Will Putin's Ukraine War Push His Neighbors Into NATO's Hands?

Since the invasion of Ukraine, even traditionally dovish Social Democrats are beginning to change their minds, as seen in historic polls showing that about half of Swedes and Finns want their country to join the alliance

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-putin-ukraine-s-war-could-push-his-neighbors-into-nato-s-hands-1.10668900

STOCKHOLM – NATO membership has been a controversial issue in Sweden and Finland since the alliance’s founding in 1949, but the two countries’ traditions of nonalignment are so strong that they’re staying out for now, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The end of the Cold War saw 14 new members join NATO, bringing the roster to 30, but without these two Nordic countries. For Sweden, the main reason for staying out has been its long-standing policy of nonalignment and neutrality. For Finland, it has largely been concern about the way its Russian neighbor would interpret such a step. Thus, while the other Nordic countries –  Denmark, Norway and Iceland – are full NATO members, Sweden and Finland have been cooperating with the alliance for years without actually joining. But then came Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine.

According to surveys conducted after the invasion, about half of Swedes are in favor of joining NATO – a record for the country, and up from 37 percent last summer and 32 percent in 2017. Other studies show that more and more Swedes are concerned about a possible Russian attack. In Finland, a petition signed by over 50,000 people calls for a referendum on NATO membership, a subject discussed in parliament last week. A poll by Finland’s public broadcaster early in Russia’s invasion showed that a record 53 percent of Finns support full NATO membership. In 2017 this number was only 19 percent.

In Helsinki last weekend, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, discussed defense policy and cooperation while keeping the NATO issue vague. Marin said that it’s “very understandable that the mindset of our citizens is changing due to Russia’s attack against Ukraine,” adding that Finland’s political parties would now be delving into the issue. Andersson agreed and added that “the security situation has altered in a dramatic way, and of course this will be discussed both in Finland and in Sweden.” In the current crisis, officials from both countries have spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden on their close cooperation with the United States.

“Historically, in both countries, nonalignment has been a long tradition, especially in Sweden, which was ‘neutral’ during World War II, though it was of course helping the Germans,” says Ann-Sofie Dahl, an associate professor in international relations and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Sweden clung to nonalignment during the Cold War as mostly a political and ideological tool for the ruling Social Democrats, who have a romantic view of Sweden playing a role in global politics as a neutral country,” Dahl says. “But this was a two-sided doctrine because it was combined with top secret cooperation with NATO during the Cold War.”

Getting closer

In the Finnish case it’s more of a security matter. “Finland has a very long border with Russia and they’ve also been part of the Russian Empire, which puts them in Putin’s sphere of interest. The Finns have also fought against the Russians [during World War II], which means that the Russians respect them. So, although Sweden and Finland both have nonalignment security doctrines, they have very different historical backgrounds.”

In 1994, Sweden and Finland were among the first to join the Partnership for Peace, NATO’s nonmember partnership program. But unlike Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, they have not joined NATO. In 2014, with the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland became part of the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership, a small group of the alliance’s closest partners that now includes Ukraine.

“This means Sweden and Finland are part of NATO military exercises and various forms of communications and training. Now, because of the war, Sweden and Finland are even closer to NATO, and they’re participating in its discussions on the Ukraine crisis,” Dahl says. “This is a historic moment; we have never seen discussions like this before. Domestically in both countries, some center-right parties have supported joining NATO for years, others have recently joined, but now even some Social Democratic voices are moving towards accepting the idea of NATO membership. In Sweden this means a possible ideological U-turn for traditional supporters of nonalignment, while in Finland, the Social Democrats seem to be one step ahead because of a more pragmatic approach in these matters.”  

Exposed and vulnerable

Swedes and Finns who are now changing their minds about NATO membership have a clear understanding of its benefits. It’s all about Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That clause, sometimes called the “Three Musketeer article,” commits each NATO member to consider an attack on another member an attack on it. As in the Alexandre Dumas novel, it’s “all for one and one for all.”
“People in Sweden and Finland are afraid of what’s happening in Ukraine, which isn’t very far from them. They realize that they’re outside NATO, which means that like Ukraine, they’re exposed and vulnerable, particularly Sweden, which still has a very weak military and is seen as the most vulnerable part of the Baltic,” Dahl says. “We have a president in Moscow who is obviously unstable and ready to invade a neighboring country. Russia has been provoking Sweden with fighter jets entering its airspace. People are aware of this and of course they’re scared.”

Still, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Andersson said that a Swedish application for NATO membership was not on the table at the moment, adding that such a move would further destabilize the situation in Europe. Sweden prefers to strengthen its ties with Finland and the United States, cooperate with NATO as a nonmember partner and work within the EU framework to support Ukraine.
Finland doesn’t seem like it will be joining NATO in the immediate future either. “The Finnish position is that we are at the beginning of a process,” says Maimo Henriksson, a senior Foreign Ministry official who headed the Eastern department and is now ambassador to Sweden. “The security situation has changed in our neighborhood, which means there are more reasons to analyze and discuss the situation and its implications. Joining NATO is one option, but it’s not self-evident that we’ll land there.”

Henriksson says a political debate has been launched in Finland that includes policy papers, parliamentary debates and discussions among the parties. “It’s an open issue, it should be handled efficiently but with care, and it’s not clear what the end result will be,” she says, adding that Finland has constantly been talking with the Russians throughout the years, but not over the last few weeks. The Finnish people, shocked like so many people around the world,  have shown strong support for Ukraine. Regarding Sweden, Henriksson says that “both countries wish to go hand in hand when it comes to the decision about NATO. But of course, there are no guarantees since both countries have their individual national processes, and decisions will be made on the basis of national interest.”

The Use and Abuse of History While Designing Foreign Policy, Part Two

How a European Parliament Resolution Distorted the History of WW2.
“Who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in “1984,” quoting a party slogan in that book. “Who controls the present controls the past,” he added.
The resolution adopted by the European Parliament on September 19 has an Orwellian ring to it. It is called “The importance of European memory for the future of Europe.” Not everything in this resolution is bad. It deals with the importance of remembering the crimes committed in World War II, and not only for the sake of honoring the memory of the victims and punishing the executioners.
Remembering, according to this resolution, bolsters democracy, the rule of law and the defense of human rights, which enable the European Union to prevent a repetition of past crimes.
This is definitely a worthy objective, but the lofty words conceal a dangerous view, expressed in the historical tale they tell. “The Second World War, the most destructive war in European history,” it says, “began as an immediate result of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, signed on August 23, 1939.”
This declaration is not problematic because of its falsity but because it’s not the whole truth. It’s true that the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact let Hitler move forward without worrying about a second front, but the Germans had planned the war much earlier, before this pact was signed.
Other contributing factors are not mentioned at all in the resolution, including the problem of the Treaty of Versailles, the Munich pact and the support of the Fuhrer’s allies such as Italy, Spain, Japan and the tycoons who benefited from his rule.
According to the European legislators, the war was not the result of German aggression, but of Nazi-Communist aggression. The emphasis this resolution places on Stalin, while ignoring figures such as Franco and Mussolini, raises the suspicion that the European Union’s alternative history takes the present status of Russia, Italy and Spain into consideration more than it does the historical truth.
The interpretation given to the manner in which the war ended is even sketchier. With all the justified criticism of Stalin’s crimes, one must remember that it was Russian troops who defeated the Nazis in Europe (obviously with the help of the other allies). Auschwitz was not liberated by humanist pacifists, but by armed soldiers fighting under the red flag.
The resolution adopted by the European Union repeatedly cites different variations of the words “Nazis, Communists and other totalitarian regimes.”
Placing communism on an equal footing with Nazism is a historical distortion which ignores the bravery of those who fought the Nazis. Even if one ignores the courage of the Red Army because of its role in maintaining the Soviet dictatorship, the ranks of fighters against the Nazis included loyal communists and socialists such as the Yugoslav partisans, the Polish communist Armia Ludowa partisans and many members of the French Resistance and Jewish fighters in the ghettos. Were these also responsible for the war and its crimes?
These crimes are the biggest problem with this resolution. “The Nazi and Communist regimes committed mass murders, genocide and deportations, leading to a loss of life and liberty on a scale that was unprecedented in human history,” says clause 3 of the resolution.
This statement is not wrong, but the conflation of atrocities creates a distorted picture. The European legislators do acknowledge the Holocaust suffered by European Jewry and condemn its denial, but overall, their resolution gives the impression that the crimes of the Nazis and “the crimes of Communist and other regimes” are equally heinous. Evil has its gradations, and blurring these makes it harder to combat it.
When corrupt people try to evade justice, they argue that everybody is corrupt. Similarly, painting Nazis and communists with the same brush denies the significance of the Holocaust in human history.
The Baltic states are particularly interesting in this context. They’ve been supporting such resolutions for years, to downplay their complicity in Nazi crimes by creating a false picture in which their fate under the Russian occupation was the same as the fate of the Jews.
This is why the resolution promotes practical steps such as establishing days of commemoration, the removal of offensive monuments and the determination of material included in the curriculum of European Union schools.
This is historical revisionism, which highlights the words of Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust historian, published in these pages and elsewhere. Bauer said that the Holocaust was unique not because it couldn’t happen again, but because it was an attempt to totally annihilate an entire people, which was persecuted across the globe in the name of a racist and murderous ideology, with no underlying pragmatic reasons for doing so.
This distinction does not make it easier for the victims of Stalinism, but it’s required for combating genocide now and in the future, a struggle which requires an understanding of the mechanisms that enabled the murderousness and of the mechanisms that helped fight it.
These will never be understood if all aspects of human evil are lumped together, with no ability to distinguish between the different components.
Many supporters of this resolution in the European Union are not anti-Semitic or revisionists.
They are motivated by considerations that are connected to the confrontation with Russia, to promoting European integration and to contending with racist and isolationist trends across the continent. But even when intentions are good, the practicalities can be sloppy.
European leaders would do well to base their policy on a moral conception and on well-established facts, rather than on distorting history. Instead of Orwellian attempts to change the past, let them focus on amending the present and shaping the future.