Following the lead of Finland earlier this week, Swedish leadership has thrown its support behind Sweden joining NATO. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson will submit a formal application likely by the end of the upcoming week. After decades of staunch neutrality, Sweden is choosing a side in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, Stockholm’s Road to NATO Membership did not start in late February of this year when the first Russian troops crossed the border. The process began in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggressive posturing towards NATO and the West. At this time Moscow’s relationship with Sweden and its neighbor Finland started to deteriorate. The security of the Baltic Sea region and Northern Europe became a major concern. Over the next seven or so years, Sweden and Finland enjoyed a closer relationship with NATO member-states in the Baltic Sea region. Mutual security concerns led to increased defense preparations and military exercises with the armed forces of neighboring nations. Over time, concern over Russia diminished. Then in late 2021, with Russia massing troops along Ukraine’s border, Sweden and Finland each started to reexamine the NATO Membership matter. Early this year, the push towards NATO membership slid into overdrive following a blatant show of force around the Swedish island of Gotland by Russian naval forces, followed a short time later by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to the war, there were other matters that helped Stockholm and Helsinki come to the conclusion that NATO membership was the right choice for both nations, like Russia’s demand that NATO halt its eastward expansion.
Ukraine was the final straw for Sweden and Finland, however.
I wasn’t expecting to write on this topic today, but somehow I ended up doing just that. I was originally going to discuss India’s decision to halt wheat exports, unrest over food prices in Iran and other related matters. I will post on that either tomorrow or early Tuesday.
Russia has announced it is prepared to target and engage foreign warships found to be violating its territorial waters following yesterday’s encounter between a Royal Navy warship and Russian air and naval units in the Black Sea. HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer sailed close to Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, using an internationally accepted sea lane. Russia regarded the maneuver as a deliberate attempt to challenge Russia’s annexation of Crimea and responded predictably, claiming it fired warning shots and swiftly drove Defender away from the area it was sailing in. Britain denied this version of events and insisted its warship was sailing in Ukrainian waters. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported Defender’s voyage, stating earlier today that “The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
Despite the maneuvering of warships and slightly sharp rhetoric, neither side is looking to spark an armed confrontation. Moscow understands the purpose behind Defender’s maneuvering was to offer a symbolic challenge. London, on the other hand, clearly predicted the Russian reaction and subsequent warnings issued by Moscow. Each side went to bat and publicly tried to frame its actions in a positive light while simultaneously painting the other nation’s actions as overly aggressive. It has happened before, and this is simply another example of the discursive statesmanship which has become more prevalent in international politics over the last decade or so. By all indications, we will be seeing more cases of this in the future and likely stemming from similar encounters.
18 March, 2019 marked the fifth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. On this date in 2014, Russian commandos blockaded Simferopol International Airport, military bases across the peninsula, and the Crimean parliament building. This action marked the beginning of Russia annexing Crimea, which eventually contributed to the start of fighting in Eastern Ukraine between Russian-supported separatists, and Ukrainian government forces. Moscow’s actions brought about a deep freeze in its relations with the West, and significantly altered the way Russia is perceived, and treated by the rest of the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin marked the anniversary with a visit to the peninsula. He visited two powerplants currently under construction, and lauded efforts to improve the infrastructure of the Crimea. This is not the first improvement project Russia has undertaken in recent times. Last year a bridge connecting southern Russia to the Crimea was constructed. These are steps necessary to Crimea’s continued re-integration with Russia.
Behind the anniversary celebrations, there are other signs of re-integration taking place which go unmentioned by the world media. For months now, Russia has been undertaking a gradual military buildup of its forces on the Crimean peninsula. Additional batteries of SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles arrived at Russian airbases there. This deployment was followed by a staggered redeployment of Russian warplanes to Crimea. The buildup continues, with the latest installment being Russian long range Tu-22M Backfire bombers. Moscow claims that the presence of Backfires is intended as a counter to the US deployment of its missile defense system in Romania.
There’s certainly a degree of truth attached to the reasoning. However, with the Ukrainian presidential election coming up at the end of the month, having Backfire bombers based so close to Ukrainian territory and airspace could also be perceived as an attempt by Russia to overtly affect the election.