Sweden and Finland may be keen to join NATO, but all’s not well in US-led alliance

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The fog of war and the plumes of acrid smoke when you are close enough, have some heading for the exits. It gives you wings. It is the panic of hope. But how will it be safer outside when the missiles are striking? Is outside really outside when those borders are still exactly where they were? Is the fear that Russia could invade (again) before the all-for-one-and-one-for-all NATO cover comes about?

Alexandre Dumas, the amazing 19th century Black Frenchman wrote The Three Musketeers, which was actually about four, after you count the essential D’Artagnan. The story was a thrill-a-minute saga about loyalty and brotherhood, rather than politics or humiliating Cardinal Richelieu’s private militia.

It does not have a lot in common with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a prosaic and blunt military hardware-cum-boots-on-the-ground style insurance policy, originally to take on the Soviet communists behind the Iron Curtain. But, this hoary insurance policy, will it pay out when the claim is presented in the ongoing 21st century, with 32 countries on the bus?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference along with the European Parliament president at the European Parliament in Brussels on 28 April, 2022. AFP

Every day that NATO grows bigger, with more dependents than actors, this becomes the $64-billion question. Incidentally, $63 billion is what America has spent or committed to the Ukraine war, in under three months, even as institutional bankers warn of a hard American recession to come. Is NATO a panacea even as formidable as it is made out to be?

Is the much-touted Article 5 of the NATO founding treaty, which enshrines the principle of collective defence, really effective in practice. NATO has attacked countries such as Kosovo and Libya unilaterally. After 9/11 it was more or less a US operation against Afghanistan, with only token participation of a few NATO allies. Most NATO allies, as president Donald Trump complained, didn’t pay their bills or pull their weight. Has Ukraine changed all this? For how long?

For Ukraine, America’s Raytheon Missile Systems is struggling to resurrect the Soviet-era Stinger missile, a shoulder-held man-portable air defence system (MANPADS), still very useful today for taking out Russian tanks and helicopters. But the 1980s parts are out-of-production today. The Stingers, and Javelin anti-tank weapon, in service since 1996, need constant upgrading. And the manufacturers, probably interested in selling far more expensive weapons systems, are scrambling to meet demand.

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Explained: What next for Finland, Sweden on NATO membership?

Russia warns of 'military-technical' response as NATO promises 'smooth' entry to Finland

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Then, there are the several kinds of attack drones from various NATO countries. Tanks, armoured cars, bombs, helicopters, fighter planes, much of the expensive stuff that ruled yesteryear wars, are still great for bombing, strafing and taking over non-nuclear countries in Africa, Arabia or Asia. Otherwise, they seem to be obsolete.

It’s the age of missiles of many kinds, sometimes fired far away from the target, others out of a backpack; some a bit bigger, handy soldier-carried loitering drones, anti-tank weapons, and the like.

The implication is small powers can make them quickly and at no great cost. Quad bikes with shoot ‘em up gadgetry atop are doing better in all terrain situations.

As for nuclear weapons, it is a zero-sum game. Even tactical nukes cannot be used. Besides, Russia, mostly unloved in Europe now, is still the opposite number in a new Cold War, and the world’s second deadliest nuclear power.

So why are Sweden and Finland likely to apply for full NATO membership circa 2022? Sweden has been a member of the EU since 1995, is already a NATO partner country, and is, of course, in the UN. Finland has been in the Organisation For Economic Cooperation (OECD) since 1969, and joined the NATO Partnership for Peace in 1994, the EU in 1995, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997, the Eurozone in 1999, and likewise is a member of the UN. Both are already entwined with NATO and the EU in protection treaties. The neutrality that they profess is therefore partial. This is really the last step in a growing embrace.

Besides, their recent experiences with the Soviet Union during WWII, being brutally conquered and dominated thereafter, have caused Sweden to maintain a good level of arms manufacturing and an impressive Navy in the Baltic Sea. Finland has not relented on developing crack troops for 30 years, to take on Russia should the day ever come back again.

The moot point is that a rampant Russia scares them, and revives old genetic memories as well as relatively new ones. Besides, public opinion polls in both countries now want them to join NATO with around 50-70 per cent saying so, up from around 25 per cent.

It was Tsar Peter the Great, after his period of tutelage incognito in Europe, who returned to a feudal Russia, modernised his armed forces, his own attitudes, and indeed his court practices to an extent.

Then, he promptly attacked Sweden, a shock in early 1700, and conquered Finland, then the eastern part of Sweden. Tsar Peter’s troops and Cossacks kept rampaging through the Swedish countryside till the peace treaty of Nystad in 1721, made Finland, Estonia and Latvia, all part of the Russian Empire. It also ended Sweden’s great power status.

During World War II, however, Sweden ostensibly neutral, first leaned to facilitate the actions of the Germans, and later did the same for the Allies. In Ukraine, both countries have already sent in armaments and humanitarian aid.

This outing of Tsar Peter also gave landlocked Russia a relatively warm water port on the Baltic Sea, and the chance to build a Baltic fleet. Tsar Peter built a new capital at St Petersburg, on the site of the old Swedish town of Nyen, later Leningrad, then Stalingrad, and now once again, St Petersburg.

Turkey, a NATO member sitting opposite Russia on the Black Sea, has already raised objections based on long-standing Swedish and Finnish support to Kurdish rebels in Syria. As many as 33 extradition requests to release the Kurdish rebels to Ankara have been denied over a decade.

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses for photos in front of the 1915 Canakkale Bridge, in Çanakkale. The structure was constructed at a cost of $2.8 billion. AP

To admit Sweden and Finland, the existing NATO members must agree unanimously. Western media is talking of American pressure, even sanctions, to force an economically savaged Turkey, with 70 per cent inflation, to fall in line. NATO itself expects to smooth things over with Ankara so that they don’t stand in the way.

It is hoping for a fast tracking that could see both countries as NATO members within this year.

With all the cracks and strains in the NATO alliance that have surfaced, just in the last three months, the chances of its long-term cohesion are in doubt. Likewise, the EU, propped up by the economies of Germany and France, is not very happy with the US-forced sanctions on Russia. Switzerland, normally very discreet, has suggested America get out of Europe forthwith.

There are food shortages — wheat, bread, cooking oil, inflation, spiking fuel and gas prices. Slovakia won’t share its food. Hungary won't sanction Russia. Germany can’t do without Russian piped gas. Serbia staunchly backs Russia even though it has applied for EU membership.

In fact, Russia has gained handsomely over the last three months from its oil and gas exports to Europe. Its insistence on being paid in Roubles pegged to the price of Gold, after being excluded from the SWIFT mechanism has worked. This has lifted the value of the Rouble to unprecedented levels even as the US dollar and the Euro are tanking.

American gas prices have risen as it tankers in the LPG to Europe, and this has begun to starve American industry. Turkey is fighting the Kurds in Syria. The Russians are fighting in Syria too, along with Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah in support of the durable President Assad and his regime.

In support of the rebel groups are the Israelis, the Americans, the Germans, the British, the French, the Dutch, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others. The Kurdish and ISIS seem to be fighting their own war within a war. All participants and logistical supporters are jostling together in a very complicated militia ridden war without end. It has already been over a decade.

Could the war in Ukraine, very young yet, become as much of a convolution as Syria, if not as prolonged? It also has multiple proxies in the theatre, ‘contractors’, mercenary groups, a wide variety of heavy and light armaments, some of them being tested for the first time in a real war.

Russia has stuck to its own weaponry so far, but in terms of fighting men it too has its favourite imports from Syria, in addition to the fierce Chechen. Apparently, Turkey, getting high marks for the performance of its Bayraktar TB2 drones, does as well.

But Russia, vast as it is, will have to consolidate its relations with Central Asia, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, India, China.

There have been 16 new NATO members since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This addition will make it a massive 32. Many had to adapt from former Soviet ways to suit the NATO alliance. Sweden and Finland have been semi-NATO members for some time now, sitting in on NATO meetings, military exercising with it, going on peace-keeping missions.

What will happen next is dependent on the military equipment and infrastructure placed in Finland, Sweden, in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic. Russia will have to respond with counter-measures.

The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.

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Sweden and Finland may be keen to join NATO, but all’s not well in US-led alliance
Sweden and Finland may be keen to join NATO, but all’s not well in US-led alliance
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