Earlier this week, the prospect of Sweden and Finland becoming full North Atlantic Treaty Organization members cleared a major hurdle. Turkey lifted its veto of the two Scandinavian nations joining the alliance. The relationships between the governments of Sweden and Finland and NGOs deemed terrorist threats by Turkey threatened to derail the membership plans completely. Following weeks of debate and hours of negotiations, the three nations came to an agreement. Finland and Sweden will lift their arms embargoes on Turkey, strengthening laws against Kurdish militant activists that Ankara deems to be terrorists, and holding honest discussions over Turkish extradition requests for suspected Kurdish fighters.
Turkey won out. A statement released by President Erdogan’s office said as much. Now Erdogan is expected to push US President Joe Biden to push for a sale of F-16s to Turkey. Biden has stated the potential F-16 sale is separate from the NATO matter, but many experts believe the sale will go through for the sake of alliance unity in the aftermath of Erdogan accepting the new NATO applicants.
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.
Finland has moved one step closer to applying for NATO membership. Its leadership officially extended its support for expedited membership in the transatlantic alliance. President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made the decision and it is one that is enjoying heavy initial support among Finnish citizens and lawmakers. It a joint statement, Finland’s leaders said, “NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.” Neighboring Sweden is expected to move forward with its own decision on NATO membership in a matter of days.
The leadership’s statement brings to bear a crucial question NATO will need to closely examine during the application process: Exactly what benefits do Finland, and perhaps eventually Sweden as well, bring to the table? Aside from aggravating Moscow, of course, and adding more fuel to Moscow’s NATO Expansion argument.
Russia wasted no time in saying it would consider a Finnish application to be a violation of international legal obligations. “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of military and other nature, in order to curtail the threats that arise to its national security in this regard,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Moscow views the moves by the Scandinavian neutral nations to join NATO is viewed as a knee-jerk reaction to the war in Ukraine. With the war not progressing the way Vladimir Putin anticipated, Russia is now viewing events in Finland and Sweden with deep suspicion.
We’re moving into military exercise season in the Baltic region. Every year at this time a number of modestly sized exercises crop up in and around NATO nations. Days later, similar exercises sprout up in and around Russia and Belarus. The dueling maneuvers increase in size and complexity, usually culminating on the NATO side with the commencement of BALTOPS, a major exercise held annually that involves ships, aircraft and equipment from over a dozen NATO member-states. This year, the spring exercise season’s stakes are considerably higher than usual given the continuing war in Ukraine, as well as the heightened tensions between Russia and the West. Both NATO and Russia will use the maneuvers to send a message to the other side, as well as work up their respective forces.
Moscow got the jump on NATO by holding wargames in Kaliningrad which included simulated launches of SS-26 Stone (Iskander to the amateurs and social media ‘experts’) short range ballistic missiles. According to statements released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian forces in Kaliningrad practiced multiple strikes against simulated enemy missile batteries, airfields, protected infrastructure, military equipment and command posts belonging to a generic enemy. Russian personnel also roleplayed avoiding “a possible retaliatory strike” and working in areas of radiological and chemical agent contamination.
To put it in basic terms, Russian forces in Kaliningrad just ran a military exercise intended to work up its nuclear-capable forces and demonstrate how capable military personnel in Kaliningrad are when it comes to working amid a tactical nuclear or chemical exchange. The message here is simple; Russia takes the possibility of a limited nuclear war far more seriously than does NATO, and Moscow wants the world to be aware of this.
NATO also has several large-scale maneuvers set for this month and beyond. Arrow 22 is set to begin soon in Finland and will run for two weeks. British, US, Polish and Finnish troops will be taking part, as well as soldiers from other NATO members. The exercise is gaining more attention than usual owing to Finland and Sweden. Both nations are tentatively moving closer to applying for NATO membership as the security situation with regards to Russia continues to deteriorate in the Baltic region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned the world against underestimating the chances of a nuclear conflict emerging from Russia’s war in Ukraine. “The risks now are considerable,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia’s state television. “I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” Lavrov’s warning comes as the West increases its material support for Ukraine as the war shifts to the Donbas region. Heavy weapons are now being shipped from NATO nations into Ukraine, including self-propelled artillery and self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems. Russia’s previous warnings that NATO equipment could be considered a legitimate target of war once it enters Ukrainian territory. In Washington, Moscow’s ambassador to Russia has told the United States to stop weapons shipments to Ukraine, warning that Western weapons are inflaming the conflict. Lavrov extended the argument in his comments. “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”
While Lavrov’s warnings could be nothing except for bluster, his words should not be dismissed entirely. The risks of a potential nuclear escalation are at least present at this stage. We’re at a point now where the United States and her allies need to consider the viewpoint of Russian leadership. It would help to view the situation from the perspective of Russia and not make decisions largely based on interpretations stemming from a prism of Western views and opinion. The stakes for Russia in this conflict are enormous, to say the least. If Vladimir Putin concludes there is no chance of a victory on the battlefield through only conventional means, all bets are off.
The West should not be intimidated from supporting Ukraine. However, at the same time, some government officials in Europe and the US might want to consider how their recent remarks are being interpreted by the Kremlin. For example, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admitted a US goal now is to see Russian military capabilities significantly weakened to the point where it cannot conduct military operations abroad in the aftermath of this conflict. Austin’s words run the risk of being interpreted as the US posing an existential threat to Russia and provoking Moscow into expanding the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Escalation is not in the best interests of anyone.