The fallout of Putin helping make NATO ‘great again’

Russia’s actions have now united the European countries more than ever before, which will also test India’s global actor role

Updated - May 11, 2023 02:42 am IST

Published - May 11, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘Mr. Putin’s actions have brought certain changes in the regional security dynamics of Europe’

‘Mr. Putin’s actions have brought certain changes in the regional security dynamics of Europe’ | Photo Credit: AFP

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has almost doubled its borders with Russia with the addition of Finland as its 31st member in April 2023. Sweden will become a member eventually, once the ratification process gets over, which will swell NATO’s territorial expanse like never before, and also make the Baltic Sea a NATO lake. The accession of Finland was the fastest on record.

For long, Nordic countries Finland and Sweden had refused to take sides, maintaining military non-alignment and being focused more on their internal socio-economic development, thus making them models of modern welfare states. Their relations with Russia were moderate at best, if not deep enough. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the way they had viewed their eastern neighbour and the predictability of its leader, Vladimir Putin. For sure, Mr. Putin’s actions have brought certain changes in the regional security dynamics of Europe.

Russian actions, European unity

First, engaging Russia has never been so easy for the European Union, mostly because of differences among member-states. Some European countries such as Germany and France had a soft corner for Russia, unlike some Baltic states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which have been in favour of treading a cautious path. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only brought back war to the European realm in the post-Second World War era, but is also a blow to the EU’s image as an actor, having failed to avert the war in its neighbourhood. An interesting outcome in this adverse situation is that Russia’s actions have now united European countries more than ever before.

Second, Mr. Putin might not have expected that Finland and Sweden would give up their neutrality so soon. Their membership will also mean more expenditure, militarily, and restructuring apart from a stationing of NATO forces under the new command structure. As a response, Russia will also build its military presence in the adjoining northern areas and the Kaliningrad exclave. Bordering Finland, these northern areas (starting from St. Petersburg to Murmansk) come under the Russian Core region, which is strategically and economically important for Russia. Having NATO at its Finnish door will further fuel Russian anxiety.

Spotlight on the Arctic

Third, apart from these immediate border areas, another region where Nordic countries (or for that matter NATO) may face a standoff with Russia is the Arctic region, which has received little attention being too hostile an environment to merit any attention. But, due to climate change and prospects of harnessing untapped oil, gas and mineral resources, it is receiving wide attention, creating unexpected and complex challenges. Apart from the United States, Canada, and Russia, the Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland are members of the Arctic Council, and have a direct stake in Arctic affairs. There have been localised confrontations between Russia and other actors here. NATO membership for the Nordic countries has brought a new geo-strategic dimension to the Arctic’s future.

For Russia, cohabitation, rather than confrontation, with NATO was an option, but its military action has changed everything. By invading Ukraine, Mr. Putin wanted to stop NATO from expanding its base. On the contrary, it has triggered a NATO expansion instead, to a larger base in the Nordic, complicating the security landscape and creating more frontiers. There is more justification for NATO’s existence now. Many countries now see their secure future in NATO’s Article 5. Mr. Putin has in fact made NATO great again.

Editorial | Russia’s NATO problem: On the Ukraine war

Implications for India

In recent years, India has had limited engagement with NATO, mostly as political dialogues. India has maintained a strategic silence on NATO’s recent expansion. But it needs to closely watch for scenarios that could emerge.

First, Russia has few friends left in the current situation, but India, as one of them, is unlikely to help Moscow in maintaining the balance of power to counter NATO. China has maintained a strong stance against NATO’s existence and outreach towards the Indo-Pacific. Russia may count on China for support, bringing the two countries closer, strategically and militarily, which may not be in India’s interest.

Second, in recent years, the Nordic region has caught the frequency of India’s strategic radar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Copenhagen to participate in the Second India-Nordic Summit in May 2022, and underlined India’s deep interest in cooperation. This region now coming under a NATO umbrella will complicate India’s strategic choices.

Also read: Explained | Russia’s nuclear icebreakers and militarisation of the Arctic

Third, India has observer status in the Arctic Council and pursues an Arctic Policy to promote multi-level cooperation. Finland’s NATO membership, with Sweden joining soon, along with China’s claim as a ‘Near Arctic State’ and its partnership with Russia in this region, may lead to the Arctic’s militarisation, thereby affecting the interests of all actors including India. India’s global actor role will be tested in view of the new European security architecture led by NATO, and contested by Russia.

Sakti Prasad Srichandan is Assistant Professor, Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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