Procedures by Sweden and Finland to join NATO officially began this week amidst massive popular support and a zealous Western campaign in favour.
The Pentagon also revealed a major arms deal in the works for Switzerland following a meeting between US Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen Hicks and Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd. Switzerland plans to purchase 36 F-35A aircraft and five Patriot missile systems, according to a Pentagon readout from the meeting.
Since World War II, if not before, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland have been neutral forces in Europe. Their policy shifts herald new and perhaps more widespread repercussions from the Russian war in Ukraine, especially given Russia’s natural opposition to such moves.
One of Russia’s main strategic goals, announced before it launched the invasion of Ukraine, was to keep Ukraine a militarily neutral country after decades of failed attempts to persuade NATO to halt its “open door” enlargement policy. The main question now is whether further NATO expansion will expand the theatre of war.
NATO is hardly likely to yield to Russian pressures, but most analysts had believed it would defer further expansion until after the Russian-Ukrainian war was over. NATO commanders had predicted that Russia would be defeated in Ukraine or have suffered so much attrition that it could not move on other fronts.
However, now Western military analysts are saying that the war could last not for months, but years, and that NATO should resume enlargement regardless of what Russia thinks. Moscow, of course, sees this as a direct threat and will need to take counter-measures.
These may not necessarily take the form of a military operation, as occurred in Ukraine. As Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev and Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov have indicated, retaliatory steps to counter threats to Russian security could also be of a “military-technical” nature and involve bolstering its presence in the Gulf of Finland. This would increase the pressure on the Baltic states and mean redeploying forces and weaponry in other strategic areas.
NATO’s thinking in going ahead with enlargement now may have been informed by the qualitative advantages of incorporating Sweden and Finland, among the largest countries now asking to join the alliance. The addition of Finland, in particular, will extend NATO’s land and sea borders with Russia to over 2,500 km.
While Sweden does not border directly onto Russia, NATO strategists believe it will help bolster the Baltic region that Moscow may have seen as a weak spot in NATO. According to news reports, Russian military aircraft have breached the airspace of some countries in that area several times in recent weeks.
In ending its neutrality through its accession to NATO, Sweden will end nearly two centuries of non-involvement in foreign wars. But this does not mean it has not developed militarily.
Sweden is a major market for defence manufacturers, and it possesses a large arsenal that includes around 150 F35 fighters, which could double the air force of other European NATO members and make northern Europe the strongest NATO flank. This will be all the more the case in the light of the Patriot missile systems NATO will now have in addition to the naval power that the other Baltic states, including Poland, do not possess.
Helsinki and Stockholm may face an unprecedented moment of decision should the situation escalate in their direction, but they maintain that Moscow already made up their mind for them when it decided to invade Ukraine, with this ironically working to NATO’s advantage.
The immediate implications of the forgoing extend beyond the conventional equations of deterrence and counter-deterrence. The NATO discourse has changed. It now appears to be thinking more preemptively, which means that it may soon adopt a more confrontationist posture that may compel Russia to rethink how and where it deploys its assets.
Undoubtedly, Belarus figures prominently in Moscow’s strategic thinking, and it would certainly complicate matters if Russia deployed nuclear arms there. A constitutional referendum in late February renounced Belarus’ non-nuclear status, making it possible for it to host nuclear missiles, which it has not done since the end of the Cold War.
In the Ukrainian theatre, it would not be in Russia’s interests to expand westwards again towards Kyiv. If it seeks an unarmed buffer zone in Ukraine, the strategically vital and predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region may be best suited for this purpose. While Russia might also find it strategically useful to expand along Ukraine’s southern coast, it would be risky as it could court a clash with another NATO member, Moldova.
The Swedish and Finnish applications for NATO membership are the latest episode in a long intra-NATO tug-of-war between a camp led by Germany and France that has called for restraint and a more hawkish camp, led by the US and Britain, pushing for a larger and stronger NATO.
The latter has clearly prevailed and is pressing for measures to reinforce the pact further on the grounds of a need to equip it for the next phase and heightened possibilities of an expanded war. Much, of course, will depend on how Russia reads the situation as it unfolds and how it calibrates its responses in terms of counter-measures versus brinksmanship.
In a sense, the Russia-NATO conflict has come full circle. While Russia justified its offensive into Ukraine on national security grounds and the need to keep Ukraine neutral, it did not have to worry about Article 5 of the NATO Charter. This would not be the case on other fronts, where NATO is achieving what Russia tried to avert in Ukraine.
Accordingly, the worst possible scenario for Russia would be an expanded war in the light of the overall balance of power, as opposed to the opportunities for winning a world war, which could be universally catastrophic given the balance of nuclear capabilities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.