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The price of neutrality – learning from Sweden and Finland

Russia obviously has a problem with war goals in Ukraine. With their realization, of course, whatever the goals are but even more so with their formulation. Vladimir Putin’s words from February 24, the day when he launched the aggression against Ukraine that the goal is the demilitarization and denazification of this country, have already faded. A month later, Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu announced that the goal was, in fact, the “liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk. On the fiftieth day of the aggression, Sergei Lavrov said that the purpose of the invasion was to put an end to the world order dominated by the United States.

During all that time, the spokesman of the Russian army, Igor Konashenkov, repeats day after day that the action “is going according to plan”. According to which plan? Putin’s from February 24, Shoigu’s from the end of March or this latest Lavrov’s? The differences are so great that there are no points of contact, except, perhaps, in some ultra-secret project for reshaping the world in which the new, even bigger Russia will be the center and hegemon. Still, it would be too much, even for conspiracy theorists. The reality is that Russia is deeply stuck in Ukraine and that no plan, even if it existed at the very beginning, can prove that it is sustainable and that it is being implemented.

On the other hand, reverse processes prevail. On the first day of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, the European Union overcame all (or the vast majority) of its previous deep divisions. America has strengthened its partnership with Europe to the maximum, doing something overnight that would take years in peace. Britain has established itself as the leader of the entire West when it comes to supporting Ukraine, a leader in economic and financial sanctions against Moscow, and especially as a bridge for the renewal of the American-European partnership. And we come to NATO. Its rather shaky internal cohesion disappeared overnight, as did the frequently asked questions about the meaning of its existence.

By aggression against Ukraine, Moscow not only did not prevent or even threaten NATO enlargement, but in the most direct way encouraged and dramatically accelerated it. However, not the countries that Russia meant and opposed their joining (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine), but a peaceful and neutral Scandinavia. From the first day of the aggression on Ukraine, Sweden and Finland have been on the fast track of joining NATO, and their accession is a matter of months, not years.

In his plans (if there were any) for an attack on Ukraine, Putin obviously did not take into account this reaction of his closest, northwestern neighborhood. The reactions of his spokesmen speak best about that, they show confusion and helplessness. First of all, in February, Maria Zakharova, at the first serious announcements of Sweden and Finland that they wanted to join NATO, threatened with “military and political consequences” if they decided to take such a step. Has anyone taken this threat seriously, first because of the political “weight” of the person who made it, and especially because of its irrational content? Threatening Finland and Sweden and saying that they will bear the “military consequences” at a time when it cannot even deal with Ukraine was a supreme political and diplomatic embarrassment for Russia. Maybe that’s why it was assigned to a cheerful official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and not to some high political authority.

A similar threat, although in a far milder tone, is being repeated these days by Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman. He stopped at the impersonal formulation that the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO “would not contribute to stability in Europe” disregarding the fact that the office of a military leader who carried out an aggression against a sovereign European state, thus destabilizing not only the continent but also a larger part of the planet, speaks of stability in Europe.

The intention of Sweden and Finland to become the 31st and 32nd members of NATO is the strongest disqualification of the long-standing Russian narrative of being a victim of the Alliance’s constant enlargement and being forced to defend itself from that wave, fueled by the strongest in the West, above all the United States. There is no more convincing evidence of how perverted Russian mantra that someone in NATO (it is known who) is forcing small countries to join the Alliance and thus create an offensive wall against Russia from the intentions of Sweden and Finland. The Swedish and Finnish steps are the most convincing confirmation that nations join NATO of their own free will, and that they have an important state interest in that.

The most democratic and happiest countries in Europe want to join NATO, it is impossible to force them to do anything if they do not want to. Russia and Putin cannot understand that, perhaps because over the years they have believed in their own anti-Western propaganda that NATO is a monster that forces the small and powerless to join it, so that the front towards Russia is as wide and as armed as possible.

The ruling Swedish Social Democrats, strong opponents of joining NATO until yesterday, very simply explained this reversal – “When Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally”. The same reasons motivate Finland, because it shares a border of 1,340 kilometers with Russia. Having an aggressive and armed bully in the immediate neighborhood is a sign of alarm for every rational nation and government, and urgent accession to NATO is a choice that has no alternative. Even at the cost of renouncing the traditional position of military neutrality.

The two youngest members of NATO, who will soon vote on the accession of Sweden and Finland – Montenegro and North Macedonia – come from the opposite end of Europe, from a much different economic, political and security environment. Their motives for joining NATO differed greatly from the motives of the Scandinavians. Their entry was a matter of existence, economic, political and security. By joining NATO, the two small Balkan countries still on the path to EU membership have entered the first major integration they have been able to achieve, accepting strict rules and thus gained a guarantee that they are a safe haven for attracting investment and stable democratic development. Sweden and Finland do not have to cross those steps, they have reached and surpassed them a long time ago, and their military structure is fully compatible with NATO. However, their choice of NATO is a matter of existence, the basic one, and it concerns physical protection from a large and violent neighbor.

With its aggression against Ukraine, and openly against the entire Western world, Russia has rapidly destroyed its basic strategic interest, which is to prevent the expansion of NATO. It is credited with the fact that the Alliance will soon have two new democratic countries, extremely rich and equipped with the most modern weapons, which were never part of the eastern camp, on which Putin’s “new Russia” still puts its paw, as its own. It will get two strong NATO members in its immediate neighborhood, something it did not hope for in the worst projections, if it had any at all.

The decision of Sweden and Finland to join NATO is a strong message to other European non-members of the Alliance to reconsider their positions, Serbia first of all. If these, unquestionably democratic and developed countries, with the most consistent tradition of military neutrality, realized that without NATO membership they will not be able to save themselves from Russian aggression, how can Serbia expect that? With democratic and economic capacities far behind Sweden and Finland, and with an open Russian threat of destabilization to which neither Sweden nor Finland have been exposed.

Serbia has proclaimed military neutrality, just like the two Scandinavian countries, but they are not comparable, which is due to the length of that tradition (Serbia since 2008, Sweden and Finland before the Second World War), and especially due to the international acceptance of that neutrality. The two Scandinavian countries, with their strong neutral position, have gained great diplomatic prestige on the global scene for decades, and yet they have decided to give it up because the security threat from the eastern neighborhood leaves no choice. Serbia cannot compete with the diplomatic and peacekeeping giants from Scandinavia, so its choice and eventual classification should theoretically be much easier. The decision must be extremely rational, not emotional, and much can be learned from practical northerners.

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