One strategic outcome Vladimir Putin would have least expected out of the Ukraine war could be Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Putin’s offensive against Ukraine arguably has given impetus to Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership. Sweden and Finland joining NATO could fundamentally reshape the geopolitical climate in Europe. It is quite significant because joining NATO means Stockholm and Helsinki are abandoning their policy of neutrality that they had followed for decades with the primordial goal of not provoking its authoritarian neighbour. This NATO expansion comes with opportunities and also obstacles.
Notwithstanding the fact that induction of Finland and Sweden would greatly enhance NATO’s capabilities in different spheres. On the political side, it carries an immense symbolic value of solidarity and unity among the western democracies that Moscow has long tried to divide and in many cases has been instrumental in creating division among the west for its leverage. Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance would bolster NATO’s presence in the North of Europe and would enhance NATO’s security architecture in the Baltic Sea at large by putting to use the strategic location of Gotland Island. The militaries of Finland and Sweden over the years have gained a considerable reputation in Arctic Warfare, giving NATO strategic leverage in case of potential future conflict in the region.
The flip side to inducting Sweden and Finland into NATO also means provoking Putin. Just as Stockholm and Helsinki showed their interest in joining NATO, Moscow has started to weaponize energy by halting supplies just like it has done with the other European countries dependent on Russian energy supplies. This could well be the start of what more could follow. In the days to come, Sweden and Finland could become victim to cyber intrusions and other clandestine activities that Moscow has embraced as part of its policy to counter the West. At the same time, it would be an exaggeration to predict all-out military aggression against Stockholm and Helsinki. Moscow has often cited NATO’s expansion to be the driving factor behind its military aggression against Georgia and Ukraine. But it’s very important to note that NATO expansion into Finland and Sweden is fundamentally different from that into Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia and Ukraine are much more important to Moscow because of the fact that they are post-soviet states.
The probability of military aggression against Finland and Sweden is highly unlikely, but it could reverberate in the current Ukraine War. It could lead to further escalation and could entangle United States in a prolonged war. It is important for the Biden administration to bring this War to an end by bringing a ceasefire immediately and this, in turn, would allow the United States to focus more on Beijing. Yet, it seems as though the Biden administration is focused on humiliating Putin rather than looking for solutions to bring this war to an end. The United States and its allies have been providing Ukraine with operational intelligence and weapons and have helped sink Russian ships with the intention of undermining Putin. In this ambience of growing hostility, inducting Sweden and Finland into NATO will only escalate the situation in Ukraine. Encircling Russia further would provoke Putin to prolong the War. A Prolonged war is definitely not a good sign of Europe as it could intensify the influx of refugees into Europe and it would sit well in Russia’s strategy to divide and destabilize the European Union.
What can be done?
The West should consider removing Ukraine’s NATO membership and declare it a neutral state. It can then negotiate NATO membership for Sweden and Finland with Russia. A vow to not enlarge NATO at all would be more equitable to Ukraine and would entice Russia to tone down its expansionist ambitions. A proposal like this would have to be part of a broader global attempt to end the war, address Russia’s legitimate security threats, and protect more people from being killed in Ukraine. The West should consider what type of joint security measures are most likely to prevent violent conflict and promote peace.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his address to Washington University emphasised commitment to the Indo- pacific even in the light of the Ukraine War, the United States would be better off dealing with China with the crisis in Ukraine put to bed.
The author is a student at School of International relations & Area Studies, Goa. Views are personal