By Dean Ensley, Transatlantic Security Analyst
The Ukraine Crisis, however it is ultimately resolved, will have a lasting impact on the NATO-Russia relationship. With increasing Russian assertiveness in terms of gas exports, bomber flights and naval expansion, Sweden and Finland are likely to reconsider their positions on joining NATO. While membership would benefit these countries and the alliance, it would lead to a net loss for European security at this time.
Occasional Russian military activity is nothing new, but the recent increase along NATO’s periphery is being used as political saber-rattling. In 2014 alone, there have been over 400 NATO intercepts of Russian military aircraft (50 percent more than in 2013), an Estonian intelligence officer was seized and imprisoned on the pretext of counterespionage, and a possible Russian submarine was spotted just outside of Stockholm. According to a recently published study by the London-based European Leadership Network, 3 out of 40 close encounters by Russian forces with the West are classified as “high risk” – meaning that they “carried a high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation.”
Most analysts assert that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions are rooted in a desire to consolidate domestic political support, roll back the post-Cold War international order, and preserve what he views as a zero-sum Russian interest in Ukraine. His speech at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 25th reflected these views:
“…the so-called ‘victors’ in the Cold War had decided to pressure events and reshape the world to suit their own needs and interests….Let me stress that Russia is not going to get all worked up, get offended, or come begging at anyone’s door. Russia is a self-sufficient country. We will work within the foreign economic environment that has taken shape, develop domestic production and technology and act more decisively to carry out transformation. Pressure from outside, as has been the case on past occasions, will only consolidate our society, keep us alert and make us concentrate on our main development goals….The crisis in Ukraine is itself a result of a misbalance in international relations.”
There are three central conclusions we can draw this understanding of Putin. First, he will not, under any circumstances, allow sanctions to deter or change his chosen path of action in Ukraine. Second, Russia will temporarily cooperate with what Putin perceives to be the U.S.-dominated “foreign economic environment,” but ultimately hopes to replace this system with one of his own liking. Third, by harkening once again to the “past occasions” of World War II and the Cold War, he seeks to galvanize his inner circle and the broader population in an “us versus them” mentality.
Putin’s pursuit of these objectives will have long-term effects on NATO’s attractiveness as an alliance, most notably on non-NATO members Sweden and Finland. Despite their “non-aligned” status, these long established liberal democracies are more inclined to join – and more likely to be accepted by – NATO than other European non-members and already participate in alliance activities and operations.
Non-aligned since the Napoleonic era, the Ukraine crisis has roused discussions on Sweden’s defenses, level of defense spending and relationship with NATO. After 250 public sightings and a week-long operation that failed to find a supposed Russian submarine, the government announced a 300 million Swedish krona increase to its annual defense budget and a 900 million Swedish krona purchase of 10 fighter aircraft and a submarine. For the first time ever, pollster Novus found in October that 37% of Swedes favor joining NATO, versus 36% who are against the idea. This represents a significant shift from May, when the numbers were 28% in favor and 56% against. A participant in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program since 1994, Sweden participates in alliance operations and activities but has not been granted the security guarantee that comes with membership.
Similarly, after three unauthorized Russian military aircraft overflights within a single week in August, a Finnish poll showed 43% of Finns perceived Russia as a danger, an increase of nearly 20% from March. Russian officials have repeatedly and explicitly warned Finland against joining NATO, a reflection of a Finland-USSR treaty in 1948 that barred Finland from assisting or joining the alliance. Like Sweden, Finland joined the PfP program in 1994 and participates in alliance activities and operations without a security guarantee. Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said in September that his nation should have “become a member in 1995” and that each threatening gesture by Russia strengthens the pro-NATO argument.
While Sweden and Finland are not yet moving to join NATO, in September they signed Host Nation Support Memorandums of Understanding with the alliance, allowing for joint exercises on their soil and assistance from NATO members in situations such as “disasters, disruptions and threats to security.” There are compelling arguments in favor of taking the next step toward full membership in NATO: Membership would politically reassure these countries – strengthening their ability to deter Russia militarily and politically – while expanding NATO’s collective defense capabilities and improving the alliance’s ability to guard against non-traditional threats such as the spread of long-range delivery systems and weapons of mass destruction.
Yet there are major risks to expanding NATO to include Sweden and Finland. Sergei Markov, a senior adviser to Putin, said in August that “Russophobia” in these countries could start another world war and that they should therefore not join the alliance. This is likely to contain a degree of bluster, but given Putin’s actions in Ukraine it is likely that he views Finland’s neutrality, in particular, as vital to Russian interests. In this case, Finnish membership in NATO is likely to trigger a similar response. Putin may not be willing to use force on a NATO member, but the expansion of the alliance could lead to the full annexation of Eastern Ukraine or Transnistria, a bolstered military presence in Kaliningrad or Crimea, or a withdrawal from arms control agreements – among other potential reactions. Domestically, the admission of Sweden and Finland would feed into Putin’s narrative of encirclement by the West, granting him political leeway to take further action. This dynamic has strengthened since the Ukraine crisis started, and as a result Putin’s approval rating is almost at an all-time high.
On balance, Sweden and Finland’s entrance into NATO would be harmful for European security at this time. Memorandums of understanding can facilitate further steps toward enhancing interoperability and cooperation between the alliance and these states, but full membership would give Putin’s Russia a major pretext for further action.