Moscow’s ‘defeat’ as Finland, Sweden move to join NATO

Once both countries are admitted into the 30-member security bloc, NATO forces may be right next to the Finnish-Russian border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is waking up to a security disaster.

In February, he said that his country’s “special operation” against Ukraine was a preemptive move to terminate NATO’s “endless” expansion in Russia’s former stomping ground – Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

As a result of Russia’s aggression, however, that is exactly what is going to happen.

Finland and Sweden have said they want to join the 30-member security bloc – a process that may take up to a year.

Once they are in, NATO forces may be right next to the Finnish-Russian border that stretches 1,340km (833 miles) across pine forests and frigid lakes.

Upon its inception at the Cold War’s dawn in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had only 12 members.

After the 1991 Soviet collapse, 11 Eastern European nations that used to be Moscow’s satellites and three Soviet republics joined the alliance.

The Kremlin saw the expansion as an existential threat, and a call to end it was part of Putin’s laundry list of demands handed to the collective West, prior to the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

So, the announcements by Stockholm and Helsinki deal a double blow to Putin’s reputation both abroad and at home.

“This marks Putin’s defeat on two fronts – foreign and domestic,” Sergei Biziukin, a publicist and opposition activist who fled Russia in 2019, told Al Jazeera.

Just years ago, some political forces saw NATO as an obsolete relic of the Cold War.

Not anymore, because Europe – with the exception of Putin-friendly Hungary and Serbia – realised the danger of Russia’s newfound assertiveness and what some have called disrespect of the post-WWII world order.

In Russia, even the most eloquent pro-Kremlin figures will find it difficult to explain to the audiences of state-approved television networks how Putin’s worst security nightmare is coming true.

Some Russians already respond to the development that will reshape Europe’s security landscape with nothing but dark humour.

“Once again, it all makes me think that Putin is a German spy. No one has done as much to ruin Russia and to bring NATO to our doorstep,” Konstantin, a restaurant chef in St Petersburg, who preferred to withhold his last name, said sarcastically.

And Finland’s and Sweden’s neighbours see their choice as something completely understandable and rational – given how unpredictable Putin has become.

The two nations are simply trying to protect themselves from an old enemy, said Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog.

“After the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s assurances are worthless,” he told Al Jazeera. “Systematic lying was perhaps useful as a strategy for a while, but it has come back and completely ruined Russia’s standing internationally.”

Three centuries ago, Peter the Great became the first Russian czar to be crowned emperor – but only after winning a devastating, 21-year-long war against Sweden.

The victory made Russia a full-fledged European power, and Peter built his new capital, St Petersburg, on the swampy Baltic shore.

Since then, Stockholm has not fought in a single war – and principally stayed out of any military and diplomatic alliances.

A century later, Russia seized Finland from Sweden.

After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Finland broke away – and had to fight the bloody Winter War of 1939-40 as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin tried to reclaim the former imperial province.

The war was so unexpectedly disastrous to Communist Moscow that it helped pave the way for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941.

During the Cold War, both Nordic nations preferred not to poke the Russian bear and remained non-aligned despite numerous offers to join NATO.

But Sweden and Finland will not be new to it. They are members of the European Union and NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.

They deepened their cooperation with NATO after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and Putin’s invasion pushed them towards full membership.

‘Historic shift’

The invasion “demonstrated to the Swedish public and politicians that there was a clear difference between membership and a close partnership with NATO,” said Eva Hagström Frisell, a deputy research director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, a think-tank in Stockholm.

For Sweden, whose non-alignment has been very “pragmatic”, the membership marks a paradigm shift, she said.

“This represents both a historic shift of the traditional Swedish security policy of military non-alignment at the same time as it is a continuation of a policy of collaboration and solidarity under way in the past 30 years,” she told Al Jazeera.

Both nations see membership as the beginning of a new era.

“A protected Finland is being born as part of a stable, strong and responsible Nordic region,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said on Sunday.

“The best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join NATO,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said hours later. “We believe Sweden needs the formal security guarantees that come with membership in NATO.”

And NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the membership would prove that “aggression does not pay”.

Moscow warns of a response

Moscow has responded with a barrage of threats.

It has stopped electricity supplies to Finland and promised to boost the presence of nuclear weapons in the Baltic region.

“There can be no more talk of any nuclear–free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored,” Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president between 2008 and 2012 and current deputy chairman of its security council, said in mid-April.

“This is another grave mistake with far-reaching consequences,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian media on Monday.

“They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it – and nor should Brussels, Washington and other NATO capitals,” he said.

Meanwhile, the feelings of Ukrainians are somewhere between “joy and self-respect”, a Kyiv-based analyst said.

“Joy because the creation of the ‘Scandinavian front’ would push Russia into the swamps of Karelia [a region near the Finnish border] even deeper – and would therefore push them out of the Baltic,” Aleksey Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“And self-respect because it was Ukraine’s heroic resistance [that] has inspired NATO and created a corridor for its expansion in the north.”

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