When Putin started his illegitimate war in Ukraine nearly 14 months ago, he claimed it was for its “demilitarisation and denazification”. Almost all security analysts, however, rejected this ridiculous suggestion. One of the real motivating factors, along with reclaiming territory Russia once controlled, was to reduce NATO influence in the region.
On Tuesday, he got the exact opposite.
Finland’s decision to join NATO reverses decades of military non-alignment. Since the end of the Second World War, Finland has sought to align itself with the West in trade and political terms - it has been a member of the EU since 1995. On security matters, though, it has maintained a neutral stance.
By invading Ukraine, Putin has pushed Finland to abandon this policy and run into NATO’s embrace. So, instead of reducing NATO influence in Eastern Europe, Putin has doubled the length of the Russia-NATO border in one fell swoop. Sweden, with its history of non-alignment, lies in wait to follow Finland’s example (pending appeasement of Turkey’s concerns).
Finland’s decision represents a momentous shift. And it shows how quickly opinions can change in the face of increased insecurity. Once proud of their non-alignment, Finns now support joining NATO by around 80%. Instead of fracturing the West, Putin has brought it closer together and enlarged it. I suppose we can thank him, though it is unlikely he would be appreciative.
Putin will use Finland’s pivot as twisted evidence of Western malfeasance. Once again, he will claim NATO expansion threatens Russian interests and shows that the West wishes for Russia’s destruction. This dangerous Russian myth has even begun to take hold in certain parts of Western Europe, not least in the pseudo-intelligentsia that populate its far-right parties.
Of course, the opposite is true. NATO does not force anyone to join. Prospective members must be democracies (although Turkey is a stretch in that regard). Whilst, in theory, NATO invites potential members, in practice, they ask to be invited first.
All this is to say that countries do not join NATO for no reason at all. It is almost always a reaction to increased insecurity. And which state has been the most destabilising on the periphery of Europe? No prizes for guessing.
Russia wanted less NATO influence. It got more. Hopefully, this will show Putin that he cannot bully his way to a compliant Eastern Bloc - though this lesson will likely go unheeded.