On Monday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden picked up the phone to assure Montenegro's prime minister, Milo Dukanovic, of Washington's support for his country's accession to NATO. Although Montenegro's path toward NATO membership has been established, and the NATO summit in December is expected to deliver a final decision, the issue comes at the back end of other, more controversial statements on potential NATO expansion.
In Sweden, the previously NATO-skeptic Social Democratic Party may be reversing its stance on Swedish membership in the alliance, stating that Stockholm could consider joining NATO if it can do so with neighboring Finland. Though the issue has come up regularly, the two Nordic countries have held off joining the alliance for quite some time, and public opinion of accession is unfavorable right now. Sweden is already in the Partnership for Peace program with NATO and takes part in NATO exercises, but it is not yet fully integrated and does not fall under the protection of Article 5, nor does it carry any obligations toward NATO members.
In a strict military sense, Sweden and Finland would gain some capacity and extra diplomatic cover by joining NATO, but ultimately the military balance between NATO and Russia would not necessarily be altered. Swedish and Finnish troops are already relatively integrated to NATO standards. The biggest effective change would be the significant political signal that NATO, Sweden and Finland would be sending. Even without taking actual steps toward membership, simply discussing it is already broadcasting to Russia that there is solidarity between European countries when it comes to military resilience against potential Russian aggression.
Russia is obviously alarmed by the thought and has made it clear that it will view a Swedish attempt to join NATO as a direct threat. The Russian Foreign Ministry also declared that such a decision by Sweden would have political, military and foreign policy consequences requiring retaliatory measures from Russia. The statement then led to a small diplomatic spat as Sweden summoned the Russian ambassador last Friday.
Though Russia doesn't want Sweden in NATO, it is more concerned about Finland's membership. For decades, Sweden and Finland have said repeatedly that they would only join the alliance together. This would put yet another NATO member just a stone's throw from St. Petersburg and would surround Russia's position on the Baltic Sea with NATO members. Finland is much more hesitant to join, knowing Russia would likely react not only militarily but also with trade restrictions.
Sweden's reversal is not yet complete, however, and so far the Social Democratic Party still has to put the proposal in front of its congress at the end of this month. At that point, if approved, the party will likely try to move fast to bring forward the proposal at the planned NATO summit in December. Although the process to join NATO is usually lengthy, Sweden and Finland might be able to receive a speedy boarding pass if they were to show interest. From a NATO perspective, having Sweden and Finland in the alliance would be greatly beneficial; they would bolster Europe's northern area against Russian missiles and aircraft flyovers. In addition, the fact that both are already members of the European Union should allay any fears the existing members might have about them joining the alliance.
Establishing a NATO membership action plan does not necessarily require public support. However, eventually Swedish elections will translate public opinion into policy, and any Swedish attempt to join NATO could fall apart.
In the meantime, Sweden and Finland are continuing their active integration with NATO members, and as they take part in NATO exercises through the Partnership for Peace, they are aligned with NATO on a military level. The expansion debate is more of a declaration of the countries' stance to responding to Russia's actions than a purely military fix.