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Fighter jets over Gotland, Sweden. November 13, 2020.

Strength in numbers What would Finland and Sweden joining NATO mean for Russia? Meduza asks political scientist Kirill Shamiev.

Source: Meduza
Fighter jets over Gotland, Sweden. November 13, 2020.
Fighter jets over Gotland, Sweden. November 13, 2020.
Air Force Master Sgt. Roidan Carlson / U.S. Department of Defense

According to media reports, both Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO as early as this summer. If these two countries become part of the alliance, the total length of the borders Russia shares with NATO member states will double. To find out what Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession could mean for the alliance and for the Kremlin, Meduza turned to Kirill Shamiev, a political scientist specializing in civil-military relations. 

Please note. The following translation has been condensed and edited for clarity. You can read Meduza’s full Q&A with Kirill Shamiev in Russian here
Kirill Shamiev, political scientist

Immediately after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Prime Minister Sanna Marin said that Finland would not rush into a decision about joining NATO. And as of late February, just 41 percent of Swedes were in favor of NATO membership. Has the situation within these countries really changed so quickly?

Judging by all the more recent Finnish and Swedish polls, public opinion has indeed changed. In March, 62 percent of Finns believed that the country should join NATO and only 16 percent were opposed. By comparison, in 2017, only 22 percent of Finns supported joining the alliance. It’s a similar situation with Sweden, though a large proportion of the population felt positively about NATO membership before. Now about 59 percent of the population supports it. 

The main change is how the war is being conducted. It’s clear that everyone condemns the invasion, no one in Europe supports it. But how the war is being waged also has policy implications: [media reports show] footage of destroyed cities, violations of all the rules of war, the murders of civilians. Obviously, even the average person has realized that even if Russia couldn’t occupy Finland, for example, it can inflict tremendous damage, including fatalities. People feel that they aren’t safe, and NATO is the only alliance that drastically increases a country’s security. 

How likely is it that Finland and Sweden will actually apply for NATO membership? How prepared are they to join the alliance from a military point of view?

My personal assessment is that there’s a 70 percent chance that they’ll apply and subsequently join. Finland is the more likely country to join, at least judging by the political support of its parties — the vast majority of them are in favor of joining the bloc. In Sweden the situation is more complex, there are many doubts because of the country’s 200 years of neutrality. This would be a big step for the country.

At the same time, both countries say that they don’t want to join separately. This is for a number of reasons, including their political proximity, long-standing friendly relations, and in terms of military security. If only Finland becomes a NATO member, Sweden will be the only remaining neutral country in the region, which will create an additional threat. 

There’s no doubt that Sweden and Finland meet NATO criteria. They actively cooperated before this [both countries are NATO partners], and took part in defense initiatives and military exercises with the alliance’s members. Generally speaking, Finland’s army is considered a serious combat power on the European continent. Plus, both Finland and Sweden have a “total defense” strategy: in the event of an attack, every citizen will defend the country. This is considered the ideal standard. 

In other words, there shouldn’t be any problems in terms of entry procedures, except for their duration.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance would provide Finland and Sweden with the opportunity to join its ranks quickly. How long is this process and is accelerating it realistic? Will members of the alliance actually go for it?

I think this was meant in terms of technical issues of compliance with standards. A country [seeking to join the alliance] has to demonstrate its compliance with all of the NATO membership criteria — democracy, political institutions, economic and military criteria, and civilian control over law enforcement agencies. The point of all these standards is to make sure a new member can fulfil Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and promote and develop its principles — in other words, that it can contribute to the security of the Euro-Atlantic region. Both Finland and Sweden are a perfect fit — even better than some member countries, like Romania, for example, which has big problems with civilian control of law enforcement bodies. 

If there are unmet criteria, a “Membership Action Plan” begins — as is the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is, shall we say, [a package of] reform plans. Georgia and Ukraine wanted this option, but haven’t received it yet. Presumably, Stoltenberg meant that this stage wouldn’t be necessary for Sweden and Finland, or that the reform plan would include minor formalities.

The final stage is the drafting of an accession protocol and its ratification by all NATO member states. To give an example, this last stage took about 13 months in the case of North Macedonia. And in the case of Finland and Sweden, there may be even longer delays, since the situation here is more heated and problematic. Formally, no restrictions or deadlines have been set, everything will depend on the political dimension in each member country. 

Are there NATO countries that might delay or hinder the accession procedure for Finland and Sweden? 

Everyone sees Hungary as the Kremlin’s main partner, if not ally, in Europe. But as yet, there aren’t any publicly expressed grounds for Hungary resisting Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO — in contrast to the situation with Ukraine. In the past, Hungary lobbied its interests in protecting the Hungarian minority in [Ukraine’s] Zakarpattia region. But now, especially under the circumstances of the ongoing war, it’s not clear what [Budapest] could latch on to.  

If these countries do join NATO, what transformations will take place? Is it possible that they will set conditions for what the alliance can place on their territory?

It’s difficult to make predictions, but I think Finland and Sweden will require that foreign military bases not be located on their territory. Unless some even more terrible nightmare takes place in [Russia’s] war with Ukraine — for example, the use of nuclear weapons. 

The issue is that these countries want to strengthen their own security, but not threaten Russia with taking Vyborg or St. Petersburg, which they don’t need. So we can expect that the most likely scenario is political accession; participation in the armed forces and the political institutions in all NATO processes. But in the short term at least, this won’t involve military bases or the deployment of nuclear weapons in Finland and Sweden.

However, everything will depend on how the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine develops, and whether it will turn into a large-scale, regional conflict. 

What would these countries’ membership mean for NATO? What benefits would the alliance gain? 

NATO really wants Sweden and Finland to join. Both countries have high-tech military forces. Helsinki recently purchased 64 F-35 fighter jets: they’ll be manufactured and delivered within 10 years, but still. Plus, these are rich countries, they will significantly strengthen collective defense and the potential to respond to crises. The Finnish government has just agreed to increase its defense spending by 2.2 billion euros [$2.36 billion]. Moreover, the financial and expert costs for NATO [would be] very small. 

The only possible disadvantage is the increase in the number of alliance members from 30 to 32. Since NATO makes all decisions by consensus, this could slow down decision making. It’s one thing when you’re Slovakia and you have few opportunities to politically oppose the wishes of the United States. It’s another thing when you’re Finland and you’re militarily self-sufficient without joining NATO. Not to mention the fact that you’re in close proximity to Russia and you’re connected by difficult experiences and rivalry, war and human relationships. So Finland’s opinion may slow down reaching consensus within the alliance. 

To what extent would this strengthen NATO’s political and negotiating positions? Will there be a new phase in the bloc’s relations with the Kremlin?

To all intents and purposes, the alliance will gain confidence in its strength and ability to carry out the policy that they declared from its very founding — the right of [each] nation to choose its defense alliances. By joining [NATO], Finland and Sweden would bring serious military capabilities, plus immediate borders with Russia. As a result, NATO will feel much more confident militarily — more protected from potential Russian destabilization. 

As for “dictating” certain things to the Kremlin — this is rather complicated. Because NATO is a defensive alliance, in order to dictate something all the member countries have to agree to it. As yet, it’s unclear how to do this. It’s also unclear what these things could be, given nuclear parity, the very serious capabilities of the Russian armed forces, and the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy.  

At the same time, we need to make a cross-country comparison, to look at the dependence of specific NATO members on Russian energy supplies. In this regard, Finland is quite dependent and there’s no reason to expect that the Finns will suddenly begin to pursue an aggressive policy. From this point of view, they will only be able to dictate the continuation of the policy of the right of nations to choose [their own] defense alliances. 

I’d say the main purpose of NATO’s growing influence is to contain Russia. Most politicians understand that something is not right with Vladimir Putin, that it’s impossible to reach an agreement with him. When you can’t come to an agreement, and no one wants to fight, you need to diminish the likelihood of military hostilities as much as possible. What can Finland and Sweden do here? Participate fully in all NATO structures — in exchanging information, including intelligence, in collective defense planning, strengthening the coherence of the armed forces, [and] the unification of command structures. In essence, create a single army under the organization’s umbrella. 

[Sweden and Finland] joining NATO also strengthens the security of the Baltic region (first and foremost, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), not only in a military sense, but also in terms of protection from cyber threats and hybrid attacks. That is, on the whole, Russia’s ability to exert strong influence over the Baltic countries will decrease.  

An official who spoke to The Times said that Finland and Sweden looking to join NATO means Putin has made a “massive strategic blunder”... 

From a technical point of view this is a big blunder. Even if Russia were a democratic country with tense relations with the West, Finland is potentially more than 1,300 kilometers [808 miles] of shared border with NATO. And obviously this will be perceived as a result of the terrible war with Ukraine.

At the same time, when Vladimir Putin was starting the war, he said several times that Ukraine’s entry into NATO would create an existential threat to Russia because of missile flight times. Technically, the same argument can be made about Finland because of its proximity to St. Petersburg. But I don’t think this will work politically, because in a figurative sense, for the Kremlin’s supporters, Finland isn’t as close as Ukraine.

From the point of view of deterrence and pressure we can also talk about the strengthening of intelligence capabilities. American reconnaissance aircraft are a very powerful tool, which can even intercept communications. And in this case, there would be an opportunity for the appearance of bases and the use of such tools on [Finland’s] border, which is not far from St. Petersburg. 

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‘If President Putin wants less NATO on his borders, he will get more NATO at his borders’ An interview with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

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‘If President Putin wants less NATO on his borders, he will get more NATO at his borders’ An interview with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

There’s also the problem of Kaliningrad and the whole Baltic Sea. Sweden and Finland entering the alliance would automatically make the Baltic a NATO sea. Taking into account that a land blockade of Kaliningrad could actually begin, this creates a potential threat for the Russian region, according to geopolitical logic. 

Another point of tension is the Arctic and its militarization. No one is hiding the fact that the United States, Russia, and other countries are looking at the Arctic as a potential place if not for conflict, then for competition over the development of resources and the study of the region in the context of climate change. 

At the same time, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Sweden and Finland’s potential entry into NATO isn’t an existential threat to Russia. Is this a fair assessment? 

Objectively, it is. Not a single NATO member country imagines a war with Russia. Everyone understands perfectly well that without the use of nuclear weapons, the Kremlin would lose very quickly, so the country would have to use them. And these nuclear weapons would be flying not only at the United States, but also at all other NATO member states on the European continent. Accordingly, [in terms of] a real strategic plan, this is extremely unlikely.

At the same time, from a political point of view, everyone knows that Finland has close ties with Western states, including NATO members. And even without being part of the bloc, in the event that Russia, for example, completely loses it and attacks this country, other European states wouldn’t be able to just watch and do nothing — especially because of [Finland’s] membership in the European Union, which imposes an obligation of mutual assistance in the event of military aggression.

However, here we need to distinguish between the likelihood of such an event and the danger of it. We know that people in the security agencies think in very securitized terms: if there’s even a small chance of such a clash, this is very bad. With the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, the likelihood of war, including nuclear war, increases — just a little bit, in my opinion. But the military already sees this as a challenge and the Kremlin will take it very seriously. 

What specific, reciprocal steps can we expect from the Kremlin? 

In both foreign and domestic policy, the outlook is negative. Overall, we can expect Russia to continue its aggressive rhetoric. There will be large-scale militarization of the Baltic and Arctic [regions]. There will be an increase in numbers and a technical strengthening of the ground forces in the Leningrad region, in Karelia, and the potential deployment of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad. 

Politically, Russia may take new measures to protect the border with Finland. Overall, the situation for ordinary Russians will get worse and spending on the defense industry will grow. 

There could definitely be cyberattacks that are taking place even now. When President Zelensky addressed the Finnish parliament via video link, [Finland’s] government websites went down — in all likelihood due to a Russian attack. Western experts in the security field see [cyberattacks] as a possible precursor to a military invasion. And now the formal legal aspects of how to respond to such non-lethal aggressive actions are being developed. 

In domestic politics, the sense of [Russia being] a besieged fortress — that “the Americans are encircling our country even more” — will increase. [The Russian authorities] will need to look for new enemies. 

That said, cold calculation and rational commentary are rarely important in [Russia’s] domestic politics. Images and fears are what matter. I’d guess that the Kremlin will [try to] show that nothing terrible has happened and that this isn’t a miscalculation [on their part]. Because an image has been created for Russian citizens that Ukraine joining NATO would be a complete nightmare: “These are our people, and there are also Nazis there.” But no such image has been created for Finland, it’s [seen as] a very successful, but different country. The propaganda will focus on the fact that Russia is surrounded, but this would have happened no matter what, and that these countries have always sided with the West. 

To what extent is Moscow capable of scaling its influence in other countries and regions in order to compensate for NATO expansion?

That’s the million dollar question. In general, the Kremlin’s policy of destabilization, of increasing uncertainty and destroying the unity of Western countries, is in a worse situation than it was before the war. Because this war has really united Western states, with the possible exception of Hungary — and even Hungary doesn’t strongly oppose sanctions.

Hungary is the Kremlin’s last remaining partner in the European Union. What’s more, an interesting situation is emerging now where Germany, as the main recipient of Russian gas, benefits from Hungary’s presence, which can always be blamed for the failure to pass an embargo on Russian energy resources. The informal agreement is that Hungary sabotages everything, and Germany receives Russian oil and gas and saves its economy from being hit. 

On Germany’s foreign policy

The new German guilt The war in Ukraine has forced Germany to ask whether decades of its foreign policy were based on a delusion

On Germany’s foreign policy

The new German guilt The war in Ukraine has forced Germany to ask whether decades of its foreign policy were based on a delusion

At the same time, the U.S. is trying to put pressure on countries that are staying neutral. India has already refrained from purchasing Russian helicopters, precisely because of U.S. pressure, I think. Chinese companies are limiting cooperation with Russia, fearing secondary American sanctions. So the picture is negative overall. I see no options for the Kremlin in terms of potential opportunities to expand its influence and friendly ties. Except for maintaining relations with the members of the Eurasian Economic Union.  

On the other hand, there’s the problem of a potential embargo from the Russian side on the supply of gas to Europe. Such a step by the Kremlin could create domestic political problems for many countries that are dependent on these resources. The expectation being that citizens will say: “Hey, stop vying with Russia, we need to heat our homes.” This is only just beginning now, and the problem will become especially acute by the heating season, by fall. 

In addition, the war has seriously damaged the global economy, it has raised global inflation and food prices. And that’s not to mention the regions of the Middle East and Africa where revolutions are possible if the price of grain increases a lot. Threats are increasing here too. 

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev said that if Finland and Sweden were to join NATO, it would be impossible for the Baltic region to remain “non-nuclear.” What would be the consequences of Russia moving nuclear weapons there? 

The Baltic countries believe that Russia has tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad already. There is a storage facility there and Russia could transfer ammunition. To what extent this will become an official policy is unclear. It plays out like this: [if] nuclear weapons are deployed to the region, then the United States may deploy its weapons in Eastern Europe, and we’ll get closer to a nuclear confrontation. Global security would become much worse. 

The Kremlin still has an understanding of nuclear deterrence and attempts to conclude new treaties on nuclear disarmament. I’m inclined to be cautiously optimistic that possibly they understand that any escalation wouldn’t bring strategic benefits, it would just be more unpleasant for both Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe. I’d cautiously guess that [talk of deploying nuclear weapons to the Baltic region] is more of an attempt to intimidate and “saber rattle” — not an actual decision that’s already been made. 

Would the consequences of Finland and Sweden joining NATO be better or worse for the Kremlin than if Ukraine joined the alliance? 

From a political point of view it’s still better — at least in the current circumstances. With respect to domestic politics, the agenda regarding Ukraine has been pumped up for a long time: that this country joining NATO is the end of Russia.

In addition, there was a fear of closing Kyiv off from the Kremlin’s influence. Joining the alliance imposes institutional obligations, this practically puts an end to the opportunities for unofficial influence, to attempts to corrupt local elites. There has been no talk of direct Russian influence over Finland for a long time. This is a country that existed independently even in Soviet times and managed to build constructive relations with the USSR. Therefore, in the event that Finland joins NATO, [Russia] will have fewer fears about potential political losses. 

I also think it’s the better scenario in military terms. Because taking into account 2014, the [annexation of] Crimea, the start of the war in the Donbas, and the history of imperial relations between Russia and Ukraine, you would expect Kyiv to be more anti-Russian at the societal level. The umbrella of NATO defense would help hem in these anti-Russian sentiments without the opportunity for Russia to dilute or reduce them. In Finland [and in Sweden] these sentiments are less acute. And we can expect that if the war ends, 10–20 years will pass, and society will begin to treat Russia more neutrally. With respect to Ukraine, this is, in all likelihood, [already] impossible. 

So yes, in short, Finland and Sweden joining NATO is the lesser evil [for the Kremlin]. 

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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