actions prompted a dramatic rethink. “Swedes realized something very profound,” he said, “that if Putin was trying to erase one neighbor from the map, then he might not stop there.”

Both countries — and much of the alliance — expected a smooth process. But approving newcomers requires unanimity, and it soon became clear that Turkey would object at every step.

What followed was more than 20 months of obstruction and delay from Turkey, followed by stalling from Hungary — with public feuding that no doubt pleased Putin.

When it became clear that Turkey’s problem was with Finland, not Sweden, their bids were split. Finland joined last spring, while Sweden kept negotiating.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought F-16 fighter jets from the United States and insisted that Sweden crack down on groups Turkey considers to be terrorists. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pressed Sweden’s prime minister to pay a visit to Budapest and cut deal to get more Swedish-built fighter jets.

In the end, after much drama and fraught diplomacy, both countries extracted what they could and agreed to welcome another new member.

The Swedish flag will not rise outside NATO’s Brussels headquarters until Monday, officials said, but NATO’s key protection — the collective defense clause known as “Article 5” — goes into effect immediately.

“We will go to sleep here tonight with Article 5 embracing this country,” said Wieslander of the Atlantic Council, in a phone call from Sweden. “That is a huge shift for us.”

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