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Why ‘Natoisation’ of Sweden and Finland is bad news for Putin

Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO is not sudden. Despite official neutrality, they have been close NATO partners for decades.

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Loud and low reverberations of Russia-Ukraine war continue to permeate the re-orientation of global security architecture—most notably that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

It is interesting to note that while Russian President Vladimir Putin sought ‘Finlandization of Ukraine’, five months into that pursuit he has achieved quite the opposite, that is ‘Natoisation of Europe’. For decades, two Nordic nations, Sweden and Finland, chose to maintain their military neutrality to accommodate their formidable neighbour while other states in the Central and East European region went about seeking security guarantees against Russia by joining NATO.

This interesting metamorphosis into forward posturing of the two militarily advanced but hitherto neutral Nordic states is brimming with realities waiting to be uncovered. It also entails grave security concerns, now that Russia would have to ‘rebalance the situation’ with an ever-increasing possibility of a nuclear world war as the attention shifts to Kola Peninsula , where Moscow houses its submarine-launched ballistic missiles. With increased military deployments, the chances for miscalculation have dangerously increased too.

Also read: Why Turkey’s rise in Russia-Ukraine war is a masterclass in balancing, hedging strategy

Changing geography

Until now, Norway was the only country that had NATO’s 197 km border with Russia north of the Kola Peninsula. But that geography has fundamentally been altered to NATO’s advantage, by 1,335 km being added to its eastern flank. Now, the entire length of the forest, lake and marshland-dense Finnish border with Russia is the new NATO border. NATO-Russia conflict, with its potential for nuclear escalation, could be a recipe for global devastation.

While the border with Finland throws land challenges to Russia, the strategically important Swedish island of Gotland, located in the centre of the Baltic Sea, throws maritime challenges. With NATO’s likely naval deployments in this region, Russia’s Baltic Sea headquarters in Kaliningrad and a city as important as St Petersburg become vulnerable. In fact, Russia’s sea lanes of communications leading to the West will now be part of NATO waters. Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO would not only enhance the defence of the Baltic Region, but also that of the Arctic and reduce the chances of Russian adventurism or attack across air, land and sea domains in an integrated manner.

‘Transformative’ NATO summit at Madrid

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg didn’t mince words at Madrid while describing NATO’s military redeployment—the alliance has expanded its high-readiness forces from 40,000 troops to well over 300,000 in response to Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine. What does this mean for Russia and for transforming the stability of a European (dis)order?

This threat would require Russia to add countermeasures against increasing potential threats by NATO and Moscow is likely to spread its resources thin while trying to achieve air dominance. But it could also be a recalibrated broader strategic calculus by Putin. It would be naïve to imagine that Putin had not factored in the possibility of the two Nordic states joining the bloc. Perhaps, NATO’s Nordic expansion would provide Putin with a valid opportunity to realign his forces to different regions and increase Russia’s defence posturing, reasserting his original claim about NATO’s expansion being an existential threat to Russia’s survival.

There could also be a marked increase in grey zone operations such as cyberattacks from Russia and perpetual instability below threshold levels.

Also read: NATO wants to push back against China, but members’ military spending still lags behind

Sweden, Finland membership brings lots to table

Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO has not come overnight. Despite official neutrality, the two Scandinavian countries have been close NATO partners for decades and have worked on joint missions.

But not all NATO members are equal. In fact, most members spend less than two per cent of GDP commitments while relying on the bloc for their safety guarantees. For example, although Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are keen and resolute NATO members, they are also difficult to defend, as they are wedged between Russia, its ally Belarus, and Russia’s military exclave on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad. Baltic states’ defence has been repeatedly identified as NATO’s pre-eminent military challenge.

Swedish and Finnish NATO membership would transform the security landscape of the Baltics by opening a two-pronged military challenge for Russia. Although Sweden has yet to reach the two per cent threshold, both countries have dramatically increased their defence spending over the last decade and by that criterion, they would become reliable security contributors to the bloc.

Also read: India can play bigger role in global nuclear politics. Ukraine fence-sitting stands in way

Complementing NATO’s shortfalls in the region

NATO does not have sufficient vehicle-mounted air defence systems and its air defences, especially in the East, are fairly weak. NATO has been attempting to address this shortfall in capabilities for a long time. Sweden’s purchase of surface-to-air launched cruise missiles and Finland’s $9.4 billion purchase of 64 cutting-edge United States’ F-35 fighter jets would significantly improve NATO’s air defence and attack capabilities. With 1,500 artillery and rocket systems, Finland has one of Europe’s strongest artillery forces that is crucial to modern warfare.

NATO’s Nordic expansion has more in the offing

In times to come, these two countries could fundamentally transform NATO’s security provider role in Europe and could enable the United States to leave European security to militarily strong European actors while retaining its nuclear umbrella. Hence, it will provide the US with a window to focus on arch rival China in the Indo-Pacific and coordinate its strategies with allies like India. It’s not just the US that seeks enhanced freedom of manoeuvre; even the United Kingdom, France and other Indo-Pacific enthusiasts look forward to playing a more pronounced role in the region as their resources could free up—especially after Germany ramps up military spending in a major policy shift. Ambitious plans are likely to lose steam due to resource crunch in a post-pandemic, war-fatigued world, unless resources are judiciously re-distributed.

While it is good news for India, which is fundamentally wary of an Asian order led by China, it also opens a plethora of foreign policy intersections that New Delhi will have to tread with caution. Beyond taking sides in Europe’s war, India’s strategic calculus has tried to prioritise balancing major powers to its own national interest. With the US or US and Europe-led initiatives playing a more pronounced role in the Indo-Pacific, the fault lines of a faraway Europe are likely to reflect in the Indian maritime backyard sooner than later.

The writer is an Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Center, at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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