Comment

Vladimir Putin has made his biggest blunder yet

Finland and Sweden aren’t joining Nato out of fear, but because nobody can be neutral on autocratic terror

If anybody doubted Vladimir Putin’s capacity for miscalculation, the decision of Finland to apply for Nato membership, almost certainly to be followed by Sweden, is probably his biggest blunder yet. Let’s be clear what this means. Both countries want to join Nato, not because they fear any imminent Russian attack but because they believe that a strong alliance is the best guarantee of European security.

They also understand that Russia and Nato cannot be equal partners. Russia has shown repeatedly that it does not respect international treaties: Putin has breached agreements on international borders, on the use of chemical and biological weapons, on the stationing of troops in Georgia and Moldova, on the development of intermediate nuclear weapons, and on the notification of military exercises. Indeed, in 1994, Russia was one of the signatories to the Budapest treaties, guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine itself: 20 years later it invaded Crimea and started the insurrection in the Donbas.

Finland and Sweden already know that Russia cannot stop them joining, nor need they fear any reprisal. If Russia’s quarter of a million strong army couldn’t capture Kviv, it’s hardly likely to be able to take Helsinki. Russia now faces a long attritional war in the Donbas and will find it difficult, with a cratered economy and under Western sanctions, to refit its forces properly.

So neither Finland nor Sweden should be seen as weak supplicants desperate for shelter under the Nato umbrella. Both have highly effective, well-equipped militaries that are already training and exercising with Nato forces. For five years they’ve also been playing a prominent role in the Joint Expeditionary Force which Britain set up in 2014: now 10 nations strong, it was designed to accommodate both Nato and non-Nato members.

These applicant countries bring something else to the Alliance: far from their 1960s image of being peace-loving, easy-going democracies, both Finland and Sweden have built their defence around national service and enhanced resilience.

Finland’s defence forces and its border guard have long been based on compulsory military service; the Finns came out top of a recent major Nato exercise in cyber defence. Sweden has developed a concept of Total Defence: it has re-introduced limited conscription and has regularly tested its population in national resilience exercises. Both countries have modern air forces and navies. Nato will be all the stronger for their joining, and the security of all the Baltic states will be further enhanced.

What these applications for Nato membership do signal is a wider move away from neutrality, a recognition that the world is dividing along new lines. Studied neutrality in the face of autocratic terror is no longer sustainable, practically as well as morally. With Switzerland joining in with western sanctions, and the EU itself committing to supply defensive weapons to Ukraine, there may now be fresh thinking required in other capitals, such as Dublin and Vienna. Who is to police Irish airspace against Russian overflights? Or help protect Austria against a sustained cyber attack? These aren’t matters that can be left to the kindness of others. Countries such as Australia, on the other side of the world, understand the need for more collective security.

So Nato should accept both applications as quickly as possible: Sweden and Finland already meet all the membership criteria. But there’s a bigger challenge for the Alliance in how it responds to less advanced applicants that are not yet ready for membership. It can’t be right to suggest that membership might be decades away: that’s what left Ukraine vulnerable to Russian aggression.

This needn’t involve weakening the Article 5 guarantee under which full members come to each other’s defence. For Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and others we should consider a stronger form of associate membership under which Nato will agree to supply the defensive weapons that they need. We should replicate the model of our Joint Expeditionary Force, and enable applicant nations to train and exercise their militaries with Nato members.

Nato remains the world’s most successful military alliance. It has kept us safe in western Europe for over 70 years. It is just about to become even stronger.


Sir Michael Fallon is a former defence secretary