Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 apparently to stop NATO’s further expansion into its neighbourhood. But in less than three months, the same invasion has pushed two countries in that neighbourhood to consider NATO membership. Last week, the Prime Minister and President of Finland, which has stayed neutral since the end of the Second World War, said they hoped their country would apply for NATO membership “without delay”. Sweden, which has stayed out of military alliances for 200 years, stated that NATO membership would strengthen its national security and stability in the Baltic and Nordic regions. If these two countries now formally apply for membership, it would be the biggest strategic setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin whose most important foreign policy focus has been on weakening NATO. Particularly alarming for Russia is the case of Finland, with which it has a hostile past. Stalin invaded Finland in 1939 demanding more territories. Though the Red Army struggled in the initial phase of the war, it forced Finland to sign the Moscow Peace Treaty, ceding some 9% of its territory. But a year later, the Finns, in an alliance with the German Nazis, attacked the Soviet troops. Peace was established along the 1,340-km Finnish-Russian border after the Nazis were defeated in the Second World War. Now, Ukraine appears to have deepened the security concerns of Finland and Sweden.
It is still not clear whether these countries would be inducted into NATO any time soon. Within the alliance, decisions are taken unanimously. Turkey has already expressed its opposition to taking the Nordic countries in. While the U.S. and the U.K. are pushing for NATO’s expansion, Germany and France have taken a more cautious line. Hungary, which has deep ties with Russia and has already held up the EU’s plan to ban Russian oil imports, has not made its views clear. But the mere declaration of intent by Finland and Sweden to join NATO has sent tensions in Europe soaring, with Russia threatening ‘military and technical’ retaliation. Normatively speaking, Finland and Sweden are sovereign countries and free to take decisions on joining any alliance. It is up to NATO to decide whether they should be taken in or not. But a bigger question these countries as well as Europe as a whole face is whether another round of expansion of NATO would help bring in peace and stability in Europe, particularly at a time when the continent is facing a pre-First World War-type security competition. It would escalate the current crisis between nuclear-armed Russia and NATO to dangerous levels. Already the several rounds of NATO expansion and Russia’s territorial aggression have brought the world to its most dangerous moment since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Russia should immediately halt the war and all the stakeholders should focus on finding a long-term solution to the crisis.