This is because the accession of Sweden and Finland would make the Alliance dominant in the Baltic Sea, undermine the defence of the Kaliningrad region, and force Russia to re-plan how it will protect St Petersburg and its Northern Fleet base, Eglė Samoškaitė writes in TV3.lt .
G. Jasutis teaches courses on post-Soviet security in Switzerland, France and Spain and is interested in security sector reforms, political transformation processes, and terrorism in the post-Soviet space.
Sweden and Finland are considering formal NATO membership, with a decision expected in the near future. Lithuanian politicians took this as good news, while the Kremlin became angry and threatened nuclear weapons. What will this mean for Russia in geopolitical and military terms if the two Nordic countries finally decide to join NATO?
The Russians have a prevailing perception that NATO is an enemy, a real military threat, or evil incarnate. This is also fixed in their strategic documents, and, worst of all, it is also fixed in their consciousness. Since they have formed this perception of NATO, any move to strengthen the Alliance, to move in one direction or the other, is naturally met with scepticism in Russia.
From a geopolitical perspective, perhaps Sweden would not be such a big pain for them, and I think that their biggest fear is the accession of Finland. That would be a very big defeat for them, even if the outcome of the Ukrainian war is not taken into account. Now, why?
From the Kremlin’s point of view, because NATO is the enemy, the land border between Russia and NATO would be very much longer. Finland’s land border with Russia is 1 340 kilometres. Obviously, those areas are not very populated, and you may not be able to set up military bases along that border, but the very realisation that NATO as an organisation is getting an extra 1 340 kilometres of land border with Russia is a big headache for them. That would be point number one.
Another thing, their Northern Fleet base is in Severomorsk. It is already close to Norway, which is also a threat to them militarily, so now another NATO country with its military capabilities is coming close to Severomorsk.
If we go down the map a little bit, they are very interested in what happens to St Petersburg. After all, it is a cultural capital for them. And now, if Finland becomes a member of NATO, the defensibility of St Petersburg in military terms would be reduced, and the possibility of an attack from NATO would increase. So I think that this is important for them, and in this sense, Finland’s membership could work in our favour.
Thirdly, Finland’s accession would be a strategic defeat for Russia in the Ukraine war. Finland has always demonstrated a policy of Finlandisation and has had a bilateral understanding with Russia on non-armament and on building mutual trust. Finland has been such a predictable country towards Russia, and its policy has been somewhat different from that of other NATO countries or European Union countries. Now the Russians would get a state with a clearly expressed opinion. In this case, Finland is migrating from a policy of Finlandisation to a typical NATO state with a very clear position.
From the Russian perspective, these three points are geopolitically unacceptable to them, and I think even the war in Ukraine and its consequences may be less important to the Russians than what is happening in their Western military district, where they will have to re-strategise and revise their defence plans.
The Finnish and Swedish armed forces are not very large: the Finnish armed forces consist of more than 20 000 troops plus reserves, and the Swedish armed forces also consist of about 20 000 soldiers plus reserves. Finland has a total defence concept and includes almost a million people in reserve. The reserve’s ability to fight may be questionable, but from a military point of view, the Russians are getting a hostile force against which they need to build something. Since Russia is living as a geopolitical hostage that sees its enemies around it, it will naturally need to plan a response. When Russia launches a war against Ukraine, the Russians get Finland and Sweden, which is a geopolitical disaster for them. And I think that is very good.
From your point of view, do Sweden and Finland really want to formally join the Alliance so that they are covered by Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, or is this rather another means of putting pressure on Russia because, as you said, for Moscow it would be a geopolitical disaster?
Good point. I would agree only in part. I think that 24 February is the day that Sweden and Finland now really want to be members of NATO. If this had been talked about back in January, I would actually agree with the view that this is pressure. But now, these countries have seen that Russia can indeed use military force, that the threshold for the use of military force does not even exist in this country. If it is possible to attack another sovereign state on the basis of a cause such as de-Nazification or demilitarisation, then this was a very strong signal to Finland and Sweden, which had advocated neutrality. Opinion polls in Sweden and Finland show that the public already wants to be part of a real military alliance. This means that there is a geopolitical and self-conscious break: neutrality is good, but it may not protect the state in the current circumstances.
Could you explain the concept of ‘geopolitical hostage’ to readers? For example, you mentioned that Russia lives as a geopolitical hostage.
We often say in Lithuania and the other Baltic States that we are geopolitical hostages, that Russia and Belarus are right next to us, and that they exert economic, security, and diplomatic influence on us. I would suggest that we change this self-awareness. Russia and Belarus need to feel like geopolitical hostages, need to feel pressured politically, militarily, and economically, and need to realise that it will not be otherwise. When Belarus and Russia realise that this is happening, that it is gaining momentum, and that it has serious consequences, then we will see some changes. Being held hostage, being separated, being lumped in with North Korea, Iran or Venezuela, I think, will not be acceptable to Russian society itself. They need to realise that they are the hostages and not Lithuania. Yes, Lithuania is sandwiched between Kaliningrad and Belarus, and it is not a pleasant neighbourhood, but let us be the masters of the situation.
Would you agree with the statement that Russia has a rather old-fashioned geopolitical mindset, in that it seeks to secure sanitary cordons around itself so that a potential adversary cannot easily reach its territory, while the West has a completely different mindset, where it is more willing to bind itself economically, thereby increasing the costs of escalating hostility?
I think that since 24 February, there has been a shift in thinking in the West, and we are beginning to think in different terms, and geopolitical pressure is being applied to Russia and Belarus. As a result, I think that we are now returning to fundamental truths.
After the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we lived in one way, we tried to create an idealistic world in which liberalism and peace were slowly penetrating everywhere, but we are now seeing the emergence of a new ideology in Russia, which the Ukrainians call Ruthism, and which is very scary. So, in my opinion, those traditional geopolitical things are still there, but we have forgotten them. Well, maybe not in the Baltic countries, because we have always been a little more acute about all this, but France, Germany, Italy, and Spain have not followed those norms.
Even the neutral countries have been shaken by the Ukraine war: both Finland and Sweden, and Switzerland, which never used to impose sanctions, but now have. So you can see that countries are beginning to think geopolitically about what is happening in Ukraine.
I remember very well how former NATO Secretary-General George Roberston said, in relation to the need to go to Afghanistan, ‘If we do not go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan will come to us’. So we can apply the analogy here: if we do not fight for Ukraine, then Russia will come to us.
What do you think is in store for Ukraine, or will it remain a ‘splinter zone’ where the interests of the West and the East clash?
On the one hand, yes, because Ukraine borders Russia, and Russia is not going to disappear, there will always be problems there. But Russia is also our neighbour, and Lithuania loses a lot of those fragments. At some point, a decision has to be taken in Washington and Brussels that Ukraine must become part of NATO. Perhaps it will be through pain, blood, splinters, and bombs, but it would be a decision that could also kill Russia itself. When that might happen, I do not know, but that such processes might happen, it might happen.
After all, there have been discussions now about military support. In the beginning, countries were reluctant to give military support, and now even Germany is giving it. In the beginning, the provision of fighter planes to Ukraine was blocked, and now I read that Slovakia is receiving F-16s from the Americans, as it were, and that they themselves will be handing over MiGs to Ukraine. Everything is happening slowly. We Lithuanians would like to speed up the process, but there are many factors at work.
And if the potential membership of NATO by Finland and Sweden forces Russia to concentrate more on the Western Military District, the situation in the Black Sea region will be more fluid.
But for Lithuania, would not the concentration of Russia’s attention in this region have a particularly welcome effect?
We are currently living in a period of geopolitical upheaval. We are arming ourselves, and defence budgets are increasing. We are clearly identifying our enemies and preparing. The most important thing is to be ready. Let’s look at conventional military capabilities in the region, with the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. The balance is tipping slightly in NATO’s favour, although Russia and Belarus have a lot of conventional capabilities in the region: in Kaliningrad, in Belarus, in the Pskov region. Moreover, in Ukraine, we can see that the combat capabilities of the Russian forces are quite limited.
Since you mentioned that the war in Ukraine had exposed the limitations of Russia’s capabilities, do you think that the application by Finland and Sweden to join NATO is dictated by the fear that Russia could potentially take military action against them or by the realisation that Russia’s threats not to join are not so terrifying?
If the Finns and Swedes thought that Russian forces were easily defeated, there would be no point in their joining NATO. I think the more important factor is that the threshold for the use of military force has been greatly reduced. I think that Finland, Sweden and their defence planners appreciate this. However, if the risk of the use of force is now greatly increased, then alternatives must be sought. And it would be difficult to resist the military forces they have if Russia were to take military action, for example, in Finland.
What would it mean for Lithuania if Sweden and Finland became full NATO members?
That would be very good. Our biggest headache is Kaliningrad. A lot of Russian military capacity is concentrated there, and there is talk of tactical nuclear weapons being deployed in Kaliningrad. If Finland and Sweden were to join NATO, the defensibility of Kaliningrad for Russia would be made more difficult because NATO countries would surround the Baltic Sea.
Another is that the Finnish and Swedish forces would become NATO forces, which would mean that the Alliance’s capabilities in the Baltic Sea region would increase. We already have a good partnership with the Finns and the Swedes, but if they were to join the Alliance, their forces could be used to reinforce the defence of the Baltic States.