To paraphrase Churchill on the Americans, you can always expect the Scandinavians to get it right – but only after they’ve tried everything else first. I am facetiously referring to their collective history of Viking raids in antiquity, tolerance of Nazism in World War II, and thinking that unchecked Middle Eastern immigration is just the sort of thing that works in liberal European countries.
And now, of course, they have collectively realised that when there’s a lunatic on your borders with nuclear weapons, it might be a good idea to seek safety in an alliance that was formed to guard against the aforementioned lunatic’s country.
Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO on a fast-track membership scheme, an offer that has not been extended to other aspirant nations elsewhere on the continent. Additionally, until the two countries have their NATO Club Cards approved and laminated, they have signed a separate defence pact with the United Kingdom, effectively putting themselves under Britain’s nuclear shield and benefiting from Boris Johnson’s pledge to increase the UK’s regional military presence.
For once, it’s a sensible move, and the initiative to include both countries under the UK’s defence remit is the sort of flexible thinking that has been severely lacking over the last twenty years – a shame it has taken a catastrophic war to bring back minor innovation. Applying it across a broader spectrum would be clever, and wouldn’t constitute a greater risk than has already been taken.
To begin with, I’d offer a similar defence guarantee to Georgia. Not only does this consolidate the West’s increasingly shaky footing in the South Caucasus (and that BTC pipeline looks like it’ll be more important than ever fairly soon), but it is also finally a signal to the flagging Georgian authorities that the West will live up to its continually delayed promises. The Tbilisi government can fairly be accused of incompetence, stupidity, covert pro-Russian sympathies and childish vindictiveness, but the West has – partially – caused them to be this way. They have seen no reason to abide by Western standards when they have received no Western rewards, a result which must at least be acknowledged and understood without being condoned.
I would then attempt to turn the Ukrainian war into something more like a boxing match (or perhaps a cage fight). There was never going to be a no-fly zone over Ukrainian skies, but now that Russia has been safely booted out of the north and west, half of the country is relatively safe. NATO – or at least soldiers in reassuringly UN-blue helmets – could declare the western half of Ukraine to be under its protection, with no fighting permitted in the established zones; if all movements of international forces are relayed directly to the Russian authorities, Moscow will hardly be about to honk about secret Western activity.
Indeed, it should even satisfy the Kremlin up to a point: Putin will never swallow his pride to the point where he’d admit a defeat, but Russia has quite publicly abandoned its ambitions beyond Ukraine’s east. Providing no Western troops are deployed in overwhelming force – being composed of units large enough only for defensive operations – Russia can hardly complain that NATO is preparing an offensive with hordes of troops and fields of hardware and ordnance.
For its part, while Ukraine would probably be disappointed that NATO troops are not about to join the fight in support of their own, Ukrainian commanders would at least be free to move those forces which have been pinned in the west. For instance, although Odessa is no longer likely to be at risk of being assaulted, a sizeable Ukrainian garrison remains in the city – which suits Putin admirably and was doubtless the intent of the explosive theatrics in Transnistria some weeks ago. If those troops – and all other forces in the west of the country – were able to hand over security to foreign forces, they would be free to move and reinforce their comrades in the east.
Flexibility wins wars and leads to major diplomatic coups. There’s been far too much Western insistence on box-checking in recent years, but that’s what happens when you delegate politics and defence to practices that seem founded on the principles of HR Departments. Also, while I might – fairly – be dubbed a hawkish jingoist, I would justify myself only by stating that my suggestions here will hardly make matters worse. The West’s position on Ukraine has been to help it hold the line; now it must be flexible enough to help Kyiv to not just survive, but to win.