MADRID – In the days before he unleashed Russia’s firepower on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin calculated the war would rupture the military alliance between the United States and its NATO allies.
Instead, the alliance is about to get stronger.
Finland and Sweden, two historically neutral countries, are seeking to become NATO members a move driven by concerns about their own security in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Their membership would redraw the map potentially placing NATO troops on the Finnish-Russian border. Though formal approval of their applications is still pending, the final obstacle was removed Tuesday when Turkey lifted its opposition to their membership.
The two Nordic countries’ decision to join the world’s biggest military alliance represents a crucial strategic victory for the West and a serious blow to Putin, analysts say.
“It’s a defeat for him. It’s a kick in the gut,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit think tank that specializes in foreign policy and international relations.
The breakthrough in the top-level diplomatic talks between Finland, Sweden and Turkey came shortly after President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders arrived in Spain for a three-day summit that will determine the course of the alliance for years.
Finland’s and Sweden’s entry into the alliance will vastly expand its reach.
Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, allowing NATO to fortify its eastern flank. Both countries also sit along the Baltic Sea, a vast body of water bordering nine countries, including Denmark and Germany to the west and Estonia and Russia on the east. Once Finland and Sweden formally enter NATO, the Baltic Sea will be essentially controlled by the military alliance.
“Finland and Sweden joining NATO turns the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake, where the Russian navy will be operating on NATO terms,” said Rose Gottemoeller, NATO’s former deputy secretary general. "It will be surrounded by NATO countries on every side.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Monday that NATO allies will agree at the summit to increase the strength of the alliance’s rapid reaction force nearly eightfold, from 40,000 to 300,000 troops. The troops will be based in their home nations, but dedicated to specific countries on NATO’s eastern flank, where the alliance plans to build up stocks of equipment and ammunition.
“As a consequence, it strengthens NATO’s ability to monitor developments in the Baltic and to operate in the Baltic,” Kupchan said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had raised multiple objections to Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO. He insisted they renounce their support for a Kurdish militant group in Syria, demanded they extradite people that Ankara suspects of terrorist activity and pushed for them to lift an embargo on arms exports to Turkey.
Turkey has been pushing to buy F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. But a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity said the U.S. offered Turkey nothing to secure the agreement and that Turkey's requests to the United States were not part of the negotiations.
“This is an agreement strictly among the three countries – Turkey, Finland and Sweden,” the official said.
Biden spoke to Erdogan by phone earlier Tuesday at the request of Finnish and Swedish leaders, the official said, and the two are expected to meet in Madrid on Wednesday.
While the U.S. had no official role in the talks, representatives of Finland and Sweden notified Biden of the agreement they had struck with Turkey before formally closing the deal, the official said.
Biden gave his blessing to the deal.
"Finland and Sweden are strong democracies with highly capable militaries," he said in a statement. "Their membership will strengthen NATO’s collective security and benefit the entire Transatlantic Alliance."
All 30 NATO countries still must formally approve Finland’s and Sweden’s membership applications. The process can take up to a year and a half, but NATO officials are pushing to fast-track the approval and complete it in six months.
The Nordic nations' accession to NATO has significant support in the U.S. Senate, which has to approve treaty amendments.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told USA TODAY in an interview Monday that adding Finland and Sweden to NATO swiftly is an imperative.
"They will be a great addition," he said. "If you look at the map, you can see that they will fit very well into NATO. And in addition to that with what they bring to the table, they're a strong economy. They have strong military organizations. They have strong military industries. They bring all that to the table, and not the least of which, of course, is their geography also.
"So it's important that this gets done. It's not a good idea – it's imperative that this get done."
Francesca Chambers and Michael Collins cover the White House. Follow Chambers on Twitter @fran_chambers and Collins @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Finland's, Sweden's push to join NATO 'a kick in the gut' for Putin