The United States embraces Finland’s movement towards NATO membership. And Ukraine?

WASHINGTON – In embracing Finland’s, and soon Sweden’s, move to join NATO, President Biden and his Western allies are doubling down on the bet that Russia has made such a big strategic mistake in the past three months that now is the time to appoint President Vladimir V. Putin pays a heavy price: enduring the expansion of the Western alliance itself, he tried to break up.

But the decision leaves several important issues pending. Why not allow Ukraine – the imperfect, corrupt but also heroic democracy at the center of the current conflict – to unite as well, consecrating the West’s commitment to its security?

And by expanding NATO to 32 members, soon with hundreds of additional miles of border with Russia, does the military alliance help ensure that Russia can never again organize a ferocious and unprovoked invasion? Or is she just consolidating the gap with an isolated, angry, nuclear-armed opponent who is already paranoid about the Western “encirclement”?

The White House welcomed Thursday’s announcement by Finnish leaders that their country should “apply for NATO membership without delay,” while Swedish leaders should do the same within days. Not surprisingly, Russia said it would take “retaliatory measures”, including a “military-technical” response, which many experts have interpreted as a threat to deploy tactical nuclear weapons near the Russian-Finnish border.

For weeks, US officials have been meeting in silence with Finnish and Swedish officials, planning how to strengthen security guarantees for the two countries while their alliance applications are pending.

For Biden and his collaborators, the argument for getting Finland and Sweden in and keeping Ukraine out is simple enough. The two Nordic states are model democracies and modern armed forces with which the United States and other NATO nations routinely conduct exercises, working together to track Russian submarines, secure submarine communications cables, and conduct aerial patrols across the Baltic Sea.

In short, they were NATO allies in every sense but the formal one – and the invasion of Ukraine ended virtually all of the debate over whether the two countries would be safer by keeping some distance from each other. alliance.

“We stayed out of NATO for 30 years – we could have joined in the early 1990s,” Mikko Hautala, the Finnish ambassador to the United States, said Thursday as he walked through the halls of the United States Senate, garnering support for the sudden change of course in his country. Trying to avoid provoking Putin, he said, “he hasn’t changed Russia’s actions at all.”

Ukraine, on the other hand, was at the heart of the old Soviet Union that Putin is trying to rebuild, at least in part. And while three years ago it amended its Constitution to make NATO membership a national goal, it was seen as too rife with corruption and too lacking in democratic institutions to make membership likely for years, if not decades, to come.

Key NATO members, led by France and Germany, have made it clear that they are against the inclusion of Ukraine. It is an opinion that has strengthened now that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is engaged in an active fire war in which the United States and the other 29 members of the alliance would be bound by the treaty to enter directly if Ukraine were a full member, covered by its fundamental promise that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Mr. Zelensky understands this dynamic and, after weeks of conflict, has abandoned his insistence that Ukraine be introduced into NATO. At the end of March, a month after the Russian invasion and at a time when there still seemed to be some prospects for a diplomatic solution, he made it clear that if this led to a permanent end to the war, he was ready to declare Ukraine. “neutral” state.

“Guarantees of security and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state – we are ready to do that,” he told Russian reporters, a phrase he has repeated several times since.

Those statements were a relief for Mr. Biden, whose first goal is to get the Russians out of Ukraine, irreversibly, but whose second is to avoid World War III.

By that, he intends to stay away from direct conflict with Putin’s forces and avoid doing anything that risks escalation that could quickly turn nuclear. If Ukraine were introduced into NATO, it would reinforce Putin’s thesis that the former Soviet state was conspiring with the West to destroy the Russian state – and it may only be a matter of time before that direct confrontation erupts, with all its dangers.

Under that logic, Mr. Biden refused to send MIG fighters to Ukraine that could be used to bomb Moscow. He refused a no-fly zone over Ukraine due to the risk that American pilots could engage in aerial duels with Russian pilots.

But his once clear line has gotten blurrier in recent weeks.

As Russia’s military weaknesses and incompetence became clear, Mr. Biden approved the dispatch of Ukrainian heavy artillery to thwart Russia’s latest push into the Donbas, and sent Switchblade missiles and drones that were used to strike. the Russian tanks.

When the administration denounced reports last week that the United States was providing information to Ukraine helped him sink the Moskvathe pride of Putin’s naval fleet, e target mobile Russian command posts and the Russian generals seated within them, the reason for the disturbance was clear. The revelations showed how close Washington was on the line of provoking Mr. Putin.

The question now is whether NATO expansion risks cementing a new Cold War and perhaps something worse. It’s a similar debate to the one that took place during the Clinton administration when there were warnings about the dangers of NATO expansion. George F. Kennan, the architect of the post-WWII “containment” strategy to isolate the Soviet Union, called the expansion “the most fatal mistake of American politics in the entire post-Cold War period.”

Last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of the New America think tank, warned that “all stakeholders should take a deep breath and slow down.”

“The threat of Russia invading Finland or Sweden is remote,” he said wrote in the Financial Times. “But admitting them into the military alliance will reshape and deepen the divisions of 20th-century Europe in ways that are likely to preclude much bolder and more courageous thinking about how to achieve peace and prosperity in the 21st.”

This is the long-term concern. In the short term, NATO and American officials worry about how to ensure that Russia does not threaten Finland or Sweden before they are official members of the alliance. (This assumes that no current member of the alliance objects; many believe Putin will lean on Hungary and its prime minister, Viktor Orban, to reject questions.) Only Britain has been outspoken on the matter, signing a pact separate security with the two countries. The United States has not said what security guarantees it is willing to give.

But he blamed Putin for taking NATO expansion upon himself by invading a neighbor. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, vaguely quoted Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, who made it clear that Ukraine had forced Finns to think differently about their safety.

“You caused this,” he said of Mr. Putin. “Look in the mirror.”