Sweden, Finland, NATO, Neutrals & Nukes: A Concise Analysis

[NOTE: These two short columns offer an admirable review of two key moments in the impact of Putin’s Ukraine invasion  on my own thinking.

When I imagined these countries as actual places (which, I admit, wasn’t often), my speculation was that they held to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” stance vis-a-vis the USSR/Russia on one side, and the West, which meant the US-NATO war machine on the other.

In a nuclear “exchange” between these two behemoths, northern Scandinavians, whatever their political notions, would likely go up in the planetary puff of smoke.

That idea was crude, tho probably not entirely wrong. But what about a big, but not-(yet)apocalyptic war, in which one behemoth invaded a nearby country, in a retro-style imperial power grab?

Such a scheme seemed unlikely, outlandish: it was so twentieth (or even nineteenth) century, totally antique.

But then, that’s the big war the Swedes and Finns suddenly faced.  

Even many experts weren’t expecting it. Gwynne Dyer wasn’t, and his doctorate is in military studies, and he’s been observing/reporting on militaries and wars for decades.

Nor were Dyer and Co. expecting what happened next: the powerful Ukrainian resistance — and the radical response in northern Scandinavia.

Not being any kind of expert, I wasn’t expecting any of this either.  But of the two, the leap out of 275 years of neutrality into NATO was the bigger shock to my thinking (doubtless this reflects my safe “social location”; it would have felt very different if I was in a Kyiv or Mariupol cellar, with Russian artillery shells falling all around).

Dyer reacted quickly. These two columns, from late last spring make all sort of sense of the Sweden/Finland move. They’re not “news” now, but they show how, almost overnight, both the rulers and citizens there woke up, with their world shaking, and realized they weren’t neutral anymore. It also explains much of why I woke up late last February, and found I wasn’t neutral either. I join with those who want Ukraine to be free.]Two Columns by Gwynne Dyer
Farewell Neutrality: Sweden and Finland

By Gwynne Dyer
16 May 2022

It’s easy to imagine Vladimir Putin coming into the shop marked ‘Sweden’, breaking some fine china accidentally on purpose, and growling: ‘Nice little shop you’ve got here. It would be a pity if something happened to it.’

But Sweden is not a pottery shop, Putin is not a Mafia capo, and what’s going on in the Baltic now is not a protection racket.

The Russian president has stampeded both Finland and Sweden, two neutral countries of long standing (almost eighty years for Finland, over two hundred for Sweden), into joining the NATO alliance, the very ‘threat’ that Putin claimed he was trying to drive away from Russia’s borders. Finland has a 1,300-km. (800 miles)border with northern Russia.

The Swedish and Finnish response to his invasion of Ukraine would have surprised Putin. He would see no connection between his invasion of Ukraine, a former Russian imperial possession that needed to be whipped back into line, and two independent countries that have not been in Russia’s sphere of influence for over a century.

They, on the other hand, did see a connection.

A neighbour they previously rated as dangerous but rational had suddenly revealed himself to be an aggressive and probably irrational gambler. No fully sane and competent Russian ruler would have attacked Ukraine with the inadequate forces and haphazard, overconfident strategy that Putin employed.

You might think that Putin’s sheer incompetence would be reassuring to the Swedes and the Finns, but it was not. On the contrary, it frightens them, because they are very much in the same position as Ukraine militarily: relatively small countries (Sweden has ten million people, Finland five million) with very good military forces.

I can vouch for this personally, because in the course of making a documentary film about neutrality I spent time at sea in the Baltic with Swedish fast attack boats out of Karlskrona, and with Finnish reservists on exercises between Lappeenranta and the Russian border.

With a little practice and close-up access you can tell which militaries are the real deal and which are just chocolate soldiers. These were people who knew what they were doing and did it with quiet efficiency. They would give a very good account of themselves if their countries were ever invaded.

They might even be able to stop the Russians dead (and nobody else is in a position to invade them). That’s why the Swedes chose neutrality: they reckoned they were safer that way. If there were a general war, they were not a strategically vital place and they would be very costly to invade, so maybe the major combatants would just leave them alone.

The Finns had neutrality thrust upon them by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. They lost a lot of territory to the Russians, but they fought hard enough that Moscow let them be neutral rather than reducing them to satellite status.

So why have both countries now decided to join NATO? They are still such tough nuts to crack that they could probably stop the Russians by themselves if Moscow was also engaged in a war with NATO. And why would the Russians attack only them alone? Stay neutral, and even in the worst case the Russians will probably pass you by.

That remained a valid assessment until 24 February 2022, and then it suddenly wasn’t.

Putin invaded Ukraine, probably to the astonishment even of his own entourage, and from the start began issuing veiled warnings about resorting to nuclear weapons if he was thwarted.

The Russian attack in Ukraine bogged down almost at once, as it was bound to do unless the Ukrainian army was utterly useless. Too few Russian troops, too many lines of attack. And the hints from Moscow about resorting to nuclear weapons to compensate for a conventional defeat multiplied.

This is crazy stuff, and all military skills and hardware the Baltic countries could bring to bear in a conventional war would be irrelevant if they were faced with similar Russian nuclear threats themselves.

The only effective counter to a nuclear threat is a credible promise of nuclear retaliation. Sweden and Finland have no nuclear weapons, and the only way they can have their security guaranteed by a nuclear deterrent is to join NATO. So that is what they are doing.

The Swedes still don’t like nuclear weapons, and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson emphasised that Sweden will not allow foreign troops or nuclear weapons to be based in the country, but the deal is done.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is demanding that the two Baltic countries expel some anti-Turkish Kurdish activists as a reward for not vetoing this NATO expansion, but this problem will be finessed. It will take months to do the legal work, but in practice the two Baltic countries are already covered by NATO’s nuclear guarantee.


29 June 2022

Sweden and Finland in NATO
By Gwynne Dyer

Another fifteen million people joined the NATO alliance on Tuesday (June 26, 2022). Finland and Sweden, formerly neutral countries but near to Russia, gave in to Turkish blackmail, and that cleared the way for them to join the western alliance. (Every NATO member, including Turkey, has a veto on new members joining.)

The circumstances were a bit squalid, since both Sweden and Finland abandoned their support for Turkey’s oppressed Kurdish minority in order to unblock their own path to NATO membership. Russia is not planning to invade them at the moment, but as soon as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, both Scandinavian countries were knocking at NATO’s door.

Kurds in Stockholm Sweden, protest Turkish oppression

They are small countries that Russia could eventually overwhelm by sheer numbers, but they are rich and the Finns, at least, reckon that their well-trained armed forces could make a Russian conquest slow and expensive. Since there was no good reason for Moscow to invade them, until last February that seemed to be enough.

Then suddenly, it wasn’t.

The problem, although nobody mentions it out loud, is nuclear weapons. The two Baltic countries have no nukes of their own (although Sweden once considered getting them), and now President Vladimir Putin and his enablers hint at nuclear strikes every time anything goes wrong with his war against Ukraine.

The only way Finland and Sweden can get protection from Russian nuclear blackmail is to join NATO, three of whose members (the United States, Britain and France) have nuclear weapons of their own. Since all NATO members are obliged to protect any member under attack, that gives the Swedes and Finns a nuclear guarantee.

There have, of course, been the usual warnings from the usual sources that letting these two countries into NATO will make the Russians even more paranoid and therefore even more prone to attack their neighbours (although the latter part of that warning is never fully articulated). But this is sheer nonsense.

The Russians are indeed paranoid, but that is a state of being, not a response to some particular act they interpret as aggressive. They come by their paranoia honestly, in the sense that they have been invaded by the ‘A team’ of would-be world conquerors (the Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler) and live in a country with no ‘natural’ frontiers.

But it is paranoia, and it will be there whatever other people do.

The Russians never really intended to conquer western Europe, but they did put their own puppets into power in all the eastern European countries and turned them into satellites after the Second World War.

That was ‘defensive’ in their own minds, but it felt like aggression to everybody else.

Not only did the Russians impose their own Communist system on all these countries and cut them off entirely from the rest of Europe with the ‘Iron Curtain’. They ruthlessly crushed any revolts by the subject peoples – in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 – and imprisoned or executed tens of thousands of people.

After forty years of Soviet military occupation, therefore, it was inevitable that those eastern European countries would seek shelter in an expanded NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it was necessary for NATO to take those countries in, because otherwise they would have tried to build their own defences against Russia.

Historical might-have-beens are usually highly debatable, but it’s close to certain that if Poland had not been able to join NATO and come under its nuclear guarantee, it would have its own nuclear weapons by now. Given the country’s long history of subjugation and brutalisation by Russia, the Poles would have seen any other course as sheer madness.

Yes, all those countries joining NATO ‘provoked’ Moscow, but when you are dealing with a career paranoiac there is no choice. The fact is that at no time since 1945 have the Western powers had the military strength to invade Russia successfully on the ground. Since about 1960 they have not had the capacity to win a nuclear war against Russia either.

The Russians aren’t stupid. They are paranoid because of their history, but they can count. At one level they fully understand that NATO could not invade them because (a) it lacks the necessary superiority in conventional military forces (even after the recent demonstration of their own army’s parlous state), and (b) Russia has nuclear weapons.

Gwynne Dyer

So they have unreasonable fears, but they also know how to use the known fact of their paranoia to justify aggressive actions of their own. In the hands of a man like Vladimir Putin this can be a powerful diplomatic tool, and the only sensible way to counter it is to refuse to enter into that intellectual swamp at all.

Just stop psychologising about the Russians, and do whatever seems reasonable and necessary.

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