The security environment across the Atlantic is turning unpredictable and complex with a resurgent Russia, NATO increasing its military presence in Eastern Europe, and the EU imposing financial sanctions on Russia. It has become the need of the hour for the EU as well as NATO as security actors to enhance their collective defence capabilities and move towards greater cooperation. This was made visible in the signing of their joint declaration on January 10, 2023 which reiterated the Union’s commitment to NATO Treaty Article 5.
The Article signifies that “an armed attack against one or more member shall be considered an attack against them all;” an article that has been imposed only once in NATO history, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on the United States in 2001.
In an evolving security landscape, Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine is viewed as an act of definite aggression, however, NATO’s policy towards Russia in the past 25 years has also been characterized as arrogant and insensitive and can be blamed for the current state of affairs. Scholars who advocate for a realistic and restrained approach to US Foreign Policy have been cautioning against the expansion of the world’s strongest military alliance towards a major power like Russia for more than a quarter of a century. The conflict in Ukraine, representing a cause-and-effect relationship with the expansion of NATO, is unequivocal testimony to show that these warnings were justified.
NATO’s first round of expansion was termed as “the beginning of a new Cold War” by George F. Kennan, credited as the originator of the containment policy that the US pursued during the Cold War. With multiple rounds of expansion by the alliance, the addition of the three Baltic republics was considered a provocative move. NATO’s Baltic expansion to these countries which had historically been part of the Soviet Union and Russia’s czarist empire, situated it strategically at the Russian federation’s border. As a consequence, Vladmir Putin had stated that the NATO expansion “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust”. Further, in 2013 and 2014, with the Obama administration interfering in Ukraine’s political affairs to support the protesters in ousting a pro-Russia elected President resulted in significant tensions and reactions of Moscow leading into the seizure and annexation of Crimea.
The manner in which Washington handled its relationship with Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse was perceived as an enormous mistake. It was easily anticipated that the NATO expansion would inevitably result in a damaging and potentially violent clash with the Kremlin with a number of adverse repercussions. The current cost of the US Foreign Policy establishment’s short-sightedness and arrogance is being paid now with an 8-year history of the Ukraine conflict resulting in the ongoing Russian War on Ukraine since February 2022.
As a part of NATO’s ninth round of expansion, Finland has officially acceded to NATO on April 4, 2023, all set to compensate for the prevalent gap in the organization's defence planning in its eastern territory, given the fact that Finland shares a 1,340-kilometre border with Russia. With this move, Finland has finally renounced its long-standing commitment to military non-alignment and neutrality maintained during the Cold War. Finland's potential entry into NATO, along with an expected entry by Sweden, has the potential to significantly alter the geopolitical landscape. These countries are viewed as valuable assets for Europe, both in terms of military and political power. They possess modern, well-equipped militaries and have stable democratic institutions, making them reliable partners for NATO in bolstering regional security and stability in Northern Europe. However, there have been concerns regarding how the growing militarisation of the Nordics could impact cooperation among nations in the region, as well as the future relations between NATO members and Russia.
Russia has warned of severe military and political repercussions with this move, primarily with the territorial disputes over the Åland Islands located between Finland and Sweden, which has been autonomous since 1856. It is anticipated that with the militarisation of the Nordic countries, not only would it be met with increased militarization by Russia as a response, but is also likely to have substantial implications for the economic and environmental accords in the Arctic region. It increases the risk of disturbing a long-standing Arctic cooperation and joint governance. With further escalation in militarization, the cooperation of the Arctic Council is endangered; a regional organisation cooperating on economic territory and environmental accords, the destabilisation of which is likely to create complexities due to the impact of climate change on the glaciers and sea ice in this remote region.
Russia has been historically against NATO expansion in the area and thus Finland’s accession is also predicted to have a number of geopolitical implications. While Finnish officials have stated that their decision to join NATO is motivated by their need to safeguard their country’s sovereignty and territorial borders, without posing a threat to any other nation, Moscow is most likely to view this as a provocative move, an act of aggression against Russia.
Further, with the background of aggression in Ukraine, a motivation for Finland to join NATO also remains the quest for expanding its security measures beyond what their national armies can provide. The accession of the Nordic countries to NATO highlights the expanding influence of the Baltic Sea Region in the alliance’s security strategy. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, NATO has been attempting to extend its military presence in the region. Finland and Sweden’s strategic location in the Baltic region provides NATO with an important access to the Baltic Sea as well as the Arctic region, which is also critical for transatlantic security. Hence, the accession has been a significant step towards reinforcing NATO’s deterrence and defence capabilities, notably in the Baltic region, proving to be a critical area of security concern in Europe.
With NATO’s expansionist nature as the backdrop and with the strengthening of relations with countries in the Indo-Pacific region being a core aspect of the NATO 2030 Agenda, the alliance is also attempting to step up political dialogue and practical cooperation with Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, and New Zealand, while also opening up a liaison office in Japan. The strategic issues faced by Russia due to NATO are likely to be mirrored in the East with China, criticising the extension of the western alliance in the Asia-Pacific, with the intention to “export Cold War mentality and replicate bloc confrontation”.
Finland’s entry into NATO symbolizes a crucial milestone in the history of the alliance and marks a significant shift transcending into the beginning of a new era. As the security landscape continues to evolve in the 21st century, NATO is also acknowledging the necessity to modernize as well as reinvigorate its capacities. While the move proves to be significant in terms of improving the alliance’s defence and security capabilities as well as promoting stronger ties between North America and Europe, it could provoke an even stronger threat of a revisionist and aggressive Russia, the formation of an anti-NATO alliance and consequently a new Cold War.
The expansionary trend of NATO was further reinforced at the recent NATO Summit in Madrid in June 2022, where NATO identifies Russia as “the most significant and direct threat” and China as a “systemic challenge”. Although the world order changed in the post-Cold War period, the US has continued to sustain NATO with expansionary legitimacy with the intention to ensure US hegemony, leading the world into a realm of escalated tensions and dangerous confrontations.
By Shreya Sinha
Shreya Sinha is a Research Fellow and DAAD Scholar at the Otto-Suhr Institut für Politikwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin. She is a Ph.D. Candidate, in the fourth year of her Doctoral Programme, at the Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.
This is a "Viewpoint" opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of The Helsinki Times. This column is not fact checked and HT is not be responsible for any possible inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article.