Against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, Tanya Vatsa weighs up the causes and possible effects of the shifts in NATO’S current membership
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) recently witnessed the accession of Finland as a full member, which was closely followed by a Swedish bid to join the defensive alliance. In a huge win for Stockholm, Ankara – which had initially blocked Sweden’s bid – endorsed Sweden’s membership appeal after Washington’s direct intervention. This Nordic expansion of NATO is historic, marking a major shift in long-standing geopolitics.
Until now, Helsinki and Stockholm have remained neutral in their alliances and stood back from any Western/ Eastern geopolitical partnership. Their strategic location in Northern Europe, at the junction of the East-West boundary, had given them the freedom to remain militarily neutral without declaring an allegiance to a particular country. However, the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia has jolted these neighbouring nations out of their slumber, forcing them to consider the security dynamics close to their borders with Eastern Europe – Finland shares a long border with Russia, whereas Sweden is on the opposite side of the Baltic Sea to the Eastern European giant and, without doubt, the presence of an unstable, unpredictable, nuclear-armed neighbour has caused a massive shift in military alliances.
Historically, Finland’s neutrality was due to its close proximity to Moscow; after the Finnish war of 1939, Helsinki ensured it remained cordial with Moscow and secured its Western borders. However, the invasion of Kyiv significantly impacted the dynamics of this relationship and the need for national security outweighed time-honoured diplomacy. Indeed, Finland’s sovereignty had been undermined by the Soviet Union in the past – resulting in loss of territory, and Moscow’s recent actions in Ukraine have re-emphasised the need to plan ahead as Sweden follows suit.
Finns and Swedes are both known for their world-class military equipment and upon their accession, they will be expected to contribute to NATO’s military expenditure, adding substantially to the arsenal. Many years of training and military exercises with NATO countries make them compatible and familiar with the grouping, enhancing interoperability. Indeed, the addition of two prosperous European economies will only add to the prominence of the military alliance.
However, unlike Helsinki, Stockholm’s membership has been fraught with difficulty, due to Turkey’s initial opposition. While Sweden has criticised Turkey for human rights abuses and its ‘un-democratic’ political decision-making, Ankara has blamed Stockholm for harbouring Kurdish terrorists and promoting hate crimes against Muslims on its territory. Ankara’s issues include the Swedish authority’s refusal to extradite members of the Turkish opposition – mainly Kurds, who had taken refuge in its country, and the state’s failure to intervene when copies of the Quran were publicly burned. The change in Ankara’s position is as a result of diplomatic intervention by Washington, largely on condition of the delivery of F-16s (aircraft) for the modernisation of its armoury. This comes against the backdrop of the earlier refusal by Washington to provide F-35s – a sanction against Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defence systems. In exchange for the green signal towards entry to NATO, Stockholm has promised to support Turkey’s long-awaited admission to the European Union.
The Kremlin’s downplaying of the addition of NATO’s Nordic members seems disingenuous given that one of the crucial reasons for Moscow’s ‘harsh retaliation’ on Kyiv was its push for NATO membership; the need to maintain a buffer zone between the Russian and NATO borders, compelled Moscow to flex its military muscle on Ukrainian territory. It was this invasion that alarmed Moscow’s European neighbours, forcing them to seek protection under NATO’s (Article 5) collective defence mechanism. Kyiv, as an ally but not a member, lacked this protection and hence failed to secure direct military intervention by members of the alliance as its territorial integrity was breached.
In a conference at Ashgabat, the Russian leader declared that the cases of Finland and Sweden, with respect to NATO, differ from that of Ukraine, considering Moscow has no ‘territorial or border disputes’ with the Nordic nations. In a feeble attempt to defend its mindless violence over its smaller neighbour, Putin alleged that Kyiv had become ‘Anti-Russian’ and accused it of persecuting those who sympathized with or identified as Russians. He accused Washington of uniting the alliance against a ‘common enemy’ and it seems ironic that the country waging a full-blown war against a sovereign nation, in the 21st century, has blamed the military alliance for being a vestige of the Cold War era.
Moscow’s long drawn-out battle is beginning to appear like a miscalculated over-estimation of its power and strength. Its interruption of energy supplies to the West, in a fit of pique, has back-fired, with most countries able to find a replacement for Russian gas and crude oil. Indeed, as Stockholm’s energy sources were largely domestic, it had little to lose, while Finland seems to have tweaked its energy mix and sourced an alternative supplier of gas and crude oil. Meanwhile, along with Estonia, Finland has leased a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal ship in order to end its reliance on Russian gas, while most of the crude oil has been replaced by Norwegian oil and other grades of oil such as Brent Crude, which is sourced from the North Sea basin.
Unintentionally, Moscow has given a new lease of life to NATO, which was once criticised for its inaction and teetered on the brink of becoming a defunct relic of the Cold War. Its expansion within Northern Europe is a boost for the alliance – both for the addition of more firepower and military muscle as well as for its ability to have drawn in two countries that have thus far remained militarily neutral. This reflects poorly on Moscow, as it incurs a massive geopolitical cost, in addition to the political and economic cost of its war against Ukraine.
With NATO at its border, the military demands on Russia are bound to increase at a time when its firepower is already spread thinly. It has also clearly lost its leverage of energy exports with the Nordic nations – which have prioritised national security over economic relations and the historic balancing of interests. As Kyiv continues to receive arms and ammunition from the West, NATO has reaffirmed that Ukraine will soon become a member without the requirement of the customary Membership Action Plan.
As Moscow continues to fight a losing battle, the dynamics of global power are undergoing a radical shift. Unlike the 1970s, the Western military alliance is powered by many prosperous independent countries, which are also militarily advanced. While Putin likes to think that NATO is Russia’s sole enemy, he fails to see the impetus Moscow has provided for the descent into a more wide-reaching geopolitical landscape, full of distrust and suspicion, that harks back to the Cold War era, which instigated the creation of NATO in the first place.
Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti