Putin thought Ukraine war was a missile to Nato. It may be a boomerang
It is conceivable that by the end of the year Nato’s land mass, GDP and territorial borders with Russia may expand by nearly as much as they would have if Ukraine had achieved its distant goal of eventual membership of the western defence alliance – if not more.
The brutal manner in which Vladimir Putin has tried to foreclose Ukraine’s security options has led to a sudden change in thinking in Finland and Sweden that has been all the more powerful since it seems to have come from below, as opposed to from the political elites.
It is not yet a done deal. Opinion so volatile, and previously so settled in its opposition to Nato membership, could swing back towards the comforts of semi-neutrality. Russian nuclear threats, already starting, may intimidate voters into having second thoughts.
The process may be fraught. Many brands of Nato membership exist, and have yet to be fully explored by the Finns and the Swedes.
But by Nato’s Madrid summit in June, Nato will be on course to expand its population by 16 million, its GDP by €800bn and its land mass by 780,000 sq km. Ukraine, by contrast, has a population of 41 million, a land mass of 603,000 sq km and a GDP of €155bn. A new 1,300km border with Nato could be formed, the precise opposite of what Putin set out to achieve in the treaties designed to shrink Nato that he ordered the west to accept last year. What is worse for Moscow, Nato could have strengthened itself in the Baltic Sea, right next to Kaliningrad enclave, the strategic Russian naval base.
By invading Ukraine, Putin thought he had hurled a missile at the west. It has emerged to be a precision-guided boomerang. To have turned two stolidly non-aligned countries into Nato members would join the pantheon of great strategic blunders of wartime.
It is all the more extraordinary since the turnaround has been so rapid. Finland, with its brand of semi-neutrality for the past 70 years and emphasis on consensus-building, tends to shift foreign policy with glacial speed. Finland’s tolerance of Putin was so embedded that some on the left claimed it strayed close to collaboration as the Finnish political elite shunned the Russian opposition.
In the government’s annual survey in December, Finnish support for Nato membership stood at 24%.
Four months later, Finnish politics has somersaulted. Support for Nato membership stood at 68%. Surveys now show more than half of the 200 parliamentarians back Nato membership. In the 2015 Finnish parliamentary elections, 91% of SDP candidates were opposed to Nato membership. The Finnish SDP prime minister, Sanna Marin, said everything had changed. Russia is “not the neighbour we thought it was”, she said.
Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister, said Finland’s membership is based on rational fear, created on the day of the Russian invasion. He predicts the Finnish application will be with Nato HQ by the end of May. “The train has left the station.”
In a speech earlier this month to the council of the largely agrarian Centre party, Annika Saarikko explained that sometimes history moved fast, measured in weeks rather than years: “In the foreseeable future we cannot rely on a mutually agreed to international order or a functioning relationship with Russia for our security.” She added that Nato membership came with obligations. “Finland would not just be buying some fire insurance. It would be joining the central fire brigade.”
Such has been the Finnish turnaround, it has adopted the unusual role of exemplar to the larger Sweden. That requires the two countries respecting the relationship, sensitivities, and different political cultures. The ideal from Nato’s perspective is that the two countries join simultaneously, and polls show support for this. But Finnish diplomats say they cannot be seen to be interfering in sovereign Swedish decisions. Marin stressed at her joint press conference in Stockholm with the Swedish prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, that coordination with Sweden “is sought but is not a prerequisite”, adding: “Finland does not dictate schedules or conclusions to Sweden nor does Sweden dictate to Finland.”
It is vital for the ruling Social Democrats, now launching an internal policy review, to be seen to be in charge of its own destiny. After all, last November the party had clearly affirmed its position that it opposed a foreign policy of alliances. Yet four centre-right parties now support Nato membership and two parties to the left are opposed to membership, claiming joining Nato implies coming to the defence of the authoritarians running Turkey and Hungary. With parliamentary elections looming in September, the SDP will want the review completed without the party descending into left-right splits.
One of the difficulties is that given Russia’s behaviour, no plan B such as greater Swedish-Finnish defence cooperation, or the Nato partnership for peace, looks as concrete as full membership. Most Nato countries see Sweden and Finland as huge military and intelligence assets. “It would complete a missing piece of the puzzle of Nato strategic planning”, said Mika Aaltola, the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
But Finland would have to apply for Nato membership not knowing the precise future relationship. In its security document published this week, Finland insisted: “Membership would not oblige Finland to accept nuclear weapons, permanent bases or troops in its territory. For example, in the early stages of their membership, founding members Norway and Denmark imposed unilateral restrictions on their membership and have not permitted permanent troops, bases or nuclear weapons of the alliance in their territory during peacetime. Nato’s enlargement policy, which took shape in the latter half of the 1990s, has been based on the principle that it will not place nuclear weapons, permanent troops or permanent bases in the territory of any new member country.
But if Finland, or indeed Sweden, did set a mass of limiting preconditions concerning nuclear weapons, permanent bases or forces, the application process might be extended.
A lengthy accession process in turn carries risks since Russia, using the full spectrum of war’s grey zone, will seek to harass, and even paralyse. On the day the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, spoke to the Finnish parliament, Russia was accused of cyber-attacks and invasions of its airspace. Finland has already canvassed Nato members for security guarantees in the four months to a year that it was in the Nato ante-chamber awaiting full acceptance.
So there is an incentive to speed the application without delegitimising the domestic consultation.
For those who fear Nato escalating the conflict inside Ukraine, a sudden extension of article 5 obligations in the north remains alarming, and may make Putin even more convinced he was right to confront a Nato policy of encirclement. But for all its talk of red lines and the stationing of nuclear weapons, can Russia really open a second front to the north when the primary front to its south-west is proving so costly in lost lives, reputation and treasure?