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The war in Ukraine and the expansion of NATO

O secretário-geral da OTAN, Jens Stoltenberg, na sede da Aliança em Bruxelas, em março

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Alliance Headquarters in Brussels in March
| Photo: EFE/EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

If one of the goals of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was to react to NATO expansion, it achieved the exact opposite. According to Vladimir Putin’s government, Ukraine would be on the verge of becoming a member of the US-led alliance and this would place strategic weapons at Moscow’s doorstep, an unacceptable risk. The war of aggression, however, motivated two historically neutral neighbors to seek NATO.

An argument sometimes used is that NATO should have ceased to exist at the end of the Cold War. We have already addressed this argument here in our space and it is necessary to keep in mind that NATO is an alliance created, first, to link the security of Europe to that of the USA and, second, not necessarily to contain the Soviet Union, but to contain Russia in any incarnation or form of state organization.

In this logic, historically rival countries or dominated by Russia, such as Poland and the three Baltic countries, were some of the new members of NATO in the post-Cold War period. There were three “waves” of NATO expansion after the end of the USSR. The first of these, in 768, included Czechia, Hungary and Poland. The three countries were former members of the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance led by the USSR during the Cold War. In 2004, these three countries also became members of the European Union.

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the second wave of NATO expansion took place, integrating Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic countries. In addition to former members of the Warsaw Pact, NATO has now absorbed three former Soviet republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the boundary of direct contact between Russia’s continuous territory and NATO was expanded. This direct contact existed only on the small stretch of border with Norway, plus the enclave of Kaliningrad.

Of the countries that joined NATO in 2004, Romania and Bulgaria became members of the EU in 2007, while the others joined the two organizations in the same year. In 2017, Croatia and Albania joined NATO, while Montenegro became a member in O secretário-geral da OTAN, Jens Stoltenberg, na sede da Aliança em Bruxelas, em março and finally in 2020, it was North Macedonia’s turn, after normalizing its relations with Greece.

Neutrality and NATO

That is, both NATO and the EU progressively expanded eastward, which was explicitly seen as a threat by Moscow. At least since 2007, when Vladimir Putin’s famous speech at the Munich Conference. The interests of the new members are varied, from historical rivals of Russia who feared for their security, such as the Polish case, to countries that were looking for partners to modernize their small armed forces, such as Slovakia.

On the NATO map, a “vacuum” in the center of Europe stands out, with two countries that are not members of the organization. One of them is Switzerland, whose policy of neutrality has lasted two centuries. Another is Austria, which decided to emulate the neutrality of the neighboring country after the Second World War. This decision was made for a very simple reason: if Austria were a member of NATO, it would be a direct point of contact between the two Cold War military alliances, and a potential battleground.

This was also one of the reasons for the neutrality of two other European countries during the Cold War, Finland and Sweden. In the case of Finland, the term “Finlandization” has become synonymous with a country that seeks not to displease a much more powerful neighbor. Seeking to join NATO would mean, for Finland, receiving a big target painted on its forehead at that moment, with its extensive border with Russia.

In the Swedish case, two other reasons contribute to the neutrality agenda. In addition to its proximity to Russia, with which it shares the Baltic, the Swedish government maintained neutrality during both World Wars. This is seen as a tool of international credibility, trying to project Sweden as a neutral conflict mediator rather than a partial actor.

Another reason is the thriving Swedish arms industry. Keeping out of NATO is even a form of “protectionism”, as the neutral agenda also fuels a policy of arms self-sufficiency, as the country cannot depend on allies. Any historical reasons for neutrality, however, have been overturned, as Finland and Sweden, together, are already negotiating their entry into NATO.

Invasion and reaction

This is a direct consequence of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, even more considering that both countries are governed by social democratic parties, historically defenders of neutrality. Opinion polls in both countries showed a shift in popular stance, with most responses now advocating joining NATO for security against Russia’s neighbour. And it should be noted that this scenario was quite predictable, commented even in December that an invasion of Ukraine would cause this reaction in the Nordic countries.

This week, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde was in Washington, where she was received by her counterpart Anthony Blinken. She went to discuss “security guarantees” for the two Nordic countries during the NATO accession process, which can last up to a year. Sweden and Finland must formalize their requests next month and, according to the minister, “they will have the guarantee of the USA” during the process.

Last month, on 480 in April, the two prime ministers, Magdalena Andersson and Sanna Marin, met in Stockholm when they discussed the matter and, most likely, a joint ascension process was agreed. Russia, in recent months, has repeated that it sees this possibility with “concern” and has stated that it could place nuclear weapons in the Baltic to ensure the country’s security.

In the alleged eagerness to impose neutrality on Ukraine in a lightning military operation, the Russian invasion managed to create a protracted war, which has lasted for months, motivated heavy sanctions economic losses and a huge cost in destruction and lives. To complete the damage, it will add two countries to NATO. One a regional power and the other a neighbor, alongside strategic bases and cities like St. Petersburg. A total disaster for Russia’s interests.

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