Finland’s and Sweden’s decisions to abandon the neutrality to which they have adhered for decades and to apply to join NATO are the strongest indication yet of a profound change in Europe in the face of a aggressive Russian imperial project.
Both Scandinavian states have indeed made it clear that they expect the threat from President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia to be long-lasting, that they will not be intimidated by it, and that after the Russian butchery of Bucha, in Ukraine, there is no more room for passers-by. It is a statement of Western resolve.
“Military non-alignment has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it will not serve us as well in the future,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said on Sunday. “This is not a decision to be taken lightly.”
Given that the Finnish and Swedish armies are already well integrated into NATO, one of the reasons the bid process can go quickly, the immediate impact of the countries changing strategic course in light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia will be less practical than political.
It is a new Europe in which there is no longer any intermediate space. The countries are either protected by NATO or alone against a Russia led by a man determined to assert by force Russia’s place on the world stage. For Sweden, and especially for Finland, with its 810-mile border with Russia, Mr. Putin’s decision to invade a neighbor could not be ignored.
They weren’t alone. Germany, a generally pacifist nation since rising from the rubble of 1945, embarked on a massive investment in its armed forces, as well as an attempt to wean itself off energy dependence on a Russia it had judged, if not trivial, at least a reliable business partner.
“NATO enlargement was never a cause of Mr. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, but it is certainly a consequence,” said Nathalie Tucci, director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs. International from Rome. “Sweden and Finland now view a revengeful and revisionist Russia in a much more dangerous way than during the later part of the Cold War.”
Both Sweden and Finland found neutrality to be in their interests in the face of the Soviet threat, and in the Swedish case for centuries before. They have not changed course, despite joining the European Union, in the more than three decades since the end of the Cold War.
The change in sentiment in both countries over the past few months has been dramatic, a measure of how Mr Putin’s determination to push back against NATO and weaken its support has produced the opposite effect – the rebirth of an alliance that had been circling around for a generation for a compelling reason to exist.
While no more than a quarter of the Swedish and Finnish population supported NATO membership last year, that number has risen sharply today, reaching 76% in a recent poll in Finland. Sweden’s ruling Social Democratic Party, the country’s largest party and long a bastion of non-alignment, has embraced NATO membership in an extraordinary U-turn.
“Putin has climbed a tree and doesn’t know how to get down,” said French foreign policy analyst Nicole Bacharan. “Now he will have to face a stronger, bigger and more determined NATO.”
Article 3 of NATO’s founding treaty states that members must “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack” by “continuing and effective mutual assistance and assistance”. In the case of Sweden and Finland, these capabilities have already been largely developed through close cooperation with NATO.
Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, said: “We were on the right track towards a closer relationship with NATO. But the rocket fuel was given to this particular route on February 24” – the date the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.
He added: “Our decision reflects the view that Russia will remain a complicated place for a long time, and the war in Ukraine will be quite long, with erratic and very revisionist leadership in the Kremlin for the foreseeable future.”
Asked if Sweden feared retaliation from Russia, Mr Bildt said “you never know with Russia, but the mood is quite confident”.
The observation that the war in Ukraine is likely to be long is now widely shared in Europe. Mr. Putin not only confronted his neighbour; he attacked the West and an America portrayed as an “empire of lies”.
It took about 20 years from the 1919 Treaty of Versailles for Germany to respond to the perceived humiliation by sending the war machine of the Third Reich across its neighbors’ border, triggering World War II. It took about 30 years for Mr. Putin’s sullen resentment at the perceived humiliation of the breakup of the Soviet empire to lead to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian president seems unlikely to back down, even though his war has gone wrong so far.
In practice, Finland and Sweden have long lived with Russian nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic coast.
“These countries are used to Russian violations of their airspace, they know the risks are there,” Ms Tucci said. “But the security gains with NATO are incomparably greater than any additional risk.”
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
Get closer to NATO. The Finnish government announced that the country would apply for NATO membership, hours before Sweden’s ruling party said it also supported joining the alliance. If accepted into NATO, the two nations would set aside a long history of military non-alignment.
Yet Mr Putin has alluded more than once to Russia’s sophisticated range of nuclear weapons and suggested he would not hesitate to use them if provoked. This threat is there not just for Finland and Sweden as they abandon military non-alignment, but for all of Europe and beyond.
Ms Tucci spoke during a visit to Estonia, one of three Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union and joined NATO in 2004. The Finnish and Swedish decisions sound like a vindication” , she said.
For a long time, until the eve of the Russian invasion, Europe was divided. Countries close to the Russian border – such as the Baltic states and Poland – have taken the Russian threat seriously from bitter historical experience, while countries further west, including Germany and France, were more determined to enjoy the peace dividends of the end of the Cold War than to look Mr. Putin’s ambitions in the eye.
These illusions persisted even after Mr Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, launched a war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region the same year and used military force to win the final in Syria, using brutal methods. perfected in Chechnya many years earlier and obvious. since February in Ukraine.
In the end, the countries closest geographically to Russia, and those most immediately threatened by it, were right. Finland and Sweden have witnessed this firsthand.
Europe is now largely united in its determination to stand up to Mr. Putin and ensure that he does not win the war in Ukraine. The United States, which had its own Russian illusions, has refocused on Europe and is determined not only to save Ukraine but to weaken Russia. These are not short-term ambitions.
“We have a changed Europe,” Mr. Bildt said. “We will have a stronger NATO, with rising defense spending, more politically coherent, with a sense of purpose. We will also have a stronger European Union, with more complementarity between it and NATO.
Europe, of course, will also be challenged economically and otherwise by any long war. And the countries in between – essentially Moldova and Georgia, stuck in no man’s land on the outskirts of Russia without NATO protection – will face treacherous challenges.
Finland and Sweden have learned a fundamental lesson from Ukraine. After NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO”, a decision taken without much thought about how and when to achieve this objective, the thorny question of membership of Ukraine was left in abeyance by Western leaders who did not want to provoke Mr Putin further.
This did not change Mr. Putin’s calculation. He invaded Ukraine anyway, inventing a Nazi threat and arguing that the Ukrainian state was a myth. Sweden and Finland were not going to suffer the same fate because of misguided restraint. “They learned a lesson,” Ms. Tucci said.
It remains to be seen how Mr. Putin will get down from his tree. He called Finland’s decision “a mistake” and insisted there was no Russian threat to the country. He also cut off Russian electricity supply to Finland. There is no sign that he is abandoning his belief that the force will eventually achieve Russia’s strategic goals.
“Even if Putin realizes he made a mistake, I doubt he will ever admit it,” Mr Bildt said. “The consequences would be too heavy. It was no small mistake. It was a catastrophic strategic mistake of the first order.