Until recently, Finnish leaders saw Nato membership as an unnecessary provocation to Moscow.
London: It was all so predictable. Last February, as Russian forces were building up along Ukraine’s borders, I wrote in this newspaper that a disastrous decision by Putin to invade would inevitably turn him into an international pariah, and that both Finland and Sweden would apply to join Nato. Sure enough, it’s now crystal clear that Putin has become an international pariah, shunned by the world, and this week Finland decided to apply for Nato membership. It’s almost certain that Sweden will decide to do the same in coming weeks.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is resetting the security environment in Europe. During the near half-century of the cold-war, both Sweden and Finland remained non-aligned, but within the space of a few months their radical policy shifts on security issues reflect similar changes across Europe, including a massive increase in defence spending proposed by Germany. This is quite an achievement for the Russian dictator, who has so obviously shot himself in the foot. By attacking Ukraine because it was about to join Nato, which it wasn’t; by telling his gullible population that Ukraine was led by neo-Nazis and paedophiles, which it isn’t; and claiming that ethnic Russians in Ukraine face “genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime”, which they weren’t, Putin’s words and actions have shattered a long-standing sense of stability in Northern Europe.
Until recently, Finnish leaders saw Nato membership as an unnecessary provocation to Moscow. Finland has spent much of the period since World War II trying to strike a political balance between east and west. Events in Ukraine, however, have brought a haunting sense of familiarity. The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (Vladimir Putin’s role model) invaded Finland in late 1939. For more than three months the Finnish army put up fierce resistance, despite being heavily outnumbered. They avoided occupation, but ended up losing ten per cent of their territory. Putin’s attack on Ukraine has created a sense of déjà vu among the Fins, with many looking at their 830-mile border with Russia thinking “could this happen to us?” For years, Finnish support for joining Nato hovered around twenty to twenty-five per cent; since the invasion it is approaching eighty per cent. Who can blame them?
If Sweden decides to apply for Nato membership, which many expect, it will end more than 200 years of Swedish non-alignment. Its former opposition to Nato membership was more ideological, with a post-war foreign policy focusing on multilateral dialogue and nuclear disarmament. Stockholm has seen itself as a mediator on the international stage, running down its military after the end of the cold war. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, however, Sweden reintroduced military conscription and boosted defence spending, but many on the Swedish left remained suspicious of the US-led Nato agenda and argued that Nato membership would only increase regional tensions. Vladimir Putin has dispelled all this, and latest polls show support for membership to be rocketing.
The Swedish Defence Minister, Peter Hultqvist, having promised the country as recently as last November that Sweden would never join Nato, explains his change of mind: “I realised on 24 February when Putin invaded Ukraine that this man is unpredictable, unreliable and prepared to wage a cruel, bloody and brutal war.” Hultqvist now supports the strengthening of the Nordic region’s defences, looking to Nato to keep them safe from an erratic nuclear neighbour in an uncertain region of the world.
For both countries, joining Nato should be simple and straightforward, having switched from formal neutrality to military non-alignment in 1995 when they joined the EU. Finland and Sweden are already Nato partners, taking part in exercises and exchanging intelligence with the alliance. Finland meets Nato’s defence spending target of two per cent of GDP, while Sweden is on course to do so. From the military perspective, the addition of Finland’s and Sweden’s armed forces would represent a major boost to Nato’s assets in Northern Europe, filling a hole in the alliance’s defences by more than doubling the length of its border with Russia and improving security and stability in the Baltic region.
When the history of this period is written, many will be puzzled by the apparent stupidity of President Putin in invading Ukraine. He and his narrow group of advisors convinced themselves that the invasion would be successfully concluded in a few days and Vladimir the Great will have achieved in part his ambition to re-create the Russian Empire, in his view so cruelly stolen by events in 1991. Putin blames Nato for blocking his land-grab of Ukraine, but this is simply not true. Nato is a purely defensive organisation, formed in 1949 by 12 countries including the US, UK and France, in order to counter the threat of a post-war Soviet Russian expansion in Europe. Its common security guarantee is based on Article 5 of the Treaty, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all and commits members to defend each other in the event of armed aggression. It is this mutual defence aspect that attracts smaller countries, which would otherwise find themselves defenceless against such a strong and aggressive country as Russia. Had Ukraine been accepted as a member of Nato years ago, it is inconceivable that Vladimir Putin would have attacked it so brutally in February, knowing that Article 5 would have been automatically activated.
So what happens now? Today the Finish President, Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers will meet to make a formal decision on submitting an application to join Nato. If they decide to do so, widely expected, it will then be presented to Parliament for approval early in the coming week. Although the Swedish ruling Social Democrat Party has been split on the issue, it is widely expected to back membership of Nato, and Sweden will therefore in all probability apply simultaneously with Finland. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said they would be welcomed “with open arms” and that their accession process would be very quick, although formal ratification by all the alliance members could take several months. In the meantime, UK has offered written security assurances to both countries designed to cover the potentially vulnerable period before the Article 5 collective protection kicks in.
Inevitably, Russia has reacted to the moves by Finland and Sweden, with former President Dmitry Medvedev claiming that it would force Moscow to strengthen its military presence in the Baltic region. Many analysts doubt that this would be possible in the short term, given how bogged down Russian forces are in Ukraine. Already many of its troops stationed near the Finnish border have been sent to Ukraine, where they have suffered huge losses. Nevertheless, an angry Kremlin has warned that it will take “military-technical” retaliation against Finland.
This forthcoming expansion leaves Russia surrounded by Nato countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic and is a stinging setback for President Putin. His plans to divide and roll back Nato in Europe are in ruins, instead seeing precisely the opposite happening. Not since Hitler’s comparable error in 1939 has the world seen such a crass judgement by a dictator, one which will have profound consequences for decades to come.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.