Something happened that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. On July 5, Sweden and Finland signed accession protocols to begin the process of joining NATO. Full Swedish and Finnish membership in the Atlantic Alliance is likely before the end of the year.
This expansion of NATO is, to me, nothing short of epoch-making. Back in the 1980s, when I was just starting my career, I worked for the RAND Corporation. While there, I became, almost by default (no one else was interested), RAND’s resident Nordic security specialist.
I made my first trip to Sweden in 1986 and my first to Finland in 1987, during the bad old days of the Cold War. Even though both countries at the time faced a huge military threat from the Soviet Union (together with its Warsaw Pact allies), leaders in Stockholm and Helsinki stuck to their guns when it came to being fiercely neutral and nonaligned.
For most, the idea of NATO membership was apostasy, bordering on treason. Especially among Sweden’s main political party, the Social Democrats, nonalignment was practically a religion.
The end of the Cold War saw Sweden and Finland moving steadily toward the West, both joining the European Union in 1995 and NATO’s Partnership for Peace a few years ago. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, these countries edged even closer westward, participating in joint military exercises with NATO troops and even hosting foreign soldiers on their soil.
Nevertheless, NATO membership was the final taboo, and to see such a sea-change in Swedish and Finnish attitudes toward the Atlantic Alliance—and in such a short time—is stunning. It completely changes the political-military map of Europe and rededicates the Western world to the ideal of securing and defending liberal democracy.
Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Moscow goons are furious. Finland alone adds about 830 miles long to NATO’s border with Russia. Of course, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, along with Poland—all four members of NATO—also share a border with Russia, and Moscow never complained when they joined.
Moscow has only itself to blame. Even during the Cold War—a much tenser time between East and West than even today—Sweden and Finland were prepared to stick with neutrality so long as the threat, while potent, was putative and conjectural. Even when outright incursions of their territory took place—such as infiltrations by Soviet submarines into Swedish waters, as epitomized by the 1981 “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident, when a Soviet sub ran aground not far from a Swedish naval base—these countries did not abandon their core principles of nonalignment and neutrality.
Of course, it helps that Russia today is being transparent in its aggression, as well as showing itself to be so obviously weak militarily. The groundless invasion of Ukraine has exposed Russia as being in the thrall of Putin’s “personalist” dictatorship; governance in Russia has been reduced to regime survival and infusing slavish loyalty to Putin himself. At the same time, it is said that personalist dictatorships are more prone to starting wars.
(Soviet collective leadership after Joseph Stalin was generally more cautious, although this didn’t prevent the Soviets from engaging in such fiascos as invading Afghanistan.)
At the same time, the Russo-Ukraine War has shown up the Russian war machine for the paper tiger that it is. All the talk in the 2010s about Russia “turning a corner” regarding military modernization or the Russian armed forces benefitting “from more than a decade of investment and reform” has been exposed as nonsense.
The Russian military is a huge Potemkin village. Conscripts, which make up the bulk of the Russian army, were shown to be inadequately trained, equipped, and led. Logistics is practically nonexistent. The Russian air force is nowhere to be seen.
Of course, Russia is not yet beaten, but the Russo-Ukraine War shows that it can be stood up to. Furthermore, the war shows the value of strength in numbers. These factors were key to convincing Sweden and Finland to finally sign on to NATO membership.
Here again, we see the law of unintended consequences coming into play. Too often, personalist dictatorships make the classic mistake of viewing democracies—since they are often internally wracked with political divisions—as weak and, therefore, easy pickings. They fail to see, time and again, how quickly and how closely such democracies can coalesce when faced with external existential threats.
None of these arguments are new, but they often have to be relearned by both sides. And it is not just Russia that is getting schooled. China, too, resembles a personalist dictatorship centered around Xi Jinping; they don’t call him the “president of everything” for no reason. And leaders with no significant checks on their rule too often end up engaging in foolhardy behavior.
Communist China’s aggressive behavior in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and elsewhere has created a predictable backlash. Beijing may oppose an Asian version of NATO, but that could be just what it is getting; certainly, NATO is increasingly keen to reach out to fellow democracies in the Asia-Pacific. NATO expansion could be having much wider repercussions than might be believed.