NATO's northward expansion aggravates European security risks

China Military Online
Wang Xinjuan
2022-05-24 17:59:08

By Fang Xiaozhi

Finnish troops participate in NATO military drills.

Sweden and Finland officially applied to join NATO on May 18, local time and received a positive response from NATO. As countries that have long pursued a policy of neutrality, the application of the two countries this time is not only an important step for NATO's expansion in northern Europe but also a reshuffle in the context of the great geopolitical turmoil in Europe. It makes the situation in Europe more complex and volatile, and further aggravates security risks.

Sweden and Finland step up application process

Two Nordic countries, Sweden and Finland, have long pursued a military non-alignment policy. During the Cold War, the two countries did not form an alliance with the US or the Soviet Union, which ensured their own security in the bipolar confrontation pattern. After the end of the Cold War, the two countries began to draw closer ties with NATO and the EU but did not break through the boundaries of neutrality. In 1994, the two countries joined NATO's Partnership for Peace and became NATO's enhanced partner countries. In 1995, the two countries joined the EU and began to participate in the European integration process. In 2009, the two countries joined the Nordic Defense Cooperation. In general, the two countries have adopted a military non-alignment policy, maintained a specific balance in the complex game of European powers, and played an important role in maintaining the European security architecture, especially the security and stability of Northern Europe.

The direct reason for the NATO membership applications of the two countries is that their perception of the future security environment and security threats has undergone major changes due to the deteriorating security situation in Europe. The two countries began to test the possibility of joining NATO in mid-April. Only one month later, the two countries formally applied to join NATO. Their purpose is self-evident, to obtain collective defense protection by becoming NATO member states.

In addition, the attitude of NATO is also an important factor in promoting the two countries to join NATO. Major NATO member states such as the US, UK and Germany have publicly expressed their welcome to the two countries. On May 11, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reached a new security agreement with Sweden and Finland during his visit to the two countries. On May 12, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the US backs Sweden and Finland in applying for NATO memberships and will provide necessary support for the transition period for both countries. On May 15, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced that the German government has prepared for the two countries to join NATO. In addition, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark and other countries have all expressed their willingness to promote and support the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland quickly, which gave the two countries a "reassuring pill".

Europe is facing more NATO memberships

After the end of the Cold War, NATO carried out five eastward expansions and advanced more than 1,000 kilometers eastward under the leadership of the US, which greatly squeezed Russia's strategic buffer space. In recent years, NATO has turned its attention to Sweden and Finland to contain Russia on a larger scale and to make Europe a continent with more NATO memberships.

From the geographical location of the two countries, Finland and Russia have a borderline of about 1,300 kilometers, which is the longest borderline between Russia and EU member states. If Finland joins NATO, the land border between NATO and Russia will be doubled, and Russia's door will be open to the organization. Although Sweden shares no land border with Russia, it guards the entrance and exit from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea. Among Russia's three existing European outlets to the sea, St. Petersburg and Murmansk are both located in Northern Europe. Russian ships sailing from these two ports must pass through the Swedish or Finnish coastlines and will be closely monitored throughout the entire process. As a result, it poses great constraints for Russia's actions in the Baltic Sea. After the two countries join NATO, the organization can set up a long military blockade from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Black Sea in the south and put Russia in a state of complete siege.

In addition, the joining of the two countries will enhance the overall strength of NATO. Finland has a well-trained and well-equipped standing army of more than 20,000 and is one of only a few countries in Europe with a conscription system. It is capable of enlisting more than 200,000 reservists in the event of war. It is worth noting that both countries have conducted joint training with NATO forces and participated in NATO-led operations in Afghanistan and the international coalition against the extremist group Islamic State. In general, the two countries will become "net contributors" to NATO. If the two countries give up their neutral status to join NATO, a demonstration effect may also take place, turning Europe's diversified security demands into a unified one and making the European security structure completely under the NATO system.

Regional security at risk

The northward expansion of NATO's strategic space will pose a threat to Russia's security space and strategic depth, and even directly threaten Russia's interests in the polar regions, the North Sea and the Barents Sea. St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, is only 170 kilometers from the Russian-Finnish border and has little strategic depth. This means that Russia's important economic center will be completely exposed to the threat of NATO.

NATO's above-mentioned actions have made Russia highly vigilant. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that if NATO continues to expand along the Russian border and pose a military threat to Russia on the northern flank, Russia will take retaliatory measures, including nuclear deterrence. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko pointed out that by becoming NATO members Finland and Sweden would “actually give up… on their non-nuclear status”. Russia may change the target setting of its strategic nuclear forces and even deploy nuclear weapons in the exclave of Kaliningrad.

Amid the current tense international security situation, Europe's geostrategic landscape has been more fragile. The joining of Sweden and Finland will further deteriorate the security situation in Europe, plunge European countries into more serious geopolitical turmoil and risks, and even lead to unpredictable consequences. This is not conducive to the long-term development of the European continent and deserves close attention from the international community.

(The author is an associate professor at the College of International Relations, National University of Defense Technology)

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