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Senate on track to approve NATO bids of Finland and Sweden

GOP senators who opposed new Ukraine aid are eager to push back on Russian aggression in another way: supporting Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join NATO.

Senators in both parties are already taking steps to fast-track a defense treaty for the two countries’ memberships in the alliance, as the U.S. and its allies look to strengthen their posture against Russia and send a message of unity to Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a result, both bids are on a glide path to the required two-thirds Senate approval.

According to nearly a dozen interviews with senators, most of the Republicans who opposed new military aid to Ukraine are unlikely to block Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join NATO — further easing the bipartisan push amid concerns that some Republicans were growing uneasy with the U.S. commitment to Europe’s security.

“That’s one of the prices that Putin should pay. … The more the merrier that we get into NATO,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who was among the 11 conservatives who opposed the $40 billion Ukraine aid package due to the high price tag. “It strengthens them and puts less of a burden on us. I’m for anybody who wants to join.”

“We’ll welcome them both with open arms,” added Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who also opposed the aid bill but said he would vote “without hesitation” in favor of their NATO bids.

The two countries’ bids to become the 31st and 32nd members of NATO highlight the irony of Putin’s war in Ukraine: The Russian leader unintentionally hardened the alliance — and possibly expanded it. To drive that message home, Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said, “there’s a sense of trying to move very quickly” on the treaty process.

“It needs to happen fast,” added Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who traveled to Ukraine last month. “It should be unanimous. It’s important in this moment in history that the United States Senate stands firmly with our NATO allies and those who seek to join NATO.”

Like all other NATO accessions, the Senate will easily clear the threshold required for approval in the upper chamber’s treaty process. Senators involved in the effort said they expect the chamber to vote on the treaty before the August recess, and that both countries’ bids will be combined into a single vote at their request.

“[Sweden and Finland are] in a gray zone right now, and they are rightfully concerned,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who chairs the Senate’s NATO Observer Group, in a brief interview. “It’s not that we expect any encroachment of their borders, but there are other things like hybrid warfare that they’re concerned with. Us being there is reassuring to them.”

Even before Russia’s stepped-up aggression in Eastern Europe, there was broad consensus in Washington that NATO is the most successful defensive alliance in history. That Finland and Sweden decided to apply for membership in the 30-member group after decades of neutrality underscores what the West views as the necessity of conveying a united front against threats to the liberal order.

It’s unclear how many Trump-aligned conservatives might oppose the treaty out of concern that the two countries would not be able to live up to their defense commitments — namely, that members spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense and the military. Finland already meets that threshold, lawmakers said, while Sweden has pledged to boost its spending.

Some of the skeptics have also generally opposed widening the alliance. Although that’s a minority position on Capitol Hill, those nationalist views expressed by some Republicans have broader backing among the GOP base and former President Donald Trump.

“I’m not an automatic yes, let’s put it that way,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who also opposed the Ukraine aid package and has said the war-besieged country shouldn’t join NATO. “My view is, the United States should not be expanding our security commitments in Europe because we’ve got to do more in Asia.”

Hawley told POLITICO that he wants to see what exactly Finland and Sweden will contribute on the defense side, “and what it would involve for us.”

Officials from the Finnish and Swedish governments are already getting in touch with senators to discuss their applications to join the alliance and answer questions. Hawley met on Wednesday with Finland’s ambassador to the U.S., while Reed and Tillis have met with Sweden’s defense minister to discuss the military spending aspect of being a NATO member.

Finland’s president and Sweden’s prime minister also met with congressional leaders on Thursday after visiting with President Joe Biden at the White House. Both Republican and Democratic leaders have already sought to dispel the notion that the countries are looking to freeload off the rest of the alliance.

“Finland and Sweden are impressive and capable countries, with military capabilities that surpass many existing NATO allies,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who traveled to Helsinki and Stockholm last weekend after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. “As new members, they would more than pull their weight.”

U.S. ratification doesn’t guarantee both countries’ formal admissions into NATO; all 30 members must greenlight the applications. Croatia and Turkey have already expressed reservations about Finland and Sweden joining the group.

In October 2019, the Senate approved North Macedonia’s accession by a vote of 91-2. And in March 2017, just a few months after Russia was found to have meddled in the 2016 presidential election, the Senate voted 97-2 to admit Montenegro.

The lone “no” votes for both countries came from Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), both of whom have expressed some skepticism over the years about NATO.

Lee is undecided on Finland and Sweden joining NATO and is considering the arguments on both sides, while Paul told POLITICO that he’s not yet ready to make a statement on the issue. Both senators voted against the $40 billion aid package for Ukraine.

The Kremlin has long viewed NATO expansion as an existential threat, and it has cited Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance as a pretext for its Feb. 24 invasion.

Vladimir Ashurkov, who runs jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, was on Capitol Hill this week meeting with senators in an effort to convey the importance of expanding NATO and increasing sanctions on Moscow.

“[Putin’s] policy really backfires,” Ashurkov said in a brief interview. “Any fear that NATO presents a danger to Russia is really unfounded because it’s unimaginable that NATO will make a decision to attack Russia in some form.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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