Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

In preparation for Vladimir Putin’s impending meeting with Joe Biden, the Kremlin published a set of demands for European security, including a ban on NATO enlargement and the deployment of offensive weapons near Russia’s border. The background to this demarche was Moscow’s intensification military pressure on Ukraine and his resentment over NATO’s admission of 14 Central and Eastern European countries between 1999 and 2020.

For Sweden and Finland, gives the Russian claims extra cause for concern. For 30 years the traditionally neutral duo came closer to NATO, without applying to join the US-led alliance. On December 24, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, declare that if Sweden and Finland became members of NATO, “it would have serious military and political consequences”.

From a Swedish and Finnish point of view, such warnings seems disturbing like an attempt to limit the foreign and security policy choices of democratic, independent states. The question is whether Russia’s truculence might backfire by one day requesting Stockholm and Helsinki to secure the security of formal NATO membership and the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause.

At the moment, it seems unlikely. A Finnish government defense report, published in September, kept the option open to apply to NATO. But in reality, Finland’s political parties are divided over the question and the public shows no great enthusiasm for full NATO membership.

This is a similar story in Sweden. In December 2020 a parliamentary majority emerged for the first time in favor of accepting a Finland-style “NATO option”. However, when Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson set out her government’s policy on November 30, she said explicitly: “Sweden will not apply for NATO membership.” Andersson nevertheless made it clear that “Sweden is deepening its defense co-operation with Finland and other Nordic neighbors, within the EU, with the USA and in partnership with NATO”.

Even this cautious statement illustrates how far Sweden and Finland have changed their defensive and security positions since the Cold War. Sweden, neutral since the Napoleonic Wars, has maintained that attitude despite incidents such as the “Whiskey on the Rocks” episode of 1981, when a Soviet Whiskey class submarine ran aground near the Swedish naval base Karlskrona.

Finland’s neutrality was more limited, the result of a so-called friendship treaty Signed under Soviet pressure in 1948. Aware that their country was part of the 19th-century Tsarist empire, Finns learned to live with their unusual status, including limited room for maneuver in foreign policy but could develop into a prosperous democracy, rather than being transformed into an Eastern European-style communist satellite state.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sweden and Finland signed up for NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, just before joining the EU. And in 2016 they signed host nation support agreements with NATO, which provides allied forces with access to Swedish and Finnish territory in the event of a military emergency. In short, it may be of little need for Sweden and Finland to become full NATO members, as it already seems almost inconceivable that the alliance would stand aside if they came under attack.

What lessons do these arrangements hold for Ukraine? Unfortunately not many. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine is simply not a legal state like Sweden and Finland are. Probably the challenge for Biden is not to bring Ukraine into NATO – a goal that, in any case, many NATO allies are lukewarm about – but how to get Putin to accept Ukraine’s inalienable right to national independence.

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