To be a realist in international relations is to accept that some states are more sovereign than others. “Strict realism” now requires that Sweden and Finland pause before rushing into NATO’s arms, and that the Alliance take a step back before accepting them.
Strategic neutrality has preserved Sweden’s independence and freedom from war for 200 years, and Finland’s independence since 1948. Has anything happened to justify ending it?
Swedish and Finnish officials point to two episodes. In December 2021, the Kremlin went from desiring Swedish and Finnish neutrality to, in essence, demanding it, sending a clear and threatening message that an independent foreign policy is a privilege, not a right, for Russia’s neighbors. More important, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally worsened the two countries’ security environment by increasing the risk that Russia will attack or seek to intimidate them. Since they cannot hope to defeat Russia in battle, singly or jointly, they must join an organization that can.
In expert-speak, NATO membership will “raise the threshold of deterrence.” Faced with the certainty of retaliation (including nuclear, if necessary), Russia will desist from attacking, or seriously bullying, Sweden and Finland. This argument strongly implies that, had Ukraine been a NATO member, Russia would not have invaded it, since, as the Swedish foreign and defense ministries point out, “Russia (or the Soviet Union) has never attacked a NATO ally.” But Sweden and Finland’s efforts to strengthen deterrence might be self-defeating, because NATO enlargement could raise the threshold of Russia’s willingness to invade them, at least before they become Alliance members.
Judging the wisdom of further NATO enlargement requires taking a view on two matters. First, is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (however unjustified in law and brutal in execution) evidence of a general expansionary intent, or is it sui generis? Second, what responsibilities for maintaining peace fall on small countries that abut big countries?
History offers some guidance on both questions. After 1945, Stalin could have absorbed Finland into the Soviet Union, or ruled it through a puppet. Finland had been crushed in a war in which it fought on the side of the Germans – something Finns don’t like to be reminded of, though their alliance with Hitler came about only following Stalin’s 1939 invasion.
Still, Stalin was never interested in restoring Czarist rule over Finland. His concern was strategic. As Stalin said in 1940 following the Soviet Union’s “Winter War” with Finland, “we can’t move Leningrad, [so] we must move the borders.” What he demanded, and eventually got, was some 10% of Finnish territory, including a big slice of Karelia near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), plus some strategic islands.
After this land grab, Stalin guaranteed Finnish independence in the 1948 Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, on condition that Finland promised to “fight to repel” any attack on the Soviet Union “through Finnish territory,” with help from the Kremlin if Finland agreed. Unlike the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellite states, Finland was not required to join the Warsaw Pact when it was established in 1955.
There is a superficial parallel between Ukraine’s current tragedy and Finland circa 1939-48. Stalin made Finnish neutrality a condition of its independence, while Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that his main demand is that Ukraine renounce the goal of NATO membership.
But the differences between the two cases are greater. Although part of the Czarist empire, Finland was never part of “historic” Russia as Ukraine was, and contained no large Russian minorities. Putin regards Ukraine as an “inalienable” part of Russia, and blames Lenin’s establishment of a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for creating Ukrainian nationalism. So, while strategic considerations may have been uppermost in Stalin’s mind, it is reasonable to suppose – as Ukrainians and Ukraine’s Western supporters do – that Putin is using the threat of NATO expansion as an excuse to undo what he sees as Lenin’s historic mistake.
If Russia’s fear of NATO is genuine, Sweden and Finland’s membership applications will expose them to the risk of retaliation before they join, and it is at least debatable as to whether a NATO Article 5 guarantee will offer greater real security than neutrality does. If the Russia-Ukraine war is specific to Russian history, with NATO expansion only an excuse, it cannot be seen as a prelude to unlimited territorial expansion, though Putin’s remarks belittling Kazakhstan’s statehood are worryingly similar to his denials of Ukraine’s right to exist. Either way, the case for Swedish and Finnish NATO membership is not open and shut.
This brings us to the second matter, small countries’ responsibilities for peace. The former European Union diplomat Robert Cooper argues in his book The Ambassadors that “strict realism [is] required by small states with big neighbors.” And it is realism that seems to be lacking in the Swedish and Finnish governments’ current policy thinking. Consider the Swedish foreign and defense ministries’ assertion that “The Russian leadership operates based on … a view of history that differ[s] from th[at] of the West,” including “the aim of creating spheres of influence.”1
Attributing that Russian conception simply to totalitarian thinking amounts to a denial of any special obligation of a state to its people arising from its location in the international system – the reverse of Cooper’s “strict realism.” The doctrine of spheres of influence may be alien to today’s international norms, but not to international practice. No powerful state wants a potential enemy on its doorstep. This was (and remains) the basis of the US Monroe Doctrine vis-à-vis the Western Hemisphere. It is supposedly the basis of Russia’s strategic doctrine, though in practice Russia has preferred to have vassal states on its borders.
To be a realist in international relations is to accept that some states are more sovereign than others. The Finns acknowledged this after World War II. “Strict realism” now requires that Sweden and Finland pause before rushing into NATO’s arms, and that the Alliance take a step back before accepting them. Ukraine, whose brave resistance has set the limits on Russia’s territorial expansion, also must now be willing to negotiate some form of peaceful coexistence with its more powerful neighbor.