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NATO Expansion

Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO seen as strategic defeat for Russia

Print edition : Jun 17, 2022 T+T-

Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO seen as strategic defeat for Russia

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (centre) at a media conference with Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) and Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde at NATO headquarters in Brussels on January 24.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (centre) at a media conference with Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) and Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde at NATO headquarters in Brussels on January 24. | Photo Credit: Olivier Matthys/AP

With Finland and Sweden applying for NATO membership, the US-led military alliance will potentially surround Russia in the Baltic Sea region, a development that military experts see as a major strategic defeat for Russia. 

The decision by Finland and Sweden to formally apply for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) does not bode well for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. One of the important reasons given by the Kremlin for launching its “limited military operations” in Ukraine was to prevent the country from joining NATO. In fact, Russia had openly suggested that Ukraine could follow the example of Finland and Sweden by remaining formally neutral while in reality being politically aligned to the West. But now that these two countries have opted to join the American-led military alliance, Moscow has even more reason to ensure that its military goals in Ukraine are achieved. This may take time, and that means more suffering for the people in Ukraine and continuing economic hardships for the rest of the world.

Until recently, support for NATO membership in both the Nordic countries was minimal. An opinion poll taken in February showed only 20 per cent of Finns supported the idea of their country joining NATO. But within a month of the conflict in Ukraine, more than 70 per cent of the Finnish population was in favour of their country joining the western military alliance. Similar was the case in Sweden. Both these Nordic countries share borders with Russia but had taken a principled stand against formally joining military alliances.

Even during the height of the Cold War, there were no tensions between Russia and the two countries. The Ukraine conflict, however, seems to have provided the pro-West parties that are running the governments in Sweden and Finland the rationale to junk time-tested strategic positions and openly embrace the US-led military alliance against Russia. Russia’s involvement in Ukraine posed no realistic threat to Finland and Sweden. Russia’s main concern was Ukraine and the treatment of the large Russian-speaking minority there.

Sweden had embraced neutrality for the last 200 years. It remained neutral even during the Second World War when the Nazis were on the rampage in Europe. In the vote in the Swedish parliament on the country getting NATO membership, only the Left Party and the Greens voted against the government’s proposal. The coalition government led by the Social Democrats was dependent on these two parties for its survival. Until the end of March, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was insisting that her country would not join NATO. Such a move, she said, would destabilise the entire Scandinavian region. Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist also said that joining NATO would “affect the security of our whole region”. 

But by early April the Swedish political establishment had done a volte-face on the issue. The Social Democrats, while lobbying for NATO membership, pledged to the Swedish public that they would not allow NATO to set up permanent military bases on Swedish territory or let the United States deploy nuclear weapons in the country. In Finland, the decision to join NATO was easier as both the ruling Social Democrats and the major right-wing opposition party were for it.

Anyway, there was always an influential element within the political establishments of both countries to keep open the option of joining NATO. The head of Finland’s conservative National Coalition Party, while on a recent visit to Washington to consult with Biden administration officials, said that his party had strived for NATO membership for the last 16 years. He “thanked Putin” for making his wish finally come true. During the Second World War,  Finland had joined with Nazi Germany in the invasion of Russia and the brutal siege of Leningrad.

In the mid 1990s, both the Nordic countries had joined NATO’s “Partners for Peace” programme which laid the groundwork for NATO’s eventual expansion to the Russian borders in the Baltic region and Eastern Europe. Finland and Sweden sent troops to help the US occupation forces in Afghanistan. The Swedish air force even participated in the US-led bombing campaign in Libya in 2012 that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s government. In 2017, Finland and Sweden became part of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) that was set up by the British in alliance with Baltic and Nordic NATO member states to counter Russia. The JEF’s aim  was to enable NATO and its allies to launch military attacks without the delays required for consultations. 

The Biden administration is advertising the decision of the Finns and the Swedes as a great diplomatic and strategic victory for the US. Robert Gates, a former US Secretary of Defence, said that it was a “huge development” that had changed “the geopolitics of Europe in a dramatic way”. NATO, he said, was now at Russia’s doorsteps, “not only in Ukraine and elsewhere”. American military and strategic experts point out that with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, the entire Baltic Sea has been “converted into a NATO lake” and that this development constituted a major strategic defeat for Russia. Swedish membership will help NATO to completely surround Russia in the Baltic Sea region. The other Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, all former member states of the USSR, were incorporated into NATO 18 years ago.

Finland shares a 1,300-km border with Russia. St Petersburg is located less than 300 km from the Finnish capital Helsinki.  NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the Russian decision to intervene in Ukraine has made the Western military alliance “stronger than ever”. After Finland and Sweden are formally admitted into NATO, a second military front can be opened up against Russia, if the situation demands. The political leadership in the West is now openly talking about inflicting a comprehensive military defeat on Russia and then bringing about regime change in Moscow.

Since 1994, NATO has been expanding rapidly, taking in former Warsaw Pact members. During the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact was the military alliance set up under the leadership of the Soviet Union to counter NATO. The 30 nations that are NATO members now have a combined military force that is four times larger than that of the Russian Federation. With Finland and Sweden both having well equipped armies, Russia now has even more reason to fear for its long-term security.

Russia’s warning

Russia has vowed retaliation to “neutralise” the growing military threat from NATO. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said that Moscow would have to take retaliatory steps “both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security in other regards”. Senior Russian officials have indicated that they will now be placing nuclear weapons near the borders of both the countries and in Russia’s Baltic port enclave of Kaliningrad.

Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev warned that Europe may be moving rapidly towards an all-out war. “NATO countries pumping weapons into Ukraine, training troops to use Western equipment, sending in mercenaries and the military exercises of Alliance countries near our borders increases the likelihood of a direct and open conflict between NATO and Russia,” Medvedev said. “Such a conflict always has the chance of turning into a full-fledged nuclear war.”

Russia announced the stoppage of gas supplies to Finland soon after the latter took the decision to join NATO, and claimed that Finland’s refusal to pay in roubles for natural gas prompted the move. Before that, Russia had announced the decision to cut off the supply of electricity to the country. The fruitful long-term economic relations, which benefited both sides, have now come to an end.

Membership of NATO has to be approved by a consensus vote. All 30 members of the military grouping have to be on board. Turkey, a founding member of NATO, has objected to the entry of the two Nordic countries. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was quick to raise objections, saying that Finland and Sweden were “guest houses for terrorist organisations” and that he did not hold “positive views” about their membership. Erdogan said that a previous American-supported military junta in Turkey had approved the re-entry of Greece into the NATO alliance, to the detriment of the country’s national interests. Turkey and Greece are regional rivals locked in territorial disputes. Stockholm and Helsinki have been sympathetic to the aspirations of various Kurdish outfits fighting for an independent state. The US is also supporting the separatist Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Many members of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) have found political sanctuary in Sweden and Finland.

The Turkish President has been taking a nuanced position on the conflict in Ukraine. Turkey has been trying to broker a negotiated settlement to end the conflict but has been thwarted by the Biden administration. The US has been  encouraging the Ukrainian government to adopt an uncompromising position and continue its proxy war on behalf of NATO. Turkey does not want an all-out war in its neighbourhood and has conveyed its displeasure about the intention of major NATO powers to prolong the war.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is opposed to the entry of Finland and Sweden in NATO.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is opposed to the entry of Finland and Sweden in NATO. | Photo Credit: VIA REUTERS

Turkey gets one-third of its natural gas supplies from Russia, along with most of its wheat imports. The government in Ankara is buying the S-400 air defence systems from Moscow. Russia is building a big nuclear plant in the country. The Turkish economy is significantly dependent on tourism from Russia. This sector was affected by the pandemic and now by the conflict in Ukraine. But the US and the other major NATO powers like France and Germany are sure that with a little bit of arm-twisting, Turkey will fall in line and allow Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

China has strongly criticised NATO’s expansion plans and accused the US of using the Ukraine crisis as a pretext to expand NATO globally. There have been calls by Western leaders to include Asian countries in the military alliance. Australia for all practical purposes is a de facto NATO member after becoming part of the exclusive AUKUS alliance, with the US and the UK as its partners. The US now wants Japan and South Korea to partner with NATO in Asia. Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers were invited to join a high-profile NATO meeting for the first time in April this year.

The US and its closest allies like the UK have not hidden their desire to bring NATO into the Indo-Pacific region. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said that NATO should have “a global outlook” and “pre-empt threats in the Indo Pacific region”. She specifically stated that it is the duty of organisations like NATO to “ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves”.

Biden’s gaffe

US President Joseph Biden, speaking to the media in Tokyo during the Quad summit meeting in late May, seemed to be giving up on the decades old American policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan issue by stating bluntly that the US military would defend the island in case of a conflict with China. He tried to undo the damage the next day by clarifying that US policy on Taiwan had not changed. The Biden administration has all but abandoned its long-standing “one China” policy. 

China’s support for Russia in the Ukraine conflict has further enraged the Biden administration. When the Quad leaders were meeting in Tokyo, China and Russia staged their first large-scale joint military exercises since the conflict in Ukraine began. The exercises were conducted in north-east Asia, where President Biden was making his first official visit. The visit was a signal that the conflict in Ukraine had not completely diverted Washington’s attention from the Asia Pacific region.

Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in an interview given to a leading Japanese newspaper, said that it was not in Asia’s interest to have military blocs like NATO. His remarks came in the wake of Biden calling for “stronger ties” among “like-minded” nations in the region to increase cooperation in the escalating competition between the so called “democracies and autocracies”. Lee said that Asia’s history is different from that of Europe. “There was never a grouping that was the equivalent of NATO” on the Asian continent, Lee said. “And countries in Asia, many of them enjoy good ties with China, as well as with the US and US treaty allies.”