When announcing Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine back in February, President Vladimir Putin mentioned NATO 40 times. It was clear he wanted to present NATO as the devil — but it wasn’t always like that.
I first met Mr. Putin while serving as the prime minister of Denmark in 2002. Back then, he was still willing to engage and work with the West. For some time, Russia even assisted the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
This all changed with the “color revolutions” of the mid-2000s: Seeing democratic movements spring up in Georgia and Ukraine terrified Mr. Putin. He worried Russia would be next. When I took over as NATO’s secretary general in 2009, Mr. Putin coldly informed me the organization I oversaw was a relic that should be resigned to history.
The irony is that Mr. Putin’s cruel war in Ukraine will achieve the opposite of his ambitions: NATO will emerge from this crisis larger, stronger and more united. The sight of Russian tanks pouring across the border into Ukraine shattered many long-held beliefs about security in Europe. Nowhere is this more true than in Finland and Sweden. As Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland dryly put it, “Russia is not the neighbor we imagined.”
The change in public opinion is even more remarkable. Last year, an annual poll showed that only 26 percent of Finns wanted to join NATO. A more recent survey demonstrates this number has now increased to 68 percent. The same is true in Sweden. Both populations recognize the new reality in Europe. A dictator in charge of a nuclear-armed state has launched a full-scale invasion of a neighboring country. Joining a powerful military alliance with a specific commitment to collective defense is the logical response.
Finland and Sweden should seize this opportunity to become part of NATO. The governments of both countries should apply before the NATO summit in June. Finland and Sweden could join NATO relatively quickly and painlessly. Both countries are already closely aligned with the organization, take part in joint exercises and clearly meet the political requirements for membership, including a democratic system of governance and a market economy. At NATO headquarters, membership could be approved overnight. While the decision would need to be ratified by all members of the alliance, the urgency of the situation could expedite the process to a matter of months.
Finland and Sweden joining NATO is a win-win. Both countries would receive the security guarantee of NATO’s Article 5 on collective defense, and NATO would gain new capabilities in a strategically important region. This convenient buffer zone between Russia and current NATO members would make it easier to react to any incursion by Russian forces into the Baltic States.
While the debate on membership continues, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine will go into overdrive. It will warn against further NATO expansion, claiming it will destabilize the region and make war more likely.
Of course, this is not the case. The only person destabilizing Europe is Mr. Putin. Russia targeted Ukraine, and Georgia before that, precisely because they are not members of NATO. Russia’s international strategy is to threaten escalation in order to bully less powerful countries into submission and push more powerful ones toward inaction. In this war, Mr. Putin threatened to target NATO convoys bringing weapons to Ukraine and to cut off gas supplies to Europe if bills were not paid in rubles. On both of those issues, the West called Russia’s bluff. The threats did not materialize.
If Sweden and Finland do join NATO — especially in the face of such threats — it would show Mr. Putin that war is counterproductive, that war only strengthens Western unity, resolve and military preparedness.
Finland and Sweden are not the only countries reassessing decades-old foreign policy doctrine in the face of Russia’s invasion. Across Europe, governments are raising military spending to meet NATO’s 2 percent target. About time. For too long, the United States has carried too great a share of the burden for European security.
The most significant change is in Germany. Its refusal to spend more on defense has been a consistent source of tension within the NATO alliance, which almost reached a breaking point during the Trump presidency. The war in Ukraine finally pushed the German government to act. It has committed to spending $112.7 billion on military procurement and more than 2 percent of its G.D.P. on defense going forward. Germany has also reversed its longstanding policy of not exporting arms to conflict zones, a policy that was based on the collective guilt and trauma of World War II. The country’s new positions on military spending and weapons exports have the potential to transform Germany into one of the most advanced militaries in the world.
Despite these commendable changes, Germany must do more. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other political leaders are still dragging their feet over imposing sanctions and sending higher-caliber arms to Ukraine. But if Germany ended all import of Russian oil and gas, Mr. Putin would be forced to quickly stop the war in Ukraine.
It is unconscionable that while Ukrainians are being slaughtered, NATO members still send hundreds of millions of euros every day to Mr. Putin’s coffers to buy oil and gas. Political leaders who oppose a total halt to transfers to Russia are complicit in Mr. Putin’s war crimes. They are indirectly paying the wages of those who committed atrocities in Bucha. Ending all imports of Russian oil and gas would come at a significant price, but it would be small compared to the continued destruction in Ukraine. Here too, Finland is moving in the right direction, promising to end the country’s reliance on Russian energy imports in a matter of “weeks or months.”
NATO’s previous posture of deterrence with Russia did not work: It failed to avoid a full-scale war in Europe. If Mr. Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he is not likely to stop there. He will continue to test NATO wherever he sees weak links. Countries that are closely aligned with the Western alliance but not protected by its Article 5 — such as Sweden and Finland — will be at risk.
For the past 70 years, NATO has been the bedrock of security in Europe, creating an environment in which freedom and democracy can thrive. Mr. Putin may want to see NATO resigned to history but his actions in Ukraine show why the alliance is needed now more than ever.