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Sweden and Finland consider joining NATO amidst Ukraine-Russia war

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Europe is looking at a changed security landscape. Sweden and Finland have long avoided joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but are now considering membership in the Western military alliance. Russian President Vladimir Putin has framed NATO expansion as a threat to Russia, and Moscow warns both countries of serious military and political consequences if they become members. Ivo Daalder is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and is currently the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He joins us now. Welcome, Ambassador.

IVO DAALDER: Oh, my pleasure.

RASCOE: Why have Sweden and Finland held out against joining NATO? Like, why did they not see - or why did they see not being a member of NATO as being in their best interests?

DAALDER: So both countries were neutral during the Cold War. They didn't want to be part either of the West or of the East, although, of course, they were vibrant democracies and had a capitalist economy. But they had a relationship with Russia that allowed them to say, we don't want to be part of either of these blocs. After the Cold War, of course, the prospect of having a major military confrontation in the middle of Europe had declined significantly. And both decided that they would rather be part of the European Union. And there was really no reason to be part of NATO. They have cooperated with NATO. They have - are very strong partners. They have, in some cases, even led - be part of military operations both in Afghanistan and in other military operations with NATO. But there was really no urgency. There was no need to be part of NATO. All of that changed on February 24, of course.

RASCOE: So how likely do you think it is now that they'll ask to join?

DAALDER: So it looks like that - and particularly Finland, which is a country that shares an 800-mile border with Russia, is moving quite rapidly to take a positive decision and say, listen. We'd like to be part of NATO. We'd like to have the protection that NATO provides for our country over and beyond the very significant military forces that Finland itself already has. They've seen a Russia walking into - driving into a neighboring country that posed no threat whatsoever to Russia. And as a result, they think that the same may be happening in their country, and they want the protection of NATO. They want the protection of being part of an organization with 30 other countries who would be committed to defending Finland and Sweden if there was an attack.

Sweden is a little different. They haven't quite moved as far as the Finns. Of course, they don't have a border in the same way as Finland has with Russia. At the same time, Russian ships in the Baltic - in the Baltic Seas and submarines have harassed and sometimes even threatened Sweden. So there, too, there is now a change in saying, maybe we need to be part of this organization.

RASCOE: You know, as we said at the start, Russia has warned both countries against this. I mean, does this also pose a risk to them, say, if Finland does move ahead with trying to join NATO?

DAALDER: Well, it does pose a risk. And it poses a risk for NATO, of course, because the NATO countries, by taking Finland and Sweden into the alliance, commit themselves to defending those countries, which today, of course, they're not necessarily committed to doing, just as they weren't committed to defending Ukraine because Ukraine is not a NATO member. On the other hand, Russia now is looking at the situation in which if they wanted to have a military confrontation with Finland, there's at least a chance that NATO doesn't get involved. Once NATO - they are NATO members, Russia has to take the - into consideration the possibility that if there is a military confrontation with Finland, that means a military confrontation with NATO. It means a military confrontation with the United States. And given the state of the Russian armed forces that we're seeing in Ukraine, it's not clear to me what it is they would be particularly doing that would be an ultimate threat to Finland. So yes, a bluster we are likely to see from Moscow. The reality is the Finns, the Swedes and, I think, NATO will be stronger and better off if both countries become member of the alliance.

RASCOE: Very quickly, how would their membership change the security landscape in Europe?

DAALDER: Well, it would just bring two very significant military powers into the alliance that up to this point were neutral. Norway, of course, which is to their west, is a member of NATO. So it would just solidify the overall European security situation.

RASCOE: OK, that's Ivo Daalder, former NATO ambassador, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Thank you.

DAALDER: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.