European shake-up in the Ukraine war

Manal Lotfy , Monday 23 May 2022

The Russia-Ukraine war is proving to be an epoch-making event in creating new geopolitical fault lines in Europe.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz


On 24 February when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it an “epoch-making event.”

Time has proven him right. In the fewer than three months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European politics has been turned on its head.

Europe’s entire energy security strategy has changed overnight. After decades of strengthening Russia’s position as the main supplier of European energy, the European countries are striving today to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas.

Not only are the Europeans trying to wean themselves off Russian energy, but they are also making dramatic changes in their defence strategy. Germany, which has maintained a low level of defence spending, announced an increase in its military spending by 100 billion euros.

Countries like Finland and Sweden, which have been neutral on the European stage for nearly 200 years, are changing their security policies by seeking NATO membership.

The Russo-Finnish border of about 1,300 km will turn into a border between Russia and NATO when the Finnish application is approved, becoming a “geopolitical fault line” between two countries whose borders were separated by only blue and white-coloured stones to mark the territory of Finland and red and green-coloured stones to mark the territory of Russia.

When the two applications are approved, the Baltic Sea will become a NATO lake facing Russia. A glance at the map shows that Russia’s Kola Peninsula, bristling with naval bases and missile silos, lies just 100 miles (160 km) from the border with Finland. The home of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, Kaliningrad, already sandwiched between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, will soon have another NATO neighbour, Sweden, watching it from across the sea.

For now, Russia has few options in the face of the NATO expansion. Nonetheless, Moscow warned the alliance not to go further by placing missiles or creating permanent bases in either country.

Even though public support in Sweden for formally joining NATO has grown steadily since Russia invaded Ukraine, there are many political parties and segments of public opinion that reject the establishment of NATO bases on Swedish or Finnish soil.

Some within Sweden’s Social Democrats and in the opposition Left and Green Parties are anxious about joining NATO. Not everyone is convinced it will make military aggression from Russia less likely. Others are already lamenting the loss of national identity as a neutral, peaceful nation that is used to staying out of major global conflicts joins a major military alliance.    

To ease the tensions, Sweden’s Social Democrats said they are opposed to stationing nuclear weapons or hosting NATO bases. At a press conference on Monday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her party believed joining the alliance was “best for Sweden’s and the Swedish people’s security.”

Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto also confirmed his country would apply, calling it a “historic day.” He said he had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the decision, saying he wanted to “say it straight.”

Putin had previously told Finland it would be a “mistake” to join NATO, stating that Ukraine’s intention to join the alliance was one of the reasons for the Russian invasion.

However, the two countries’ joining NATO will not be without obstacles or difficulties. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that his country will veto the Swedish and Finnish bids.

Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of sheltering people it says are linked to groups it deems terrorists, namely the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and followers of Fethullah Gulen whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan and his government.

The Turkish president labelled Sweden a “hatchery” for terrorist organisations, claiming there are terrorists within the country’s parliament. According to the official Turkish news agency, both Finland and Sweden have rejected dozens of requests to extradite Kurdish militants who Turkey describes as terrorists.

Nonetheless, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said they were confident of overcoming Turkish objections to both Finland and Sweden’s membership.

Blinken said he had heard strong support for the Nordic countries joining “almost across the board” and that he had held talks with his Turkish counterpart. “If that’s [joining NATO] what they choose to do, I’m very confident that we will reach consensus on that,” he said.

The issue is likely to dominate discussions between Blinken and his Turkish opposite number in Washington on Wednesday.

The foreign ministers of the NATO countries meeting in Berlin this week pledged to provide security guarantees for both Finland and Sweden while their bids to join NATO are being ratified by member states, a process that can take up to a year.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said there could not be a “transition period, a grey zone, where their status is unclear.” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said that all EU member states would support Finland and Sweden joining NATO.

EU representatives will discuss the intentions of both Nordic countries to join the alliance, for which they will receive “strong support,” Borrell told reporters on Tuesday before a meeting of EU representatives.

He added that he “hopes” NATO will overcome Turkey’s objections. “I am sure the [EU Foreign Affairs] Council will support extremely... the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO. I know that Turkey has some objections. I hope NATO will be able to overcome them,” he said.

Finland’s President Niinistö said his country and Sweden would be able to reach an agreement with Turkey over its objections. In an address to Sweden’s parliament, Niinistö said that “statements from Turkey have very quickly changed and become harder during the last few days. But I am sure that, with the help of constructive discussions, we will solve the situation.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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