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With Finland poised to join NATO, how will Russia respond?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How does Russia respond to a new NATO nation on its border? Finland said this week it wants in to the North Atlantic Alliance. NATO nations are likely to say yes quickly. All of this is responding to Russia's attack on Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin promoted as a way to push back NATO, among other things.

Let's discuss this with Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who has worked in the office of the Director of National Intelligence and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Good morning.

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess I should begin by asking what can Russia do to Finland, given that it's unhappy?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, I think we should underscore that the most vulnerable time for Finland would be the time between when they formally submit their NATO application and the time that it would take for all 30 member states to have to ratify that in their...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: ...Legislatures. I think, you know, the key question everyone wants to know is whether or not Russia will use military force. As you just said, that was the story of Ukraine, but it was also the story of Georgia in 2008 when Russia invaded there to prevent Georgia's move towards NATO. But this time, I don't expect that. I think that Russia is too bogged down with its war in Ukraine. And I think that's exactly the calculus that Finland and Sweden have, that they see that Russia is distracted, and it gives them this window to make a move. So you know, I think the most likely response would be something more along the lines of cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns or other occasional airspace violations. But...

INSKEEP: Yeah. That sounds more like...

KENDALL-TAYLOR: ...Probably not a lot.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that sounds more like harassment than a serious threat to Finland.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah, I think that's right.

INSKEEP: However, there has been talk of Russia possibly cutting gas supplies to Finland. Is that a serious threat?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, we've heard that allegation in press, and we know that Russia's not afraid to threaten to use gas as a weapon. And it was even just yesterday that Germany accused Russia of using gas as a weapon after it reduced deliveries there. So it is definitely plausible. I think, for me, the question would be how impactful that would be for Finland. So Finland does get a majority of its natural gas from Russia, but gas only makes up a very small proportion of the country's energy mix. So my understanding is it wouldn't be terribly painful.

INSKEEP: A strange question to ask, I suppose, given the rhetoric of the last several months, but I'm going to ask it. Does Vladimir Putin really care about NATO expansion? And here's why I say this. He gave NATO expansion as a reason for invading Ukraine, but he seemed to have all these other reasons for invading Ukraine about history and Ukraine being a part of Russia and his idea of Russia. Does he even care if Finland joins NATO really?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah, I do think he cares. I mean, for a very long time - Finland has been neutral for 80 years. I think both the Finns and the Russians view that neutrality as one reason why they've had such a stable and pragmatic relationship. So this is really a sea change, and I would expect that this will lead to a fundamental change in that historically very stable Russia-Finnish relationship. And, you know, it could lead to things like the greater militarization along that border there. So it will be consequential. And for Putin, it does underscore this idea, this fear that he has long held that Russia is being encircled by NATO. And so it will amplify those concerns.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about years to come then. As that border gets more militarized, as the relationship maybe gets more and more tense, Finland becomes a NATO nation, which means the U.S. would be obliged to defend it if it were attacked. Does this, at least a little bit, increase the risk that the United States might have to go to war sometime?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, we know that - you know, that when Putin looks at NATO, he views it as a credible military force. He understands that Russia cannot compete with NATO. And it's one of the reasons why Putin, too, has been so reticent to risk a direct military confrontation in Ukraine with NATO. And so, you know, does it increase the risk? I would say so just because we will see kind of NATO's infrastructure closer to Russia's border. If we do see things like the militarization of that border, it raises the risk of accidents that could unintentionally spiral into conflict. And I think that would be the most likely pathway, rather than a Russia that feels it would want to take on NATO as an adversary.

INSKEEP: We just got about 20 seconds here, but I'll ask this also. If Putin wanted to widen this conflict somehow, what is a way anywhere in the world that he realistically could?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: I think cyber is the most likely way at this point. That's the kind of shoe that hasn't dropped and something that many of us expected would come. So I think that would be the most likely. If he feels that he wants to widen the conflict, I - my sense is that he will still come for the United States and potentially Europe using those cyber tools.

INSKEEP: Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This was really clear and informative. Thank you so much.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.