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How the U.S. and Russia feel about Finland and Sweden joining NATO

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Finland and Sweden have long kept a careful balance, a neutral position between the West and Russia. But that changed after Moscow invaded Ukraine. Today, the leaders of those two Nordic nations were at the White House, where President Biden threw his full support behind their application to join the NATO military alliance.

(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.

FENG: But that is not the way that Moscow sees it. President Vladimir Putin has long accused NATO of aggressive expansion in Europe.

Mary Elise Sarotte is a historian who has documented how NATO has grown over the years. She wrote a book called "Not One Inch: America, Russia, And The Making Of Post-Cold War Stalemate." Welcome, Mary.

MARY ELISE SAROTTE: Thank you for having me.

FENG: 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?

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, 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 background (ph) during which, among other things, the Baltic states come in to the alliance.

So Putin was in charge by that time, and he disliked that intensely because it meant, in his view, that NATO is 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 is joining NATO. That has helped to reduce the temperature. So I'm hopeful that this can happen without escalating tensions.

FENG: Mary Sarotte is a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Thanks so much for joining us.

SAROTTE: Thank you for your attention to these important issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.