Is ‘NATO-ization’ of Finland the end of ‘Finlandization’ in Europe?

The brutal Russia-Ukraine war threatening to go on for “as long as it takes” is believed to be why Finland and Sweden sought NATO membership. On the day NATO leaders gathered in Madrid, a retired US Army Lt. Col. called the move “a US mistake.” Some critics in the West also reckon expanding NATO is not only “bad news for America,” it is more a threat than a boost to Europe. Besides, as US and NATO celebrate the two Nordic countries losing their neutrality, Biden’s claims have come under scrutiny that the two states are willingly entering the Organization.

The news from Madrid was that NATO has formalized its invitation to Sweden and Finland to join the security alliance. The only delay in the way of the two Nordic countries joining the security bloc within a year or less from now is the 30-member countries’ parliaments ratifying the Madrid decision. Describing the decision as NATO’s most consequential enlargement in decades, the global media chose to downplay the move which potentially might turn Europe into a dangerous rather than safer place. Comments such as “NATO brought war into Ukraine, NATO membership expansion might push Europe into war,” are now commonplace in the major European capitals, as also in Washington.  

What is NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), also called the North Atlantic Alliance, is an intergovernmental military alliance founded by 12 countries in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949. During the Cold War, the purpose of the US-led European security alliance was to defend its member states against the perceived threat from the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, not only the alliance was not dissolved, it instead further expanded its membership and military operations. It now has 30 member states – 28 in Europe and the United States and Canada. 

In the post-Cold War years, analysts in Europe as well as in the US have argued that following its main security threat the Soviet Union gone, there was no rationale for NATO to continue and therefore it should be disbanded. However, in the ensuing years not only has the alliance increasingly come to be seen as no longer defensive, but it has been carrying out military operations in the Balkans, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. In China, analysts and foreign ministry officials now refer to the world’s most powerful military alliance as “global NATO.” Or, as Professor John Mearsheimer says: “It is a totally false account that the crisis in Ukraine is largely the result of Russian aggression. The United States and its European allies are mainly responsible for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO expansion.”   

NATO-ization of Finland: A Threat or Boost to Europe

Welcoming the two Nordic countries into the NATO family, President Biden had said in May, “NATO is an alliance of choice, not coercion.” As if endorsing Biden’s above statement, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson too emphasized: “I must say that Sweden has chosen a new path at a moment.” However, the truth is something entirely different. According to reports, efforts to bring Finland and Sweden into NATO were going on for months before the Russia-Ukraine conflict occurred in February.

Speaking of expanded NATO membership and Europe’s shared security, Biden said in Madrid, “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance. [Putin] wanted the Finlandization of NATO. He got the NATO-ization of Finland.” Well, for starters, the term “Finlandization” entered the German political debate during the 1960s and 1970s and it referred to the decision of a country – modeled on Finland’s – not to challenge a more powerful neighbor in foreign policy.

Besides, it is now generally acknowledged in the West that by invading Ukraine, the Russian leader has “successfully” managed his “own goal.” Or in other words, an immediate short-term fallout for Russia – with a huge and irreversible specific military consequence – of Sweden and Finland’s swift decision to join the military alliance for Russia is the additional eight hundred miles of border with NATO. As Susan B. Glasser wrote in her New Yorker column that the two Nordic states will bring in two additional militaries that are among the most capable in Europe. “This will enhance the prospect of the alliance being able to bottle up the Baltic Sea and keep the Russians from coming out,” she added.

On the other hand, for both NATO and Europe, there is an urgent need to overcome immediate challenges such as overcoming fissures in the alliance and forging political unity “against Russia among major European powers including Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, etc.  Or else, as forewarned by several analysts, the embracing of two new members “would increase instead of lowering the chances of war on one hand, and would increase the risk of future conflict for the entire alliance on the other.”

NATO Enlargement: What is at stake for the US?

In an attempt to put the “now hot, now cold” relationship between Russia and US-Europe in a historical perspective, the Polish scholar Dębski, cited above, called the Russia-NATO Foundation Act as the root cause of dramatic ups and downs between Russia and NATO. The Act, which today no one is talking about, was signed in 1997 between NATO and Russia and was essentially NATO’s political commitment to Moscow that it would not deploy substantial combat forces to the alliance’s new member states. Even as the brutal war rages on in Ukraine, like in the past when Russia assaulted Georgia and annexed Crimea respectively, the NATO establishment at the Madrid summit made all concerted efforts to protect the Foundation Act.

In a June 29 statement, the White House claimed all NATO decisions at Madrid were made in the spirit of the Foundation Act. However, commentators are claiming that when some alliance members in Madrid asked that the Act be denounced, the response was a compromise formula, i.e. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Such indecisiveness or miscalculated signals from NATO to Russia could mean more war for Europe. [My emphasis]   

Indeed, the decision of the two Nordic countries to embrace NATO has received an overwhelmingly positive response in both Europe and the US. However, no one knows what further risks for Europe are in place coming from Russia (with currently only 6% of its borders with NATO) which is already feeling threatened and encircled by the existing 30-member NATO. Within days of Sweden’s announcement to abandon neutrality the Swedish capital was turned into a “naval garrison” with the arrival of the US amphibious battle group consisting of assault ships, etc. What is one to make of what are the security implications for Europe as the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, standing atop the assault ship USS Kearsarge, declared the US intention to make the Baltic Sea a “NATO lake”?

Furthermore, viewed against a former US Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis saying “Enlarging NATO might seem a wise thing, [but] adding more members is likely to have the opposite effect,” what does the claim that the Russian military aggression has “remade” US-European relations mean after all? Interestingly, according to a US political affairs analyst, even long-term supporters of US and European security concerns are apprehensive about NATO’s 31st and 32nd members. The analyst cited the former US State Department policy planning director Anne-Marte Slaughter as saying “[But] a weak and humiliated Russia is a dangerous Russia. Putin may well be able to stay in power even longer on the strength of ‘the foreign enemy’ encroaching on Russia’s borders.”

To conclude, not only within Europe but opinions even in Sweden are at variance on whether NATO membership expansion will escalate tensions with Russia. “Joining NATO would be preparing for war,” Gabriella Irsten of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society has stated. It is no use denying that Finland and Sweden’s simultaneous declaration to join NATO has sparked off the fiercest debate in Europe since the end of the Cold War about NATO’s mission.  The ongoing debate has once again brought back what one of NATO’s early critics had warned its European member states way back in the concluding years of the past century.

In an Op-Ed for the NYT in 1997, George F. Kennan wrote: “NATO expansion after the Soviets’ demise would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Now that the two Nordic countries’ NATO membership is almost granted, imagine which way Europe would transform, especially for Finland post-NATOization, recall what Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage had warned us about in the Foreign Affairs just a few days before Russia launched military attack on Ukraine on February 24: What if Russia wins?

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.