Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine fourteen months ago to stop NATO’s expansion. The Kremlin calculated at the time that a swift victory would deter any nation on its borders from ever considering closer cooperation, let alone membership, with the defensive alliance.
Putin’s delusions were shattered in May 2022 when Finland and Sweden, two traditionally neutral Nordic nations, applied for immediate membership in NATO as a response to Russia’s genocidal war of aggression against its southern neighbor.
Moscow’s decision to go to war came after an intense campaign of fear-mongering inside Russia, which led Putin and the Russian people to believe their own propaganda, i.e. that Western democracies were engaged in a shadow war against Putin’s totalitarianism, and were using Russia’s former imperial possessions as strategic conduits in this imagined conflict.
What Putin’s inner circle did not take into consideration was the reaction the developed world would have to a barbarous act of aggression and the subsequent war crimes committed by the Russian Armed Forces.
The 31st member
Finland officially received the green light to join NATO as its 31st member after Turkey ratified the Nordic country’s application. The addition of Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia, will more than double the size of NATO’s frontier with Russia.
By adding one of Western Europe’s most highly regarded militaries to the alliance – along with its intelligence and border-surveillance abilities, as well as access to Finnish ports, air space and sea lanes – NATO will now have strategic capabilities on Russia’s border that it did not possess during the Cold War.
Finland’s much-vaunted artillery forces are the largest and best equipped in Europe with more than 1,500 pieces of artillery, including 700 howitzers, 700 heavy mortars, 100 rocket launcher systems and the most potent air Defense system among European NATO members.
Joint bid thwarted by Turkey and Hungary
Sweden and Finland jointly applied for NATO membership and hoped to enter the alliance simultaneously. Sweden’s bid, however, has thus far been blocked by Turkey after its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused the Swedish government of giving shelter to Kurds that Ankara says are terrorists.
Hungary is also waiting for Turkey to make a move regarding Sweden’s membership, although the majority of the country’s politicians are said to support Swedish NATO accession.
Once the Turks end their penchant for playing parochial politics on the world stage by dropping their opposition to Stockholm’s candidacy, Finland and Sweden will join other NATO Baltic Sea nations in limiting any threats from Russia by isolating Kaliningrad, dMoscow’s World War II war booty exclave located between Poland and Lithuania; an area that was once East Prussia’s Konigsberg.
Far more symbolically significant, particularly with regard to Putin’s narcissistic obsession with prestige, will be the status of St. Petersburg, Putin’s birthplace, which will be completely hemmed in by NATO members once Sweden is green-lit for membership. No free access agreement, such as the Montreux Convention that allows Russia unfettered access through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits in Turkey, exists between the Kremlin and the Baltic countries. In essence, this forces Moscow to seek permission from those countries to conduct civil and military naval activities in the Baltic Sea.
Fastest accession process in NATO’s history
Finland’s membership represents the first enlargement since North Macedonia joined the alliance in 2020 and comes just as Moscow prepares to take over the rotating chair of the UN Security Council. As a Baltic littoral nation, Finland will be the seventh NATO country on the Baltic Sea.
Helsinki’s decision to join NATO marks an extraordinary turnaround in its foreign policy posture and Finnish public opinion. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland had been able to strike a delicate balance of neutrality by maintaining close relations with the rest of the Nordic countries and NATO, while fostering cordial ties with Moscow.
The change in attitude towards NATO across Finnish society is a remarkable sea change. Before the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, only a third of Finns supported joining NATO. Russia’s war, however, led to almost unanimous overnight support amongst Finnish voters for membership in the alliance.
Relations between Helsinki and Moscow have been complicated since the early 19th-century. The Russian Empire annexed what is now modern Finland in 1809, creating the Grand Duchy of Finland, with Russia’s tsar as the head of state. Finland regained its independence after the Bolsheviks seized power. During the Second World War, Finland fought the Soviet Red Army to a standstill in the 1939-40 Winter War.
Despite overwhelming military superiority, especially in tanks and aircraft, the Soviet Union was unable to defeat Finland’s armed forces. The Red Army suffered severe losses in the process and made little strategic headway on the battlefield.
Though it fought a valiant defensive war, the 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty forced Finland to cede a huge swathe of its territory, including one of its largest cities – Viipuri, or Vyborg, as it is known in Russia – to the Soviet Union.
The long-term consequences of that accord have in the decades since it was signed deeply affected relations between Helsinki and Moscow; including Finland’s belief that despite its deep-rooted cultural and political ties to the West, neutrality during and after the Cold War best served its national security interests.
Putin’s dream of empire, however, fundamentally altered Finland’s very measured relationship with the Kremlin.
Concerning Sweden, few analysts believe a motion on ratification of its membership is possible before Turkey’s critical May 14 elections. While Ankara may have real concerns about Sweden’s approach to some Kurdish refugees it considers terrorists, the ultimate Turkish bazaar comes down to whether the US Congress, heavily influenced by the Hellenic lobby but not only, approves the upgrades to Turkey’s ageing F-16 fleet.
While the Biden administration supports the modernization of Turkey’s air force as part of NATO force upgrades, continuing aggressive Aegean Sea overflights by Turkish fighter jets remain a concern to many in Congress as well as Athens. Tensions and overflights appear to have dropped off in recent weeks, fortunately, but this is a pattern we have seen before when Ankara needs something.
Turkey’s unhelpful role in delaying further NATO expansion will undoubtedly generate a multitude of conferences, reports, speeches and hearings until the issue is resolved. NATO impatiently awaits to induct its 32nd member, Sweden.
Hungary, for its part, has taken the opportunity provided by Turkey’s harsh stance to remind Sweden that its negative comments about the state of democracy in Hungary, and the release of certain EU funding packages, are not appreciated by Viktor Orban, the country’s strongman prime minister and an ideological ally of both Erdogan and Putin.