Putin wanted less NATO on his border. Finland and maybe Sweden will give him more

If you talk to anyone in Western diplomatic circles – especially in the security, intelligence and defense sectors – what is about to unfold over the next few weeks in Scandinavia ranks among the worst. nightmares of Russia.

The inclusion of Finland and possibly Sweden in NATO, politically and militarily the source of all that is wrong with Moscow, will firmly extend the alliance from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, squeezed right against the border.

This is the kind of scenario Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to avoid.

Before unleashing the horror of an all-out invasion of his immediate neighbour, Putin sought to push back against NATO expansion, demanding that Ukraine never be allowed to join the Western military alliance. Last December he went further and insisted that the North Atlantic allies withdraw from Eastern Europe to their pre-1997 expansion lines.

To make his point, Putin waved the nuclear saber.

It’s safe to say that in doing so and with everything that happened, he freaked out his other non-aligned neighbors; the nations of the North who for decades have prided themselves on their studied neutrality and have built some of their political identities around it.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, right, greets Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly in Helsinki on April 4. Haavisto said this week that “Finland is a regional security provider and will further strengthen NATO as a future ally.” (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Associated Press)

“Finland’s membership would strengthen the security and stability of the Baltic Sea region and northern Europe,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said on Thursday. “Finland is a regional security provider and this would further strengthen NATO as a future ally.”

The country is expected to apply for membership next week, setting off a security race against time. A joint statement by the President and Prime Minister of Finland said “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay”.

“Moral hazard” for NATO

Although Finland had kept its options open for years on the possibility of joining NATO, the invasion of Ukraine triggered a tectonic shift in public opinion. It changed the game.

“February 24 – that was the watershed moment. It was a game-changer,” said Terhi Suominen, general secretary of the Atlantic Council of Finland.

Support for joining the alliance has traditionally hovered around 20% of the population, the events of last winter acted like a lightning bolt.

“And then, dramatically, support for NATO membership increased, and in fact it’s tripled right now. So we have 76% in favor of NATO membership,” he said. she declared.

Swedish and Finnish tanks are seen during a military exercise, gathering around 30,000 troops from NATO members and the two Scandinavian countries, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Evenes, Norway, on March 22. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Suominen said joining the alliance is an issue on which left and right across the political spectrum agree.

A senior NATO official, speaking on the merits, said the membership process will be accelerated to some extent and the alliance is trying to remove as many obstacles as possible. In the end, it could take until the end of the year because each of the 30 NATO members must ratify the inclusion of countries in their parliament.

It is this interim period before Finland is fully covered by NATO’s one-for-all, all-for-one security guarantee that worries many experts.

Michael J. Williams, professor of international relations at Syracuse University, calls the interim period “moral hazard” for the alliance.

Countries benefit from the support of NATO members

Would the alliance go to war to protect a country – or two countries – that want to join but have not yet been accepted as full members?

“The challenge is if they say they’re joining the alliance, there’s going to be a gap,” Williams told CBC News recently. “The Russians’ ability to attack between the time they apply and the time they join is worrying.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto shake hands after signing a security guarantee, in Helsinki on Wednesday. Britain has signed a similar agreement with Sweden. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

That concern was partly resolved on Wednesday when the UK signed defensive pacts with Finland and Sweden that promised Britain to come to their aid in the event of an attack, and vice versa.

Both Scandinavian countries are concerned that one or more existing NATO members may delay approval. However, an official from the alliance, speaking on the merits, said Finnish and Swedish diplomats worked with the various delegations in Brussels and received a lot of support.

It’s not as if either country is unknown to NATO. Each has contributed troops to Afghanistan in a support role.

Williams said the fact that Finland has publicly declared its intention means that Sweden is not that far behind, even though Stockholm has publicly shown more reluctance.

Steve Saideman, Paterson Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, says both countries have advanced militaries, civilian control of their militaries and stable democracies.

“These two countries not only respond to these [NATO] standards, but surpass them,” he said. “The challenge is that Finland is adding something that no other NATO country has, other than Turkey, which is a very long land border with Russia, and that managing that political dynamic and managing of the window between the application for membership and membership is significant.”

If Sweden chooses to join, Williams said he thinks there might be more political soul-searching to be done than Finland. Stockholm has declared itself neutral since the beginning of the 19th century and has maintained this position even through the existential conflicts of the last century.

“They were neutral in World War II,” Williams said. “So we’re talking about a very old, deep-seated culture of non-alignment.”

Both Williams and Saideman say the two Scandinavian countries bring considerable conventional combat power to the alliance.

Suominen said his country takes defense very seriously given that it was invaded by the former Soviet Union in the early 1940s.

What both countries gain by joining NATO, besides the security of the alliance’s Article 5 self-defense clause, is access to advanced defense against cyber and hybrid warfare, a said Saideman.

The question of how Russia will react is hotly debated, now that Finland has indicated a clear direction.

Russia slammed Finland on Thursday, saying it would be “forced” to retaliate if the long-neutral country joined the alliance.

Saideman said Russia could not afford to fight with another neighboring country.

“They have everything they can bear to have a war with Ukraine,” Saideman said. “It’s not like they can engage in a very large scale aggression against Finland or Sweden because they just don’t have the capability right now. They can’t even attack. the neighboring country successfully.”