reflections

Geopolitical Diary: NATO's Expansion and Russia's Fears

6 MINS READMar 13, 2009 | 01:20 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Croatia and Albania will become members of NATO in April, Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on Thursday. The two have long been on the road to NATO membership, and the additions are no longer controversial, since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. The issue of membership for Ukraine and Georgia also looks to be dead for now, as many NATO states are reluctant to press these two countries’ former master, Russia, over the issue. The United States was the biggest advocate for including Ukraine and Georgia, but now that Washington and Moscow are in tense negotiations over issues like Afghanistan and Iran, the United States has backed down from that initiative. It seems that most of the questions involving NATO expansion are being settled with between the alliance and Russia. But there is one puzzle piece that isn't being discussed at present — and it could be a strategic trump card allowing NATO to keep its edge over Russia in the near future. NATO was founded with the sole intention of defending Western Europe against a Soviet military invasion during the Cold War. The same role justifies the alliance's existence today, but NATO has moved from defending Western Europe to defending most of Europe, as well as using its expansion to slash Russia's sphere of influence — containing the former Soviet power behind Russian lines. The most controversial of these expansions came in 2004, when NATO took in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (among others). The Baltic states don't contribute much to NATO militarily, and they are virtually indefensible against a Russian invasion — which undermines the purpose of NATO. But the inclusion of these former Soviet states expanded NATO literally to the Russian border. This was and is one of Moscow's greatest fears. NATO has been looking to continue this policy by taking in Ukraine and Georgia — which are not logical members, in light of their military and financial weaknesses or basic political instability. But their inclusion as NATO members would be a serious blow to Russia. The issue that has not been discussed publicly, however, concerns Scandinavia. Sweden — long a neutral state — has been toying with the idea of joining NATO since its center-right coalition government took power in 2006. Sweden has always been the premier power of the Nordic region (particularly during the Cold War, when Germany was still militarily restrained), since it has the largest population and economy, as well as a stellar defense program. Though Sweden was officially a neutral power even well before World War II, Stockholm had strong ties to Washington and even allowed the United States to deploy nuclear submarines off its coast. Today, Sweden has two reasons to finally break with tradition and join NATO. First, this would allow it to remain a regional power, since joining the alliance would allow Sweden to monitor other NATO states like Germany — which is again on the rise. Second, Sweden and Russia have a long and contentious history, with multiple wars and territory seizures. Russia took control of Latvia and Estonia from Sweden in the 1700s — creating Russia as a power in the Baltic Sea. Russia also took the eastern half of Sweden (now Finland) in the 1800s. Following the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Sweden was one of Moscow’s chief critics. Sweden organized the political delegations and responses of many Central and Eastern European countries that offered support for Georgia. Overall, the Swedes are not too fond of the Russians, and the opportunity to stick it to Moscow by joining the other team is of great interest to the new government. The rumors of Sweden's interest in NATO membership are growing stronger as Stockholm prepares to assume the European Union presidency on July 1. The Swedes see this as their time to shine, and one of the top issues on its EU agenda is to counter Russia's influence in Europe. But as much as Sweden's inclusion in NATO would irritate Russia, it is the possibility of Finland joining the alliance that truly terrifies Moscow. Like Sweden, Finland is an easy match for NATO in terms of its military competence and Western-style government. And it has had only one true security concern: Russia. The capital, Helsinki, is only a stone's throw from St. Petersburg. Finland shares its longest border with Russia, its largest trading partner (something that makes many Finns more than a little nervous). Since declaring its independence from the Russian empire in 1917, Finland has fought to remain independent. This required two brutal conflicts directly with the Soviet Union during World War II (1939-1940 and again in 1941-1944). The Finns long have feared that any overtly Western leanings in its security policies would bring down the wrath of the Russians. So it is not a given that Finland would automatically join NATO if neighboring Sweden were to do so — but the issue would certainly be one for Helsinki to ponder, and would stir intense debate. The two Scandinavian countries have a gentleman's agreement to discuss and consult each other over their security arrangements. For Finland, having its neighbor in the club would be incentive to join as well, rather than being left as a vulnerable no-man’s-land between NATO and the Russians. But for the Russians, membership for Finland would be a decisive and detrimental blow. Finland would then cap NATO's presence across Russia's northern border, putting the alliance hard up against not only St. Petersburg, but also its naval center at Murmansk. Any discussion of Sweden joining NATO is just as terrifying to Russia as the debate over Ukraine and Georgia because where Stockholm goes, Helsinki often is not far behind.

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