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While Russia allegedly aims to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, the United States-led alliance looks north for expansion. It is a matter of time before Finland and Sweden officially become members of “the most successful alliance in history”. How will such a development affect Moscow’s positions in the global arena?
Russia has already warned that it will deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in its Baltic coast semi-exclave of Kaliningrad if Helsinki and Stockholm decide to join NATO. Such a threat did not stop Finland from making a step closer to NATO membership. On May 12, the country’s president and prime minister have announced their support for joining the alliance.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days”, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in the joint statement.
Previously, Finland and Sweden have signed a mutual defense treaty with the United Kingdom. The treaty pledges that the UK – a nuclear-armed state and NATO founding member – will intervene to defend the two countries if they suffer disaster or an attack. It is worth remembering that Ukraine signed a similar deal with the UK and Poland seven days before Russia launched its special military operation.
Even though some political parties in Sweden have come out against the country’s NATO membership, it is almost certain that Stockholm will follow Helsinki’s path and officially seek to join the alliance. In other words, NATO will continue approaching to the Russian borders, and Moscow does not seem capable to prevent it.
According to the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Russia’s response would depend on “how the process of NATO expansion plays out”. For Moscow, Finland joining NATO seems to be tolerable unless there is a NATO build up on the Russian border. However, there is no guarantee that the alliance will not eventually deploy thousands of troops near Finland’s border with the Russian Federation.
For the Kremlin, steps taken by Finland to join NATO are “a cause for regret”, and also a reason to impose “a symmetrical response”. Hypothetically, a symmetrical response could mean Cuba and Nicaragua – two Moscow-friendly Latin American countries – joining the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The problem, however, is that the Kremlin seems to have a hard time preserving the existing CSTO members in its geopolitical orbit, let alone thinking about a potential enlargement of the organization that some see as a “Russian version of NATO”.
At this point, a deployment of nuclear missiles to Kaliningrad is the only response that Moscow could provide to NATO expansion. In the long term, according to Russian experts, Russia could build an appropriate military infrastructure along its 800-mile (1290 kilometer) border with Finland. But the problem is that NATO will unlikely give Moscow time to consolidate its positions.
The very fact U.S.-backed Ukraine feels confident enough to conduct drone, missile and helicopter strikes deep inside the Russian territory suggests that the West clearly sees that Moscow has demonstrated some serious signs of weakness. That is why there are fears in Russia that Finland, once it joins NATO, could launch provocations on the Russian border. Given that Moscow hesitates from striking “decision-making centers” in Kyiv – even though Russian military promised to do so in response to Ukrainian “subversive activities and attacks in Russia” – it is highly uncertain how, and if at all, the Kremlin would react in case of potential Finnish provocations.
From a purely military perspective, it does not make much difference if NATO missiles are deployed in Finland, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Russia’s second-largest city of Saint Petersburg, or in Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine, around 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Belgorod – a city that has already become one of the major targets of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Politically, however, Russia has demonstrated that it cannot prevent NATO expansion, and the West will undoubtedly see Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in the U.S.-dominated alliance as another Russian geopolitical defeat.
From the Ukrainian perspective, “finlandization” of the Eastern European country now seems to be an ideal option. Quite aware that it will continue receiving unlimited financial and military aid from the West, Kyiv will unlikely agree to Moscow’s proposal for Ukraine’s neutral status. Instead, the former Soviet republic will additionally insists on the “Finnish model” of a full-fledged NATO membership. NATO, for its part, will not give up its “open door policy” any time soon. During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from the alliance to avoid provoking the Soviet Union. Even though Moscow and Washington are now fighting a new Cold War, the Russian Federation does not have military and political strength that the Soviet Union had. Thus, its position is rather difficult, and the Kremlin does not seem to have much room for maneuver. As a result, at least for the foreseeable future, NATO will continue to have an upper hand over Russia.