Russia’s Muted Response to Finland’s Interest in Joining NATO Suggests its Invasion of Ukraine Was Nothing to do With NATO Expansion

After some weeks of national polling, discussion and debate, and following Wednesday’s signing of bilateral security agreements with the U.K., it now looks all-but-certain that Finland and Sweden will apply to join NATO – perhaps as early as next week – and that if they do, they will be welcomed with open arms, swelling the ranks of the alliance to 32 members.

But Finland sits directly on Russia’s western border.

Indeed, amongst European nations, Finland has the dubious distinction of possessing the second-longest land border with Russia – second only to Ukraine’s. So why hasn’t this expected eastward expansion of NATO been greeted with the same hand-wringing from those in the West, and the same threats from Russia that we’ve seen in past years with respect to Ukraine’s “provocative” ambition to join NATO?

The reason is that NATO’s eastward expansion was never viewed by Russia as an existential threat – at least not militarily. In fact, the factitious and pretextual nature of Russia’s claimed fears over Ukraine’s closer ties to NATO couldn’t be clearer: on April 8th, Dmitry Peskov repeated Russia’s long-held position that if Finland and Sweden were to join NATO, this would be a threat but not an existential threat. His remarks were repeated by RT in a clear confirmation of the official line:

Moscow opposes the expansion of NATO, but the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the bloc won’t become an existential threat to it, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told Sky News on Friday.

This is despite the fact that Finland has a large, modern and well-equipped military (soon to include F-35A “stealth” jets), is geographically very close to Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, and has the will to defend itself – as well as something of a track record against Russia. The Finnish attitude – reminiscent of Jim Mattis – was exemplified just yesterday by Pekka Toveri, Finland’s former military intelligence chief, who said:

We just want to be left in peace – but if you f—— come over the border, you will pay the price.

It would be difficult to believe – prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, at least – that Russia viewed the Finnish armed forces as anything less than the most potent military force on its western border. So why is Finnish NATO membership not the threat that Ukraine’s accession to the alliance would supposedly be?

The reasons are (in no particular order) historical, demographic, cultural, financial and political. But when talking of Ukraine in this context, it should be noted that much of these observations would apply equally to Georgia, whose developing ties with NATO are of similar concern to Russia.

Historically, Ukraine (as well as Georgia and the Baltic states) was of course governed from Moscow as part of the USSR, the collapse of which Putin rues:

Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.

It’s clear from Putin’s words and actions, first in Georgia in 2008, and later in Ukraine in 2014, that he follows an irredentist policy which is tied to, and in his mind justified by, the concept of ‘ethnic Russian’ identity. The tactics employed – of claiming ‘ethnic Russians’ are under threat or attack by the governments of those nations in which they find themselves – mirror precisely the tactics employed by Nazi Germany in respect of the Sudetenland, Gdansk, and so on. As with Nazi Germany, these claims have been reinforced by a stated desire to protect shared culture and traditions, and in this case the sense that Russian culture is under direct assault from Western liberal values. But what really animates this line of thinking is the demographic crisis in Russia.

Much like the rest of Europe, Russia has been facing declining birth rates amongst its core ethnic population, and a relative increase in its other ethnic minority populations, notably Muslims. It has sought to compensate for this by importing ‘ethnic Russians’ from other former USSR states. And since the invasion, forced transportation of Ukrainians to Russia has been in the news, with some as-yet-unsubstantiated claims putting the figure in the hundreds of thousands or even above a million.

The other key reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are financial and political. A successful invasion of Ukraine would have left Putin in a much stronger – practically unassailable – political position, giving him control of a client state and effectively expanding Russia’s territory and overall economic (and military) power – a war of conquest. But there are undoubtedly more personal financial motivations, having to do with the workings of the Russian state and its thoroughly kleptocratic and corrupt nature. Control of the Ukrainian economy might enable Putin to buy an even bigger palace and another superyacht, but it would also be a chance to reward his cronies and further cement his position as dictator-for-life.

With this in mind, Ukraine has the twin advantages for Russia of being both rife with corruption (as mocked in Servant of the People) and possessing important industries and vast natural gas reserves (including the large Yuzivska gas field, discovered in 2010) – as well as being a major global player in agriculture. In the Yanukovych era, the pro-Russian faction was busily co-opting natural resources, aping Putin’s Russia, and was well on the way to turning the country into an entrenched kleptocracy. Had Yanukovych not lost power and ignominiously fled Ukraine in 2014, the ‘need’ for Russia to invade would have been absent: control of Ukraine’s economy would have been enough for the short term, and in due course Russia’s political domination would have turned it into another Belarus.

These motives for the Russian invasion of Ukraine could never remotely translate to Finland, which was never part of the USSR and whose ‘ethnic Russian’ population is tiny. In addition, Finland’s economy would have provided Russia with no easy opportunities for looting and plunder, besides which its polity is already infused with those ‘Western’ values that Putin so despises, making it much more difficult to corrupt. In sum, Russia can’t keep Finland in its orbit, because Finland was never in it. Thus, Finland joining NATO poses no ‘existential threat’ to Russia, so it has done the diplomatic equivalent of shrugging its shoulders, sending out its spokesman with some tired and weak threats.

Of course there is a military dimension to this, in that a NATO presence in Ukraine would have permanently prevented Russia from invading, but it was Ukraine’s rejection of Russian domination, its increasingly closer ties with Western liberal democracies, its keenness to adopt Western values and to be part of ‘the West’ that offended Russia and threatened its goal of imposing a corrupt, anti-democratic and pro-Russian ethno-nationalist regime on the country. But the threat was not primarily a military one, it was rather a matter of values – such as they are, in Russia’s tortured soul.

The ‘NATO provocation’ explanation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was always weak. Besides any other considerations, one can simply look at the current map of NATO member states: Latvia and Estonia, both member states, also border Russia. And NATO has no intention of attacking Russia – that would be mad, and not since Bertrand Russell has anyone seriously proposed a first strike. But to be fair, proponents of this hypothesis, such as John Mearsheimer, are aware that it doesn’t make much sense in the West, so they fall back upon a reduced hypothesis, saying it’s “irrelevant” whether it seems rational to us, so long as Russia believes that NATO’s expansion towards its borders is an existential threat.

That might be a valid theoretical consideration, but it’s lazy and serves only to disguise Russia’s true motivations, which are not militarily defensive, but defensive on an ethno-nationalistic level: Russia fears its own decline, and sees the more ‘modern’ Western values as corrosive – a view shared, incidentally, by many conservatives in the West. This is why Russia objected just as much to EU influence in Ukraine, despite the EU having neither an army per se, nor a collective defence treaty. In fact, a cynic might say that this is as much a war about gay rights as anything else; but that would have about as much merit as the ‘NATO expansionism’ argument. The truth is that this war concerns the sovereignty and self-determination of a nation state: a core and immutable Western value, older than the Treaty of Westphalia, that flows from the Christian belief in individual sovereignty. Finding reasons to agree with Putin’s excuses, while glossing over the true causes of his war, is like volunteering to polish the gold toilet-paper holder on his yacht.

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