NATO is getting bigger, but little will change for US troops, experts say
Putin will soon share another 810 miles of his border with a NATO member.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin expected that divisions within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would cause the alliance to shatter once his forces invaded Ukraine, then he wildly miscalculated.
NATO is about to welcome its newest member now that the Turkish parliament approved Finland’s request to join the Alliance. Including Finland, NATO will soon include 31 countries.
Both Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership after Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine last February. So far, Turkey and Hungary have blocked Sweden from joining the alliance due to political disagreements.
However, the fact that Finland and Sweden have sought to join NATO is remarkable considering that both countries have been nonaligned for decades. With Finland poised to join the alliance, Putin will soon share another 810 miles with a member of NATO, which considers any armed attack on an individual NATO member as an act of aggression against the entire alliance.
“President Putin invaded Ukraine with the declared goal of having less NATO in Europe,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a March 20 statement. “He is getting exactly the opposite. There will be more NATO in Europe, demonstrated by the fact that both Finland and Sweden applied and are invited to become full members.”
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It’s not immediately clear how U.S. troops will be directly affected by Finland joining NATO.The U.S. military has trained extensively with Finnish forces in the past and the Defense Department welcomes the news that Finland is closer to joining NATO, said Marine Lt. Col. Garron Garn, a Pentagon spokesman.
“We have no announcements to make regarding future troop engagements or deployments to Finland at this time, but we look forward to working together with Finland to remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security, and to deter and confront any aggression,” Garn told Task & Purpose on Friday.
Experts told Task & Purpose that the addition of Finland to NATO is important to the alliance overall, but it will not change much for U.S. troops in Europe.
With Finland in NATO, the alliance will stand better situated to defend Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which are geographically isolated from the rest of the alliance, according to Luke Coffey, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.
U.S. military planners have long feared that in the event of war between Russia and the alliance, Russian forces in the Kaliningrad enclave and Belarus could close the 65-mile Suwałki Gap that connects the three Baltic states with Poland, a member of NATO.
Following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the U.S. military initially sent an infantry company to each of the three Baltic countries, Coffey wrote in an October paper for the Hudson Institute. NATO has steadily increased its military presence in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia since then.
When Finland officially becomes a member of the alliance, it will become a frontline country on NATO’s eastern flank, so NATO should establish a new battlegroup for Finland, Coffey wrote.
On Friday, Coffey told Task & Purpose that such a battlegroup would not necessarily need to include U.S. troops, noting that forces from Canada, Great Britain, France, and other NATO members make up the bulk of the alliance’s military presence in those three Baltic countries.
It is unlikely that the U.S. military would need to send troops to Finland to deter against an Russian attack after Finland joins NATO, said Evelyn Farkas who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015.
In fact, Farkas said she does not expect that the U.S. military will make any changes to where its forces are deployed in Europe any time soon.
“I don’t think there will be any implications for U.S. forces with Finland joining,” said Farkas, who is executive director of the McCain Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that is part of Arizona State University. “The Finns are highly capable. I don’t think a U.S. force is necessary as a deterrent. The Russians understand they are joining NATO and that’s that.”
While Finland’s accession to NATO won’t specifically affect U.S. troops deployed to Europe, Finland will be able to significantly contribute to the alliance’s collective forces, and its geographical location makes it easier for NATO forces to reach the Baltic states if Russia attacks, said retired Navy Capt. Jan van Tol, a naval warfare expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington, D.C.
“NATO forces would have a much wider approach sector through which to conduct strikes and carry out reinforcement and resupply of NATO forces operating in the Baltic states and the region generally in the event of war,” van Tol told Task & Purpose. “Before accession, NATO forces had only a relatively narrow approach to the Baltic states via the southern Baltic Sea and Poland, which made timely defense of the Baltic states against a Russian attack quite problematic, especially given the presence of strong Russian forces in the Kaliningrad Oblast, which in effect was sort of a ‘cork in the bottle’ geographically.”
Going forward, the U.S. military may deploy Patriot missile batteries in Finland and rotate larger numbers of troops through the country on training exercises, but it won’t establish garrisons as it has in Germany and Poland, said retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an expert on Russia and Ukraine.
It’s important for U.S. troops to know that Finland has a very capable military that will have a significant role within NATO, said Vindman, a senior fellow at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University.
“Finland is one of the guys on the team – it’s a key player that actually would be able to contribute to a fight, contribute to defense,” Vindman told Task & Purpose. “It’s not a backbencher. It’s not a marginal actor.”
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