May 18, 2022

Sweden and Finland bid for NATO.

Sweden and Finland bid for NATO.

Plus, a question about migrants at the border getting baby formula.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

NATO expansion. Plus, a question about giving baby formula to migrants at the border.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin is pushing for NATO membership. Photo: Finnish Government

Quick primary wrap up.

There were a few closely watched primaries yesterday that could not easily be summarized in the "Quick hits" section. So here is what you need to know:

  • In Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz (endorsed by Donald Trump) is carrying a slight lead in the GOP Senate primary, which could be headed for a recount. John Fetterman (D) easily defeated Conor Lamb (D) in the primary on the other side, despite news of his stroke. Doug Mastriano (endorsed by Trump) won the Republican primary for governor and will face State Attorney general Josh Shapiro. (The results)
  • Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) lost his primary to state Sen. Chuck Edwards and will exit Congress. Trump-endorsed Ted Budd won the North Carolina Senate primary and will face former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D). (The results)
  • Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), both regular critics of Trump, easily defeated challenges from pro-Trump candidates. (The results)
  • In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little (R) defeated Trump-endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (R).
  • Progressive Democrats across the country are celebrating a series of high-profile wins over more establishment candidates. (The results)
  • Mail-in ballots are still being counted across the country.

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden used a speech in Buffalo on Tuesday to blast the "great replacement theory" and warn about the threat of white supremacists and gun violence. (The comments)
  2. The FDA authorized Pfizer's Covid-19 booster vaccine shots for children aged 5 to 11. (The authorization)
  3. Mariupol officially fell to Russia yesterday after the last Ukrainian soldiers defending a steel plant in the city center surrendered to Russian forces. (The end)
  4. Elon Musk reiterated that his deal to take over Twitter cannot move forward until the company proves that fewer than 5% of its users are fake. (The deal)
  5. Pentagon officials testified before Congress on UFOs yesterday, citing 400 unexplained incidents but no proof of alien life. (The hearings)
  6. BREAKING: The U.S. government is planning to put its Disinformation Governance Board on hold. (The story)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

NATO expansion. This morning, Finland and Sweden formally submitted applications to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ending their longstanding neutral positions. Sweden has maintained its neutrality for nearly 200 years, while Finland's neutrality has become so ingrained in global affairs that many have suggested a "Finlandization" of Ukraine as a resolution to the war.

Now, though, the two countries are attempting to join the Western alliance whose expansion Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was trying to counter with his war in the first place. If their bids to join NATO are successful, they would double the length of NATO allies' border with Russia. Both Sweden and Finland have highly advanced, well-funded militaries that have conducted exercises with NATO in the past.

All 30 current NATO nations must accept their bids for the membership to be accepted. Typically, this process takes about eight to 12 months, but NATO wants to move rapidly to avoid potential retaliation from Russia. Leaders from Canada have said the ratification could happen in mere days or weeks. However, there are already some bumps in the road.

On Tuesday, member state Turkey announced its opposition to allowing the two countries to join NATO. Sweden has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, including ethnic Kurds from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused both countries of not having a clear, open stance against terrorists. He said they would need to end their support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a militant group  that Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union have all designated as a terrorist organization.

While Turkey’s opposition took the West by surprise, many diplomats expressed confidence that both countries would be accepted, framing Turkey's position as a political play to gain certain concessions.

In America, there is widespread agreement on this issue. So we are going to include a few perspectives from the U.S., as well as a couple of pieces of commentary from abroad, then my take.

What the U.S. is saying...

  • Most U.S. commentators support accepting Finland and Sweden into NATO.
  • They point out that Putin's war has backfired in many ways, but this may be the biggest.
  • Some express caution about NATO expansion, though, and call for the allied nations to move more deliberately.

The Chicago Tribune editorial board said Putin wanted to deter NATO expansion, but now he's making it essential.

"His military offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region increasingly shows signs of sputtering," the board wrote. "Britain’s latest round of sanctions targeted the Russian leader’s ex-wife, a former Olympic gymnast long believed to be his girlfriend, and three of his cousins. Chicago-based McDonald’s has joined a caravan of Western corporations leaving Russia for good, and the country’s GDP is expected to shrink 12% this year, its worst economic contraction in 30 years. But arguably the worst news for Putin came with both Finland’s and Sweden’s recent decision to join NATO, the Western military alliance that the Russian president regards as his country’s primary nemesis.

"Even worse for Putin — NATO leaders have said they plan to fast-track membership for the two Nordic nations," it said. "One of the ways Putin had justified the war in Ukraine to fellow Russians was that it was necessary to fend off NATO’s expansion up to Russia’s borders. Now, because of the invasion and the barbarism his soldiers have displayed in once-besieged Ukrainian towns like Bucha, NATO is poised to establish itself along Russia’s northwest flank, which shares a roughly 800-mile border with Finland. Putin has only himself to blame. Though Sweden and Finland have maintained 200 years of strategic neutrality in Europe, the populations of both countries now see Russia as an existential threat, and feel safer within the fold of NATO."

The National Review editors said Finland and Sweden "belong in NATO."

"If either or both countries decide to sign up to NATO, they should be welcomed unequivocally," the editors said. "For reasons of geography alone (and they have more to contribute than that), they will bolster the defense of NATO’s exposed Baltic flank. As things currently stand, the Baltic states are linked to Poland, and thus the rest of NATO, by a narrow corridor (near the Polish city of Suwalki) that separates Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave from Moscow’s Belarusian client-state. Should Russia seal that “Suwalki gap,” the Balts would, for most practical purposes, be on their own.

"Bringing Finland, just a few miles across the Baltic Sea from Estonia, into the alliance would go a long way to reducing the danger that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia could be cut off from their allies," they added. "It thus ought to reduce the danger that today’s less risk-averse Russia would be tempted to try its luck by “detaching” the Baltic trio and then daring the rest of the West to respond... While Finland has not spent as much as it should on defense (that’s changing), it has well-equipped armed forces, and the combination of its history and its geography has meant that it has maintained conscription. Finland’s regular armed forces are small, but mobilizing reserves would take their numbers to over 250,000, with potentially hundreds of thousands more behind them."

In MSNBC, Zeeshan Aleem said Putin's plan to make NATO weaker has made it stronger.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin has got to be feeling very, very bad about all this," Aleem wrote. "To the extent that Putin thought invading Ukraine could serve as a strategic bulwark against NATO, his plan has been a catastrophic failure. Ukraine’s extraordinary military performance, bolstered by a steady flow of high-tech lethal aid from the West, warded off the swift conquest Moscow had hoped for. Now Russia is fighting in the Donbas region, hoping perhaps to bite off a chunk of the eastern territory to save face after its failure to come even close to fulfilling its initial goal of regime change. But even if Russia is able to achieve some kind of territorial gain in Donbas — and that is an open question — it’s hard to see how Russia is better off in relation to NATO than before the invasion.

"After all, Moscow had already been meddling in the Donbas region since 2014, and its backing of separatist forces there had already been effective at helping keep Ukraine out of NATO. (Experts say that part of the reason Ukraine's NATO status was perpetually deferred was because NATO couldn't allow Ukraine in until Russia ceased its meddling in Donbas, otherwise NATO would have had to declare war on Russia the minute Ukraine joined NATO.) In other words, Russia was already doing quite a lot with a light touch; now with a heavier hand, it has made things worse for itself," he concluded.

In Newsweek, Daniel DePetris cautioned that NATO shouldn't rubber stamp Finland's membership.

"This isn't because Finland has a mediocre military or fails to meet NATO standards," DePetris said. "Given the Finnish military's recent history of training exercises with the alliance, it wouldn't take much work to fully integrate the Nordic nation into NATO structures. Bringing another member into NATO, however, is a weighty decision that comes with serious and solemn defense responsibilities for the rest of the alliance. This is particular[ly] true for the United States, which by virtue of its size, military heft and leadership role in NATO's own institutions—the alliance's top general has always been an American—has carried NATO on its back ever since the organization was established 73 years ago.

"Russia, for instance, won't take too kindly with NATO doubling the size of its joint border," DePetris said. "The Kremlin has already telegraphed that it could respond to the decision with deployments of nuclear missiles in the Baltic region. The Baltic Sea could become a highly congested body of water with NATO and Russian vessels in more frequent contact. Moscow may not hold a veto over who gets to be a NATO member state, but it does have the power to retaliate at a time, place and mode of its own choosing... Simply stated: the larger the alliance is, the more territory its member states will need to defend in the event of a security crisis. By granting Finland membership, the U.S. and the rest of the alliance are in effect saying they are willing to fight a war with Russia, even a potentially nuclear one, in order to defend Finnish territory."

What they're saying abroad...

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark and former secretary general of NATO, said NATO should welcome Sweden and Finland enthusiastically.

"Finland and Sweden joining NATO is a win-win," he wrote. "Both countries would receive the security guarantee of NATO’s Article 5 on collective defense, and NATO would gain new capabilities in a strategically important region. This convenient buffer zone between Russia and current NATO members would make it easier to react to any incursion by Russian forces into the Baltic States. While the debate on membership continues, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine will go into overdrive. It will warn against further NATO expansion, claiming it will destabilize the region and make war more likely.

"Of course, this is not the case. The only person destabilizing Europe is Mr. Putin. Russia targeted Ukraine, and Georgia before that, precisely because they are not members of NATO," Rasmussen added. "Russia’s international strategy is to threaten escalation in order to bully less powerful countries into submission and push more powerful ones toward inaction. In this war, Mr. Putin threatened to target NATO convoys bringing weapons to Ukraine and to cut off gas supplies to Europe if bills were not paid in rubles. On both of those issues, the West called Russia’s bluff. The threats did not materialize... If Sweden and Finland do join NATO — especially in the face of such threats — it would show Mr. Putin that war is counterproductive, that war only strengthens Western unity, resolve and military preparedness."

In Turkey's pro-government paper The Daily Sabah, Muhittin Ataman laid out the reasons Turkey had its doubts.

"First of all, we have to underline that Turkey does not oppose the eastward enlargement of NATO. Turkey has generally supported NATO’s expansionism," he wrote. "However, after some leading NATO members began to otherize Turkey and remained indifferent to Turkey’s security concerns, Ankara decided to question some NATO moves, such as the enhancement of NATO’s military presence in the Baltic states. Turkey will not allow the membership of these two states while they support anti-Turkish actors, including terrorist organizations.

"The record of Sweden is especially problematic due to its position as a safe haven for anti-Turkish political groups," he said. "Both states have been supporting the PKK, the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front (DHKP-C) militants and allowing them to carry out anti-Turkish activity. In addition, Sweden has been imposing embargos against Turkey, mainly due to Ankara's opposition to terrorist organizations."

My take.

I think it's excellent. And it's also telling.

More than anything else, Sweden and Finland making a bid to join NATO should put to bed any questions about whether the West's or Putin's narrative is closer to the truth. As I've written here before, there are reasonable arguments out there about NATO's expansion provoking Putin. But they are mostly distractions from the core issue here. The idea that NATO expansion was the crux of Putin's desire to invade Ukraine has always beggared belief. He invaded, primarily, because he believes Ukraine — a country of 40 million free people — belongs to Russia and exists underneath its umbrella, and he fears the tide of a thriving democracy taking hold there.

Amidst this war, a number of U.S. commentators on both the left and right have sold a narrative that neatly aligns with Putin's. It goes a little something like this: America is a perpetual aggressor, more interested in drawing Putin into a long, costly war than they are in protecting Ukraine or Ukrainians. Putin's decision to invade Ukraine was a rational (and predictable) move given NATO's growing presence in Eastern Europe. Some have asked, "How would America respond if China put soldiers inside Canada?" presuming themselves clever.

Let Sweden and Finland present the counterpoint. To put it in simple terms, the two nations have spent decades finding ways to mostly “stay out of it.” Over time, they went from believing that they could walk a tightrope of neutrality between the West and Russia, to more recently working in concert with NATO. Now, with the invasion of Ukraine, the obvious threat has becomebecame clear, and the attitudes of citizens in these countries have changed accordingly. They’ve become so wary of their neighbor that the benefits of NATO membership now clearly outweighed the risks.

It is not America forcing their hand. In fact, allowing them to join — as DePetris notes — expands the territory America and its allies will be responsible for. Sweden and Finland are not joining NATO because America is an imperialist aggressor that forced Russia to invade Ukraine.

They are joining NATO because they recognize their neighbor, Vladimir Putin, is on a pathological tear through a country that is no threat to him, murdering innocent civilians for the cause of capturing a nation he is never going to be able to rule. They are joining NATO because they understand that securing their future freedom requires it. They are joining NATO because they know, as I and many others have warned repeatedly, there is no logical reason to believe Putin will stop at Ukraine. They are joining NATO because, even though they know damaging their relationship with Russia will be costly, it’s by far the best option on the table.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin put it plainly in just seven words: “Russia is not the neighbor we imagined.”

If they join, it'll be a boon to the West. The territory is strategic gold, and both nations bring militaries well advanced of Ukraine's that were built to survive without NATO’s help. With any luck, the news will be cause for some self-reflection. If the dead civilians, dead soldiers, debilitated economy, exodus of four million civilians, and strengthening of the Western alliance won't wake Putin up to his mistake, nothing will.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.

Your questions, answered.

Q: How much baby formula did the Federal Government buy for the children of illegal aliens, and when did they buy it? Did they exacerbate the baby formula shortage favoring illegal aliens over citizens?

— Jim, Dawsonville, GA

Tangle: I've gotten a few questions about this story and have seen it percolating online. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) have shared photos of empty shelves alongside others of pallets of baby formula for undocumented immigrants at the border. The thrust of the allegation seems to be that the federal government is taking care of migrant babies while ignoring American citizens.

But I'm not really sure what you'd have us do. This binary — the implication that if undocumented immigrant babies get formula we don’t — just doesn’t add up.

For starters, from a purely moral perspective, our government should be making sure children in our care after arriving at our border are being fed. Migrants are being held in detention facilities. They can't scour store shelves for formula or order it online. They are under arrest. If we don't provide them with food or water, or their babies with formula, they die. There is literally no other option for them.

That is why, by law (and, again, by conscience!), we are required to care for asylum seekers and migrants who cross into the U.S. Even if you don't agree we should be doing that, it is undeniable that we are required to. The Flores settlement from 1997 says that facilities must provide "drinking water and food as appropriate" to minors being held in U.S. facilities. It is not ambiguous. So, yes, since babies are sometimes brought into the U.S. illegally, baby formula is necessary at the border.

Again: It's the law. Donald Trump followed the law in the same way, because he had to — there is no choice. Babies who ended up on U.S. territory got formula under his direction, too. This is, frankly, the kind of ginned up outrage that makes our current politics so frustrating to me.

Finally, though: There is no reason to believe this is exacerbating the shortage. At all. The facility that picture came from houses around 1,200 people. I'd bet the number of babies there eating formula is fewer than 100. What's happening nationwide is on a scale so much larger than what a few pallets at the border could impact that it is hard to put into words. Through the WIC program alone (government subsidized), one million babies receive formula. We're talking about a $5.81 billion market, and our supply is 43% lower than usual due to the issues we discussed here Monday.

So yes, undocumented immigrant babies are getting baby formula. Yes, I think they should. Yes, we're required to provide it by law. And no, I don't think it has anything to do with why there is a formula shortage.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

The United States is in the midst of a "gun buying boom," according to new data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The recent report is the first comprehensive federal look at gun commerce in nearly 20 years. The number of firearms manufactured annually has tripled since 2000, and spiked even higher in the last three years, according to The New York Times. Beginning in 2009, the popularity of Glock-type handguns for personal protection started outselling rifles, which are typically purchased for sport. The police also recovered 19,344 home assembled weapons known as "ghost guns" in 2021, a tenfold increase from 2016. There are currently about 400 million guns in the U.S., according to gun ownership surveys.


  • Eight. The number of free Covid-19 tests you can now order from the government online.
  • One in three. The number of Americans who believe the pandemic is over.
  • 12. The number of founding member countries of NATO.
  • 30. The number of NATO member countries today.
  • 800. The length, in miles, of Finland’s border with Russia.
  • 1,954. The length, in miles, of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Have a nice day.

A Nepali man has climbed Mount Everest for the 26th time, breaking his own world record — again. Kami Rita Sherpa had already held the world record for summiting the climbing mecca, and had reached the summit an incredible five times in four years. But after Covid-19 largely shut the mountain down, Kami Rita got back to it the first chance he could. The 52-year-old began his lifelong experience on Everest after his father was one of the first professional guides in the 1950s. Kami Rita worked as a porter transporting gear to the base camp when he was 12, at a time when international climbers were only just being allowed on the mountain. Now, he is the king of the hill, with the world record in hand as he continues to separate himself from the pack. (NPR has the story)

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