The Russo-Ukrainian war had no shortage of potentially defining moments in modern European history.
Germany has rewritten its defense policy with a $113 billion spending spree, the European Union and its allies pledge to ban Russian oil, and the West is funding the Ukrainian resistance in the east of the country. after Russia abandoned its original goal of taking kyiv and other major cities.
But NATO enlargement sums up perhaps the most important change to date: the unification of Europe against a despotic and expansionist Russia, after years of appeasement and the hope that Russia would change or could be tamed by free trade.
Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland, advocated NATO membership for 30 years. “Better late than never,” he told NBC News.
“Putin is essentially creating a divide in Europe – on the one hand you have an isolated, authoritarian, aggressive, imperialist and revisionist Russian, and on the other you have more or less 40 European democracies who believe in cooperation, basic human rights and the rule of the law,” he said by phone last week.
“It’s not about NATO, it’s about European values. Putin does not support liberal Western values. He thinks they are decadent.
Despite the former neutrality of Finland and Sweden, both nations have quietly built up substantial military defenses – enough to permanently change the face of NATO’s deterrent powers in northern Europe and especially around the sea. Baltic.
The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which were annexed by the Soviet Union – warmly welcomed Finland’s indication that it would apply for NATO membership. Latvia’s foreign minister told the Financial Times on Friday, with a hint of relief: “The Baltic Sea is becoming a NATO sea.”
Finland has one of the largest and best-prepared armies in Europe, with 280,000 mobilized soldiers and some 900,000 reservists, as well as an extensive naval and air force and a forward intelligence operation.
Finnish national security thinking is a combination of idealism and realism, Stubb said. Idealism was the attempt to trade and cooperate with Russia in the hope of bringing Moscow into the sphere of normal international relations.
“But the realism has been to maintain one of the biggest armies in Europe on a rainy day – of course now that rainy day has arrived,” he said.
Sweden has far fewer troops, with around 55,000 in its armed forces. But he has a powerful air force and controls the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, a strategically crucial site that would help establish naval supremacy in the event of a regional conflict.
Retired four-star general Philip Breedlove, former supreme commander of NATO and commander of the US Air Force in Europe, has advocated NATO expansion and told NBC News this month that if it was left to him, they would be invited to join “approximately 1 minute after applying”.
“These two nations have worked very diligently to be almost completely compatible with NATO,” he said. “Their equipment is compatible, their tactics, techniques and procedures are all compatible.”
The road to deciding whether to join NATO has not been easy for either nation, especially Sweden, which has made its neutrality a matter of national pride. Its neighbor’s influence has been crucial – more than three-quarters of Finns now support NATO membership, and the enthusiasm is contagious.
“The Finns pushed us to do it – that’s very true,” said Roger Svensson, visiting senior fellow at the Stockholm-based German Marshall Fund.
“After the Second World War, the Finns were very, very pragmatic. It is easier for Finland to make this 180 degree turn than for Sweden — it [neutrality] is so much a part of Swedish identity.
Without the war in Ukraine and Putin’s incendiary demands on the future of NATO, Svensson doubts that Sweden would have changed its position:
“Ukraine is the trigger point,” he said, adding that “Putin pushed us over the line.”
An April poll found that 57% of Swedes supported NATO membership – an extraordinary change since the start of the conflict and even since March, when support was around 50%.
The Kremlin reacted quickly to Finland’s announcement this week, promising a “military-technical” response. Putin told a meeting of the military alliance of former Soviet states on Monday that while he was not threatened by NATO’s northward expansion, “the expansion of military infrastructure on this territory would certainly provoke our response”.
This threat of retaliation, however, underscores the need for a security alliance for NATO supporters.
The UK and other countries have pledged to come to the defense of Finland or Sweden if they come under attack during the bid process. “He may be smart and he may have miscalculated, but he’s not suicidal,” Stubb said of Putin.
“If the Russian military is unable to take Ukraine, you really have to be crazy to consider attacking a NATO country at this point.”