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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Finland and Sweden bid to join NATO

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistMonday 13 June 2022

Image credit: NATO monument in Brussels - misu, Adobe Stock

The war in Ukraine has heightened security concerns in Europe and prompted Finland and Sweden’s request to join NATO. The unprecedented move has been heralded as an historic policy shift to deter Russian aggression in the region.

The two countries formally submitted their application to join the military alliance on 18 May. Just days later, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told delegates at Davos that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had ‘shattered peace in Europe’. He said the Nordic countries’ decision to join NATO would bolster the alliance’s ongoing efforts to deter – not provoke – conflict in eastern Europe and were proof ‘that European security will not be dictated by violence and intimidation.’

The threat of NATO expansion has been blamed as a catalyst for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on 24 February. In December, Russia issued the military alliance with an eight-point draft treaty, including requesting formal assurances that Ukraine would not be allowed to join the alliance in future. However, talks in January failed to resolve differences between Russia and NATO.

The timing of their application is crucial, says Harry Nedelcu, who supported Anders Fogh Rasmussen on policy planning during his tenure as NATO Secretary-General and is now Director of Policy and Business Development at Rasmussen Global. ‘Now is the time because even Russia cannot be fighting wars on so many fronts right now,’ says Nedelcu. ‘They're bogged down in Ukraine, so this would be the opportunity for Finland and Sweden to join. That would show the Russians that whatever they thought they could get by invading Ukraine, actually, they are incurring more and more costs. They wanted less NATO. They’re getting more NATO. Therefore, it could get Putin to rethink his calculus.’

It's not only a moral issue, it's not only an issue of global security, it's also a major, fundamental international law issue

Irina Paliashvili
Founder, RULG-Ukrainian Legal Group

Finland and Sweden’s bid to join the 30-member alliance has already faced opposition from Turkey, which vetoed proposals to fast-track their accession. However, this didn’t stop the two countries participating in a large military training exercise in early June alongside NATO troops. A statement on NATO’s website said the exercise was ‘a unique training opportunity’ to test ‘a range of capabilities demonstrating the inherent flexibility of maritime forces.’

At Davos, Stoltenberg said NATO had 100,000 troops on high alert in the region, but that the alliance’s primary goals were ‘providing support to Ukraine and preventing the war from escalating’. These developments have done little to quell tensions with Moscow. In mid-June, Russia's foreign ministry told the Interfax news agency that it would provide a 'proportionate and appropriate' response to the build-up of NATO forces in Poland.

Irina Paliashvili, founder of the Washington-based RULG-Ukrainian Legal Group, says the Nordic countries' eagerness to join NATO says more about the current state of security in Europe. ‘NATO has never threatened Russia,’ says Paliashvili, who also sits on the IBA’s Section on Public and Professional Interest Council and Senior Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Boards. ‘Today, when we see Finland and Sweden applying for NATO membership, it's not because that's their goal, it's because they're scared, because they're threatened. So in response to this threat, they apply to NATO.’

Paliashvili says these developments are an indictment of the international order established after the Second World War. ‘For [Finland and Sweden] they saw that international law is not working and international institutions are not working,’ she says. ‘There is no protection that they can seek with the United Nations or with other international institutions, so they're seeking the only effective protection, which is this military alliance. That's the only thing that can save them.’

She says Russia’s successive aggressive acts in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and the most recent invasion in Ukraine pose a huge threat not only to global security, but to the post-war system of international law. ‘Russia has been violating not only global security but also violating international treaties that it signed,’ she says. ‘It undertook international obligations, signed binding international treaties and then blatantly has been violating them in front of the whole world. It's not only a moral issue, it's not only an issue of global security, it's also a major, fundamental international law issue.’

Sweden and Finland’s prospective membership will be a key talking point at the upcoming NATO Summit in Madrid later this month. Sir Tony Brenton, who served as UK Ambassador to Moscow from 2004-2008, says such moves are clearly ‘a slap in the face for Putin's original war aims’.

Brenton’s also concerned it could negatively affect peace negotiations. ‘NATO has very visibly expanded directly as a result of the war,’ he says. ‘If one of his original war aims was to limit the expansion of NATO…this just makes it harder for Putin to agree to a ceasefire without being humiliated by the lack of achievements that he's made. That's a worry, because at some point, I hope, we are going to have a negotiation leading to an end to the war.’

In mid-May, Russia suspended electricity and gas deliveries to Finland citing ‘problems’ with payments. However, the move was widely interpreted as a response to the country’s decision to join NATO. Finland imports between 60 to 70 per cent of its gas from Russia, while Sweden relies very little on Russian energy imports.  Finland and Sweden are both signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Both countries’ governments have said joining NATO would not result in them hosting permanent NATO bases or nuclear weapons on their territories.

Brenton says this position may actually help reassure Russia of NATO’s intentions. ‘Russia is not going to attack NATO – I’m quite convinced of that,’ says Brenton. ‘NATO is much bigger than Russia, much more heavily armed than Russia and they would lose a conventional war with NATO. This is one reason why at the beginning of all this Russia was playing up the danger of them using nuclear weapons if they were put into a corner, precisely in order to discourage NATO from getting directly involved in the war.’

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