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Poking a wounded bear: What happens if Sweden and Finland join NATO?

As the Scandinavian countries prepare to apply for membership, with Moldova and Georgia waiting in the wings, how will Russia react - and what hope is there for Ukraine?

Image: The New European

At the outset of the cold war, the distinguished American diplomat George Kennan brilliantly analysed Soviet motives and political perspective: they were, he said, an unholy combination of communist ideology, traditional Russian insecurity, and tsarist expansionism.

Vladimir Putin has inherited the full panoply. His ideological belief that the dissolution of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century (in his position one might have rated the loss of 27 million Soviet citizens in the second world war slightly higher), his paranoia about the West’s encroachment on Russki Mir (the “Russian world” concept that has become the basis of a crusade against the West’s liberal culture ) and his wish to extend near-Russia to most of the European borders of the old Soviet Union all illustrate how Putin is a true successor to Soviet ideologues like Stalin and Brezhnev. 

The paranoia is augmented by his belief that the West reneged on a promise made not to expand Nato. According to Russia, in 1990 James Baker, then the US secretary of state, gave an assurance to Mikhail Gorbachev that there would be no expansion of Nato beyond the eastern border of Germany provided Russia acquiesced in German reunification. But in the US version of the conversation, Baker merely questioned whether Gorbachev would like to see a unified Germany tied to Nato with assurances that Nato’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position. Gorbachev, in this US version, replied that he would prefer that to an independent united Germany outside Nato. For Baker to have given such an assurance would have flown in the face of Nato’s founding principle of an open door to new members. Whatever the reality of who promised what, the Russians clearly heard what they wanted to hear.

When what they thought they heard turned out to be a fallacy, Putin and his circle claimed to have been double-crossed by the US when they had an expectation of being equal partners in a new European security order. In domestic Russian terms, it is undoubtedly the case that Nato expansion, led by George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton, weakened Russia’s delicate fledgling democracy when it was most in need of support, prompting Kennan to warn that expanding Nato would be the most fateful error of US policy in the entire post-cold war period. 

Tragically, instead of a Russian Zelensky succeeding Yeltsin, there arose out of the ashes of the USSR as malign a securocrat as ever the KGB had fashioned. The worst possible leader to emerge in Russia in these circumstances.

Putin has looked on with anger at Nato expansion from 16 countries in 1991 to 30 today. Russia now has a direct border of 1,215km with Nato. But, from the paranoid Putin’s view, that is set to get worse.

Sweden and Finland, both thoroughly alarmed by the Russian onslaught in Ukraine, now look increasingly likely to seek Nato membership, having since the end of the second world war preferred instead a position of neutrality. Were they to do so, Nato would have 32 countries and Russia’s border with Nato would more than double to 2,555km. (Even so, only about 12% of Russia’s borders would be with Nato countries.)

Both Finland and Sweden, for sound historical reasons, have long pursued a policy of military non-alignment. Finland fought off a Soviet invasion in the Winter war of 1939-1940, though losing around 10% of its territory in the process. In an attempt to regain lost territory, it joined with the Nazis at the time of their invasion of the USSR until it sued for peace in 1944 and accepted the loss of territory, including its second-biggest city. Sweden maintained neutrality alone among Nordic countries in the second world war and, unlike Denmark and Norway, got away with it as Hitler regarded Swedish territory as surplus to his military requirements. 

After the war, Sweden was always alive to Finland’s precarious position and declined to join a Nordic defence union with Norway and Denmark, which would have had to exclude Finland. But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Sweden and Finland felt able to move away from political neutrality to the extent of applying for EU membership, which they achieved in 1995. 

But although since the end of the cold war Sweden and Finland had developed military cooperation with Nato, they still felt little need to change their military status to that of Nato member. It has taken Russia’s assault on Ukraine to move Sweden and Finland’s public opinion decisively in the direction of membership as their prime ministers maintain that Russia’s onslaught has changed Europe’s “whole security landscape”. Last month, support reached 57% in Sweden and has been in the 70% range in Finland, where support has been slightly higher in recent years. Parties across the political spectrum now advocate Nato membership and the governing Social Democratic parties in both countries are about to set out their positions to their people.

The Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has already indicated that there will be a positive and speedy response to any such applications, which could be lodged simultaneously in time to be considered at the Nato summit in Madrid in June.

There is already a substantial element of military integration between the two countries and Nato, and both countries can bring significant military assets to the table. 

There will, however, be a dangerous hiatus even if as expected the application is approved by leaders in Madrid. All current 30 Nato members will have to ratify the decision in parliament. Thus it looks most unlikely that the two countries can formally be admitted and enjoy Article V protection (an attack on one is an attack on all) before some time in 2023.

Nato members will have to be prepared to provide credible interim deterrence against possible Russian aggression. Russia has already threatened to deploy nuclear weapons in its exclave of Kaliningrad between Lithuania and Poland (though according to Lithuania the Russians already have nuclear weapons stored there). But to avoid any excuse for Russian provocations or interference, both countries will probably decline to house permanent major Nato assets or nuclear weapons on their territory. 

While Sweden and Finland’s path to Nato membership should be relatively smooth, if not as fast as some would wish, there are two former Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, that have badly fractured relations with Moscow but whose chances of membership are unlikely to prosper. 

Moldova, like Ukraine, has a breakaway region: Transnistria is heavily Russian-speaking and has been under the control of separatists backed by around 1,500 Russian troops since 1992. But Moldova’s neutrality is enshrined in its constitution, it has never sought to join Nato and its high level of corruption and disorganisation would in any case raise significant obstacles. Instead there is a danger of it being dragged into the war in Ukraine. Recent explosions in the region have been attributed by Moscow to Ukraine, potentially creating a pretext for intervention by Russia to protect Russian speakers in Transnistria. The same Putin playbook we’ve seen in the Donbas. 

While Nato refused, at a summit in 2008, to offer Georgia and Ukraine a gateway to membership, it did state that Georgia could become a member in the future provided it continued with reform efforts. 

The Russians at the time described Nato membership for either Georgia or Ukraine as a huge strategic mistake that would have the most serious consequences for pan-European security. And in August that year, Russian forces began the invasion of Georgia that culminated in a five-day war, marking the first conflict in Europe in the 21st century. Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose independence Moscow had backed following that war, are home to large numbers of Russian nationals and, since the 2008 war, to Russian troops, further complicating the question of eventual Georgian membership of Nato. 

Similarly Ukraine’s possible membership of Nato will remain problematic pending the outcome of the current war. President Volodymyr Zelensky sounds realistic and pragmatic on the subject. He said recently: “For years we heard about the apparently open door, but have already also heard that we will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged.” As part of any peace settlement, he would probably be willing to consider declaring neutrality and offering security guarantees to Russia, including keeping the country nuclear-free. 

Following a different path and perhaps sensing that he would never again have such a sympathetic hearing, on February 28, four days after the Russian invasion, Zelensky submitted an official request for Ukraine to join the EU, proposing this be done immediately under “a new special procedure”. While the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on the same day, “they are one of us, and we want them in”, she also referred to a process that would be “over time”.

Many EU countries have rushed to support Ukraine being given candidate status, but others have adopted a more cautious tone. President Emmanuel Macron of France has said that opening an accession procedure with a country at war was not possible and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said there could be no “fast-track procedure”. Other member states are concerned about corruption and the state of Ukraine’s economy. So, given the need for unanimity, the answer once again is yes but not now. Of course while Ukraine’s membership of western clubs may be on hold, Zelensky has more urgent existential problems to address.

Sir Ivor Roberts is a retired British diplomat.

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