Russia's NATO Plans Are Backfiring : Consider This from NPR Russian President Vladimir Putin has used possible NATO expansion to justify invading Ukraine. Now, that invasion might expand the alliance. Finland and Sweden, both formerly neutral Russian neighbors, are applying for membership.

NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with Finland's ambassador to the U.S., Mikko Hautala, about the stakes of his country's bid to join.

NPR's Emily Feng also talks to historian Mary Elise Sarotte about how we reached this impasse between NATO and Russia.

You can also hear — and see — more on how war games and Russia's invasion of Ukraine are impacting life in Norway from NPR's Quil Lawrence here.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

How A Possible NATO Expansion Shows Russia's Plans are Backfiring

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You would probably never describe Norway and Russia as being best buds geopolitically, but until recently, they have had an understanding.

PRIME MINISTER JONAH GAHR STORE: We have been at peace with Russia for a thousand years.

CHANG: That is Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store. His country shares 122 miles of border with Russia.

GAHR STORE: We live next to the world's most important nuclear weapons arsenal, which has called for what I call High North, low tension.

CHANG: Russia and Norway have a complicated history. On the one hand, there's that arsenal he mentioned. On the other, there's a monument in the Norwegian border town of Kirkenes dedicated to Soviet soldiers who liberated the area from the Nazis. In recent years, the two countries have cooperated on nuclear waste disposal, managing shared cod fisheries and important climate research. But that was before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.

GAHR STORE: Right now we have a Russia that is engaging in broad land, air, missile war. Attacking a neighbor influences everything. Norway needs an alliance, allies, training, relevant defense to be safe. And that's what we practice here.

CHANG: The practice the prime minister is talking about is a massive NATO war game earlier this year called Cold Response. Troops from 27 countries conducted drills on helicopter landings, on aircraft carriers, submarine defense and amphibious D-Day-style troop landings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM BLARING)

EIRIK KRISTOFFERSEN: After years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, to get back into the Arctic environment and fight during this very challenging conditions - it's been raining; it's been freezing; it's been snowing - it's something we have to relearn every year.

CHANG: That is Eirik Kristoffersen, the Norwegian Chief of Defence. And the exercise was planned more than two years ago, but Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine gave it a Cold War feel. The theoretical mission was to reclaim Norway after occupation by a foreign power. No one involved named Russia as that power, but it's hard to imagine they have anyone else in mind. Here's Kristoffersen.

KRISTOFFERSEN: So Ukraine is Mr. Putin's own responsibility - all the terrible things that is happening in Ukraine right now. And of course, this will affect us in many, many years to come. We can't trust Mr. Putin after what he has done.

CHANG: Norway is not the only Nordic country reevaluating its relationship with Russia. Sweden and Finland sent troops to the Cold Response exercise even though they are not part of NATO, and now they are trying to join the alliance. So CONSIDER THIS - Vladimir Putin used the threat of NATO expansion to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and now that invasion may be causing the alliance to expand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Friday, May 20.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Now, Finland and Sweden abandoning their respective traditions of neutrality and formally applying to join NATO - it's a big deal.

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR: This is really a sea change.

CHANG: That is Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who has worked in the office of the Director of National Intelligence and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Finland has been neutral for 80 years. I think both the Finns and the Russians view that neutrality as one reason why they've had such a stable and pragmatic relationship. And I would expect that this will lead to a fundamental change. So it will be consequential. And for Putin, it does underscore this idea, this fear that he has long held that Russia is being encircled by NATO. And so it will amplify those concerns.

CHANG: President Biden seemed to try to assuage Russian President Putin's concerns when he welcomed the leaders of Sweden and Finland at the White House this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So let me be clear - new members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation. It never has been. NATO's purpose is to defend against aggression. That's its purpose - to defend.

CHANG: Putin said this week that Russia has, quote, "no problem" with the two countries joining NATO. But he warned that the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke a response.

Finland and Sweden's future in NATO may depend on Turkey, which has raised objections to their membership. Every member country must agree in order for them to join. And Kendall-Taylor says this is the most dangerous moment, meaning this time between the submission of a NATO application and the moment the member states ratify it, making that membership official.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: The key question everyone wants to know is whether or not Russia will use military force. That was the story of Ukraine, but it was also the story of Georgia in 2008, when Russia invaded there to prevent Georgia's move towards NATO. But this time, I don't expect that. I think that Russia is too bogged down with its war in Ukraine. And I think that's exactly the calculus that Finland and Sweden have; that they see that Russia is distracted, and it gives them this window to make a move. So, you know, I think the most likely response would be something more along the lines of cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns or other occasional airspace violations.

CHANG: Here's NPR's Steve Inskeep asking Finland's ambassador to the U.S., Mikko Hautala, about how his government is managing those risks.

MIKKO HAUTALA: Well, I think it's something that we have to be mindful of. Currently, the situation is really calm. We don't see any military threats directed against us. Our president had a phone call with President Putin. It seems to be the case that Russia understands the way things are, how things are moving. That doesn't mean that we could sort of take it easy. We have been planning for this, preparing for this. But for the moment, it looks like things are going to be okay.

STEVEN INSKEEP, BYLINE: Ambassador, I'm interested that your president spoke with President Putin over the weekend. I know they've had a very long-standing relationship. They've known each other a long time.

HAUTALA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Can you characterize how that call went?

HAUTALA: The call was long. It was substantial. It was done in a constructive mode. They've known each other for now 10 years, so they know how the other side thinks. But we informed Russia how we are going to move. And of course, now it's up to Russians to decide how they will define their policies.

INSKEEP: If people don't know, I'd like them to know that you have been Finland's ambassador to Moscow in the past, which means you've had your own opportunity to study Vladimir Putin. Do you feel you understand how he's going to respond?

HAUTALA: My own conclusion also is that Russia, first of all, they do realize that Finland has been integrating with NATO for almost 30 years. We have had really good bilateral cooperation also with the U.S. For the Russians, this is not such a radical move. It's a rather small step at the end of the long road. I don't believe that they have too much interest there to somehow bring this story to their own audience because I think rather they have an interest to keep the tone relatively low.

INSKEEP: Wait. When you say bring this story to their own audience, you're saying that they would rather not make a large controversy that would be noticed by the Russian people?

HAUTALA: Yeah, I don't think they have an interest to do that, for a simple reason that it is not something that they had in mind or had hoped for.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about a complexity that may happen after you submit your formal application to NATO.

HAUTALA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: All existing members of NATO have to ratify membership. Turkey's president and foreign minister have raised concerns in recent days. The foreign minister claims that Finland, quote, "must stop supporting terror groups," which is how Turkey refers to the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK. They've made some other demands as well. Do you accept that you're doing anything wrong that must be corrected?

HAUTALA: Well, PKK is considered a terrorist group by the EU and by Finland. So obviously we do not have any sort of relationship to those kind of claims. Also in the past, sometimes it happens that some member states raise some unrelated issues as a part of the discussion process. And of course, we will continue our negotiations and discussions with the Turks. We have also heard, from the Turkish president, very positive message towards our membership. So I really can't say that we have any specific demands or arguments from them.

INSKEEP: Do you see any risk that you formally ask for NATO membership, thus displeasing Russia, and then don't get NATO membership? Any risk of that at all?

HAUTALA: We have done a lot of pre-screening of the process. And so far, our assessment on the basis of contacts that we've had with the member states is positive. But obviously, we haven't done the whole thing until everybody has agreed. So it's an open issue still.

INSKEEP: Do you see a possibility that Finland's border with Russia becomes a kind of Cold War border, as it somewhat was during the actual Cold War?

HAUTALA: Well, I think it now it depends. Of course, obviously, we have an interest in maintaining a functioning border in which there is not much tension. But NATO already has five member states with direct border with Russia. All of them have border cooperation. So I don't think our case would be any different from these other five member states which have border with the Russians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That was Mikko Hautala, the Finnish ambassador to the U.S., speaking with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Now, those member states that border Russia that the ambassador mentioned, they're something of a sore spot for Vladimir Putin. And to understand how he might respond to Finland and Sweden's potential NATO membership, it helps to understand how the alliance has grown in the past and what that has meant to Putin.

My colleague Emily Feng spoke about that with historian Mary Elise Sarotte, who wrote the book called "Not One Inch: America, Russia, And The Making Of Post-Cold War Stalemate."

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: So I wanted to start at this key moment in NATO's history, the year 1990, which is when the reunification of Germany was happening. Putin has said that NATO broke a promise that it made that year not to expand eastward. He's used that to justify the invasion of Ukraine. What pledge was actually made that year?

MARY ELISE SAROTTE: I would not use the word pledge. It was clear that Germans wanted to unify. And so as part of early speculative discussions about that, the American secretary of state, James Baker, said to Mikhail Gorbachev roughly the following - I'm paraphrasing - how about you let your half of Germany go, and we agree that NATO moves not one inch eastward? Gorbachev can't actually get that pledge formalized or agreed. And so in the end, in September 1990, he makes a different deal. He agrees to allow Germany to unify in exchange for financial incentives. But Putin only refers to the earlier speculative conversation, not to the treaty that his country signed and ratified at the end.

FENG: In 1990, during these initial conversations, what was NATO's footprint? How was it originally conceptualized and how has it changed or grown since then?

SAROTTE: There have been multiple rounds of expansion since 1990. So technically, the first post-Cold War expansion is into eastern Germany. And eventually what happens is that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are invited and do become members in 1999. And then there is another big bag round during which, among other things, the Baltic states come into the alliance.

So Putin was in charge by that time, and he disliked that intensely because it meant, in his view, that NATO was expanding into the former Soviet Union. So NATO has gone through multiple rounds of enlargement, and now there's going to be another one with Sweden and with Finland.

FENG: So Russia has never been a fan of NATO, but NATO's tried to address these tensions with Russia. And you write about this agreement in May of 1997 to address those issues with Russia. Tell us about the significance of that agreement.

SAROTTE: There were times when - going as far back as even the Soviet era, where the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said, how about this? How about we merge the Warsaw Pact and NATO? And then Boris Yeltsin also talked to the American president, Bill Clinton, Bush's successor, about the idea of Russia joining NATO. In fact, Yeltsin even said at one point, you know what the real problem will be? - China. Because then China will have a NATO border.

Now, the 1997 agreement to which you've referred, the West signed something called the NATO-Russia Founding Act in May 1997. And Putin is instrumentalizing this history as well. He is drawing on a public claim Boris Yeltsin made afterwards that the May 1997 agreement gave Russia a veto over NATO enlargement. It did not, but that's another piece of history that Putin can instrumentalize. In short, Putin cherry-picks history. But Putin is not interested in historical accuracy. He's interested in creating emotional support for the brutalities he is inflicting on Ukraine.

FENG: Given how Putin has portrayed NATO to Russians, now that Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, what significance does that have for the stability of Europe? Could it provoke Russia, or does it contain Russia?

SAROTTE: The concern, obviously, is that - we hope in the West that Sweden and Finland joining will not create further provocations for Putin. I think that the Finnish president, Sauli Niinisto, did a very good thing when he called Putin to talk to him and communicate that Finland is joining NATO and why it's joining NATO. That has helped to reduce the temperature, so I'm hopeful that this can happen without escalating tensions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That was Mary Elise Sarotte with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, speaking to my colleague Emily Feng.

At the top of this episode, you heard reporting from NPR's Quil Lawrence, who went to Norway to explore how Russia's invasion of Ukraine is affecting life there. Find a link in our show notes.

It is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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