Sweden, Finland make bid to join NATO — much to Russia’s surprise, chagrin

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

Two more European Union members have formally applied for NATO membership, after their national legislatures overwhelmingly voted to join the alliance following decades of determined neutrality.

Sweden and Finland are not shoo-ins, however. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated his opposition to admitting the two Nordic nations to NATO on the grounds of their purported insensitivity to Turkey’s security concerns over Kurdish terrorism.

Some observers expect this to be resolved after negotiations and deal-sweeteners for Turkey, but it’s possible Sweden and Finland could be blackballed.

Nevertheless, merely by submitting their applications to NATO, the Swedes and the Finns have demonstrated the vast shift in European security attitudes wrought by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ill-considered bid to subdue Ukraine, a sovereign and independent neighbor nation.

The invasion has been, by all accounts, a disaster for the Russian military as well as for the civilian population of Ukraine. While Russia has laid waste to Ukrainian cities and industrial infrastructure, committing war crimes along the way, it has also invited crippling sanctions by virtually the entire West. Russia’s isolation is profound and will likely outlast Putin’s tenure of power.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has vigorously and decisively supported Ukraine’s war effort while avoiding direct involvement of U.S. or NATO troops — which involvement would, he has repeatedly asserted, invite escalation into a catastrophic “third world war” in Europe.

U.S. intelligence reportedly has been extensively shared with the Ukrainian government since at least the eve of Russia’s invasion, and this may be behind some of the Ukrainian army’s most stunning exploits so far, such as sinking Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, and artillery strikes that have killed several Russian generals in Ukraine.

So far, Biden has drawn an exceedingly fine line, avoiding direct military confrontation with the Russians while doing the utmost to amplify the damage Ukraine does to the Russian military. In this light, the expansion of NATO to include two new members, including one with an extensive border with Russia, serves only to accentuate Russia’s weakness and the folly of Putin’s gambit.

In all this, Biden has sought to build the stature of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as protector of his country while rebuffing Zelenskyy’s more provocative requests — such as establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which Biden rightly judges to be a red line not to be crossed.

Yet the U.S. and other NATO allies have supplied critical weapons and technology to Ukraine, including devastating artillery systems. Even more critical in the collective defense of Ukraine and its civilian populace likely will be the huge U.S. lend-lease package of arms just passed by Congress.

Biden thus has delivered more than tough talk in his determination to avoid any direct military confrontation with Russia — and he has done so while also effectively handling the threat of nuclear escalation.

Indeed, Putin and his cronies have repeatedly implied that Russia would countenance the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. And in April, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and a former president and prime minister of Russia, warned that if Sweden and Finland joined NATO, Russia would deploy nuclear and hypersonic missiles to its exclave on the Baltic. The Swedes and the Finns were unimpressed, and by this week Putin was walking back the notion that Russia cared about their NATO ambitions.

The prospect that two relatively minor European Union members will join NATO may prove to have little influence on the larger scheme of global security.

But it apparently it has caught Putin’s attention to the point that he understands his best interests are to find a peaceful outcome.

In the meantime, Biden deserves credit for achieving bipartisan congressional approval of the military aid to Ukraine that may ultimately lead to peace negotiations rather than to that third world war of which he warns.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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