For Putin, a self-cleaner for the history books

But a funny thing happened while Ukraine became Finnish. Finland becomes Ukrainian.

After decades of opposition to NATO membership, Finland has backtracked with a speed rare in international affairs. The same goes for its neighbor Sweden, which had an even older policy of neutrality. Shaken by Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine and recognizing how dangerous it has become for any European country to stay outside the NATO perimeter, the two Nordic countries are now eager to join the military alliance. the most powerful in the world. On May 12, the President and Prime Minister of Finland announced that their country would “apply for NATO membership without delay”. Four days later, the Swedish government followed suit. On Wednesday, the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors hand-delivered their countries’ applications to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Both countries are members of the European Union and have a long-standing affinity with the West. Both meet NATO membership criteria — they are functional, market-economy democracies, they respect political rights and civil liberties, and they are committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. Both are equally well equipped to make a significant contribution to NATO operations. According to Elisabeth Braw, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, Finland’s military strengths include “its large armed forces, its enormous reserves, its history of defending a land border with Russia, and its first-rate military intelligence”, while Sweden has a “qualified navy”. , one of the largest in the Baltic Sea. In addition, both countries participated in NATO training exercises.

All of this means that Finland and Sweden — unlike Ukraine, which waited in vain for years to see the results of its NATO application — can expect a quick, smooth and favorable adhesion process.

A year ago, all of this would have been unthinkable. Public opinion in both countries was strongly opposed to NATO membership. It had been like that for a long time. During the Cold War, Braw noted, NATO was something of a “four-letter word” in Helsinki and Stockholm, “as toxic as foul language in good company.” But after Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine and the horrific war crimes that followed, support for joining the alliance has soared – to 57% in a recent poll in Sweden and 76% in Finland.

Putin’s public response to these developments has been muted. In a televised address on Monday, he said “Russia has no problem” with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, although he warned that a military build-up in the region would lead Moscow to “react accordingly”. Inwardly, however, Putin must be appalled at how his assault on Ukraine has backfired.

Having falsely claimed that NATO enlargement posed a mortal threat to Russia, Putin went to war on the preposterous pretext that his country had to be protected from “encirclement” by the alliance. Cooking up a Nazi threat to Ukraine and insisting for good measure that Ukrainians had no right to sovereignty, Putin launched his illegal invasion in February. But the rapid conquest he foresaw never materialized. Ukraine fought back with a tenacity that inspired the world and united the West. Far from intimidating NATO, Putin’s war has revived NATO’s sense of a military alliance, strengthened ties between Europe and America, and even led Germany – long engaged in a policy of pacifism and cooperation – to sharply increase its defense spending and to send heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Worst of all, from Putin’s perspective, a war started to prevent NATO expansion will lead to one of the biggest expansions in its history. With Finland in the alliance, NATO’s border with Russia will double. The Baltic Sea will be almost encircled by the NATO powers. Kaliningrad – the Russian enclave on the Baltic bristling with ballistic missiles – will now be fully surrounded by NATO. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the three independent states that the Soviet Union forcibly occupied in 1940 and ruled for the next 50 years – will have two powerful new allies on their doorstep. In all significant respects, NATO’s prospects have improved.

For Moscow, this is a geopolitical takeover of historic proportions. The completeness with which Putin managed to achieve the goals his attack on Ukraine was meant to prevent is astounding. It recalls the misadventure of King Philip II of Spain who, in 1588, sent a vast naval fleet to invade England. The mission of Philip’s mighty armada was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and stop the spread of Protestantism in England. But the English forces heroically fought off the invaders. The Spanish flotilla is devastated. Elizabeth’s reputation grew even brighter as she remained on the throne for another 15 years. And the Protestant domination of England continued unabated.

Today, the Spanish Armada is remembered as one of the greatest strategic blunders in history and the king who commanded it as an obsessed and inflexible fanatic. Putin, centuries later, will he be remembered in the same way? Its calamitous war in Ukraine is not over yet, but it has so far proved a failure in every respect. Thanks to Putin, Russia is now more reviled than ever. NATO is stronger. And Ukraine’s courage has lifted the free world so high that even Finland and Sweden are no longer on the sidelines.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, its weekly newsletter, go to bitly.com/Arguable.

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