Russia's invasion of Ukraine has rekindled the Nordic debate over the possibility of joining NATO, prompting Russian threats. It's a microcosm for the conflict itself.
Like elsewhere, Sweden and Finland have taken historic decisions in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last month — each breaking their respective policy of not providing arms to countries at war, by sending military aid to Kyiv.
Indeed, for Sweden, the last time it happened was during the Winter War of 1939, when it gave assistance to Finland to counter an invasion by the Soviet Union.
While Sweden’s shipment of 5,000 anti-tank weapons are hardly enough to reverse Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the move hints at a potential larger shift that would end the country’s longstanding policy of non-alliance that guided it through the Cold War and in the decades since.
And it says a lot about how quickly the geo-strategic chessboard is changing before our eyes.
Shaking the "Nordic Balance"
A national poll published two days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that for the first time, more Swedes are in favor of a NATO membership than against, with a 41% majority pitted against a 35% opposition. In Finland too, a survey by broadcaster Yle found that a record 53% of Finns support their country joining NATO. This figure goes up to 66% if neighboring Sweden were also to join. To give an idea of the drastic change, only 19% of Finns supported NATO membership in 2017.
Unsurprisingly, a rekindled Nordic debate over the possibility of joining the military alliance has prompted Russian threats, with the Kremlin warning that a membership would "have serious military and political repercussions."
Of course, to Finns and Swedes, that threat was almost expected, after both countries had taken such care in walking a tightrope between the East and the West for decades.
Throughout the Cold War, the Baltic Sea region was essentially a military no-man’s land on the periphery of the main axis of confrontation in central Europe. It was that strategic backwater status that allowed for a "Nordic Balance" to emerge, formed by neutral Finland and Sweden as well as special status NATO-members Norway and Denmark in which neither country allowed nuclear weapons or foreign troops to be permanently stationed on their territory.
That is the unity that Putin seeks to undermine.
But following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the sea that separates Russia from the West has rather become a microcosm of the new European wager — bringing together some of the world’s most developed countries and those still struggling to recover from Communist rule.
It is that unity that Putin seeks to undermine. By becoming the dominant power in Eurasia, the Kremlin seeks to exert influence over its neighbors and to bargain with the world's top countries on equal footing. That’s especially true with regards to the three Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — whose independence and active role in NATO and the EU are seen as direct threats to Russia’s security and autonomy.
Sweden and Finland are longtime U.S. allies, though not NATO members
Sharing a 1,300-km border
Finland and Sweden instead come from a post-War standing firmly in the West (and European Union), yet perched so close to Russian territory that NATO membership was seen as too dangerous a provocation for anyone to consider for decades.
But as tweeted by former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt last Monday, "The unthinkable might start to become thinkable."
Indeed, the policy of non-alliance is anchored in a system that Russia — by acting on its ambition to extinguish the independence of its neighbors — has just proven outdated. The idea was always that, in the case of another large-scale conflict, Sweden and Finland would figure in the periphery. Today, Swedes and Finns are looking at Ukraine and thinking, that could be us, and all the assault rifles and anti-tank support in Europe wouldn’t be enough to save us.
So today, the Nordic duo might answer Russia’s threat: What choice have you left us?
In Finland, where a 1,300-kilometers border is shared with Russia, members of parliament gathered last week to discuss the option of NATO membership. In Sweden, however, while the country’s ruling Social Democratic party has in the last week become increasingly divided over joining the alliance, an immediate membership appears unlikely as the government has emphasized that non-alignment has served Sweden well for more than 200 years, and that security policy should not be radically changed so quickly.
If Russia’s aggression remains contained to Ukraine, Sweden and Finland will eventually still have to weigh the risk of a NATO membership inciting Putin against, well, Putin not even needing to be incited.
When the Warsaw Pact dissolved
Still, calculating or not, it’s clear that a European equilibrium cannot be maintained as long as there's someone in the neighborhood blatantly disregarding the bedrock ordering principle of national sovereignty.
But as Sweden and Finland are now forced to make a pivotal choice alongside other non-aligned countries, they should consider that the West’s relationship to sovereignty isn’t uncomplicated, either.
Ever since the forming of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the nations of Europe have increasingly pooled national sovereignty in the common interest. While that has turned the EU into an economic powerhouse, it hasn’t had the same military effect, with Europe largely dependent on U.S. muscle and the constantly expanding Trans-Atlantic alliance it spearheads.
Russia was worthy of Western distrust yet no longer a clear and present risk
When the Warsaw Pact dissolved, in 1991, NATO — supposedly a defense alliance — did not. At the time, Russia had its hand stretched out towards the West, with the president of a newly independent Russia, Boris Yeltsin, even sounding out the prospects of a NATO membership.
That of course didn’t happen: Europe and the U.S. instead chose to regard Russia as the greatly weakened successor state of the USSR — worthy of Western distrust yet no longer a clear and present risk. The path thus became one of seemingly boundless enthusiasm for expansion, from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, eventually swelling to the three Baltic States and beyond.
At the Finnish-Russian border
Putin's blame and self-fulfilling prophecy
To be clear, the ramifications of the invasion extend far beyond the Europe continent. Putin's actions should be punished with the full force needed to alert aspiring despots around the world that such bold moves for imperial power are a historic mistake. But the West must also be wary of repeating its own errors.
As such, the current dilemma of Finland and Sweden is emblematic of the perennial question of whether NATO has deterred Russian aggression, or fueled it. While the final answer to that question is unknowable, more time should be spent investigating the history which has brought us to where we are today.
If we make it out of this crisis without the outbreak of a wider conflict, part of the calculus for how to restore and maintain peace should include a reassessment of what Trans-Atlantic solidarity should mean in practice, and whether permanent military alliances are in fact serving our best interests, or have become an end in themselves.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Nordic social democracy is to have kept authoritarian communism from crashing through the door. If it can manage to do the same again, we should hope that it also leads to the rest of Western security cooperation with more finesse and fewer blind spots.
To be clear, all the tangible blame for this war is squarely with Putin. Still, the steady expansion of post-Cold War NATO has the whiff of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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