The Guardian view on expanding Nato: Putin has only himself to blame | Editorial

In 2019, Emmanuel Macron declared that Nato was becoming “braindead”. The French president’s warning was prompted by fears that the US, under Donald Trump, could no longer be relied upon to come to the defence of Nato allies. Mr Trump last month confirmed that he had threatened not to defend them against Russia.

Fewer than three years on from Mr Macron’s warning, the alliance is reinvigorated. Members have increased defence spending significantly, though only eight out of 30 met the target of 2% of GDP last year. Finland and Sweden, long resistant to joining, are knocking on the door. Nothing has done more for Nato solidarity and expansion than Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. As the Swedish prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, observed: “There is a before and after 24 February.”

Finland’s president and prime minister, Sauli Niinistö and Sanna Marin, declared on Thursday that their country must apply to join without delay. Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats, long split over the issue, are now expected to opt for membership on Sunday. In Finland, support for Nato membership had never risen above 30% since the end of the cold war, and often fell below 20%. It currently stands at 76%. In Sweden, where non-alignment (preceded by neutrality) has been more ideological, rather than pragmatic, support has also surged: more than 57% of people now support membership.

Both countries are receiving a warm welcome. Their membership would increase Nato’s ability to defend the Baltic. In reality, they are already close partners, taking part in exercises and sharing intelligence with the alliance. But entry would formally bind them to the common security guarantee set out in article 5 of the treaty, stating that an attack on any member is an attack on all, and committing members to defend each other.

Nato expansion has doubtless contributed to Mr Putin’s paranoid mindset. He sees the organisation as little more than an expression of US power. But it is primarily Russian aggression that has driven expansion, not vice versa. The fear of provoking Moscow tied the hands of its neighbour Finland, and Sweden, for years. Now the all-out assault on Ukraine has led many to conclude that there is nothing to lose – while Russia’s failures there have suggested that it may be less fearsome than they thought. Sweden and Finland joining Nato would leave Kaliningrad, home of Moscow’s Baltic Sea fleet, encircled. Predictably, Russia has vowed retaliation for the Finnish announcement. It had already said it would deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic, though the real threat is more likely to come in the form of disinformation, cyber-attacks, and other provocations.

Yet Moscow should not be the alliance’s only concern. It must also look closer to home. In the US, 57 Republicans voted against the $40bn aid package for Ukraine in the House of Representatives and it faces Republican objections in the Senate. As the Democrats flounder, the spectre of Donald Trump – or someone like him – as the 47th president looms larger. And despite the defeat of Marine Le Pen in last month’s French presidential election, ambivalence or antagonism towards Nato has not vanished from Europe. In Italy, where a general election is due next year, most voters oppose the government’s decisions to increase defence spending and send arms to Ukraine. The alliance exists to counter the threat on its eastern borders. It can only do so by remaining vigilant to internal vulnerabilities.