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What NATO’s Northern Expansion Means

Although the outcome of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine remains to be seen, it has already fundamentally changed the European security order. For the previously neutral Nordic countries, formal membership in NATO, long viewed as a strategic option for a later date, has become an urgent existential imperative.

STOCKHOLM – While the likely outcome of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine remains unclear, Russia’s aggression has already changed the European security order in important ways. The only modern European historical comparison is Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Both cases involved large-scale unprovoked attacks on a neighboring country with the aim of eliminating it. Hitler refused to accept the existence of an independent Poland; Putin refuses to accept the reality of an independent Ukraine.

Putin’s invasion came as a profound shock to European governments. Most European leaders had played down US warnings about an imminent attack, reasoning that although Putin can be unpredictable, he was unlikely to do anything so irrational. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell had received fairly rough treatment on his first visit to Moscow in early 2021; but most European governments still believed that diplomacy could produce a more stable relationship.

That illusion was shattered on February 24, which has become Europe’s 9/11: a global and geopolitical wake-up call with two main consequences. First, military spending will increase across Europe. After years of foot-dragging, almost all European NATO members have suddenly aligned with the goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on defense. Europe’s largest economy, Germany, will add the equivalent of 0.5% of GDP to its defense spending in just one year.