By Gwynne Dyer
It’s easy to imagine Vladimir Putin coming into the shop marked ‘Sweden’, breaking some fine china accidentally on purpose, and growling: ‘Nice little shop you’ve got here. It would be a pity if something happened to it.’ But Sweden is not a pottery shop, Putin is not a Mafia capo, and what’s going on in the Baltic now is not a protection racket.
The Russian president has stampeded both Finland and Sweden, two neutral countries of long standing, into joining the NATO alliance, the very ‘threat’ that Putin claimed he was trying to drive away from Russia’s borders. (Finland has a 1,300-km. border with northern Russia.)
The Swedish and Finnish response to his invasion of Ukraine probably surprised Putin. He would see no connection between his invasion of Ukraine, a former Russian imperial possession that needed to be whipped back into line, and two independent countries that have not been in Russia’s sphere of influence for over a century.
Finland and Sweden, however, did see the connection. A neighbour they previously rated as dangerous but rational had suddenly shown himself to be an aggressive and probably irrational gambler. No fully sane and competent Russian ruler would have attacked Ukraine with the inadequate forces and haphazard, overconfident strategy that Putin employed.
You might think that Putin’s sheer incompetence would be reassuring to the Swedes and the Finns, but it is not. On the contrary, it frightens them.
Finland and Sweden are relatively small countries (Sweden has ten million people, Finland five million) with very good military forces. They might even be able to stop the Russians dead in a conventional war, and nobody else is in a position to invade them.
That’s why the Swedes chose neutrality: they reckoned they were safer that way. The Finns lost a lot of territory to the Russians in the Second World War, but they fought hard enough that Moscow let them be neutral rather than reducing them to satellite status.
So why have both countries now decided to join NATO? They are still such tough nuts to crack that they would do a great deal of damage to Russian invaders. Stay neutral, and even in the worst case the Russians will probably pass you by.
That remained a valid assessment until 24 February 2022, and then it suddenly wasn’t. Putin invaded Ukraine, and immediately began issuing veiled warnings about using nuclear weapons if he were thwarted.
The Russian attack in Ukraine bogged down almost at once,: too few Russian troops, too many lines of attack. And the hints from Moscow about resorting to nuclear weapons to compensate for a conventional defeat multiplied.
This is crazy stuff, and all military skills and hardware the Baltic countries could bring to bear in a conventional war would be irrelevant if they were faced with similar Russian nuclear threats themselves.
The only effective counter to a nuclear threat is a credible promise of nuclear retaliation. Since Sweden and Finland have no nuclear weapons, the only way they can have their security guaranteed by a nuclear deterrent is to join NATO. So that is what they are doing.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is demanding that the two Baltic countries expel some anti-Turkish Kurdish activists as a reward for not vetoing this NATO expansion, but this problem will be finessed. It will take months to do the legal work, but in practice the two Baltic countries are already covered by NATO’s nuclear guarantee.