Credit where credit is due: Russian President Vladimir Putin is revitalizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance that has never been obsolete but that had become obsolescent.
Of course, boosting NATO was not the Russian dictator’s intention. He expected his invasion of Ukraine to divide and perhaps destroy this beneficial international community.
NATO was founded in 1949 to prevent the Soviet Union—an ally against the Nazis, but only after Hitler broke his pact with Stalin—from subjugating Western Europe as it had Eastern Europe.
Even after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, many East European nations were eager to join NATO. They believed that membership ensured independence—come what may.
West Europeans, by contrast, tended to see NATO’s mission as accomplished. Many embraced the delusion that peace had become natural and war unnatural—at least in their corner of the world.
Disagreements—including with post-Soviet Russia—surely would be susceptible to “diplomatic solutions.” So western Europeans allowed their military capabilities to weaken. (To be fair, the United States did too, though starting from a higher plane and not descending as far.)
A few years ago, I rudely suggested to a senior German diplomat that his country was free-riding at America’s expense while growing increasingly dependent on Putin’s fossil fuels. That dependence, I added, would sharply increase upon completion of Nord Stream 2, the underwater pipeline that was to deliver huge quantities of gas directly from Russia to Germany.
“We’re not becoming dependent on their gas!” he protested. “They’re becoming dependent on our money!”
A year ago this month, President Joe Biden waived sanctions on the pipeline. Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called out the mistake. He said he failed to see “how today’s decision will advance U.S. efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe.”
He was right, but it required Russia’s latest barbaric aggression to cap the pipeline and prompt German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to renew his commitments to NATO and pledge to contribute more to the collective defense.
But the big story is this: Finland and Sweden now want to join the club.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement last week. “NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance.” Niinisto also addressed Putin directly: “You caused this. Look in the mirror.”
“There is a before and after 24 February,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a reporter, referring to the date when Russia’s invasion began. “The security landscape has completely changed.”
Sweden’s decision strikes me as the more surprising. It has a two-century-long history of neutrality, including during the Second World War and the Cold War. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most Swedes thought land invasions by European armies were as outmoded as Viking raids.
Sweden doesn’t share a border with Russia, but there is a Russian fleet just 200 miles away in Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Konigsberg, now a Russian possession separated from the “mainland” by Belarus, currently a Russian vassal, and Lithuania, a NATO member formerly ruled from the Kremlin.
Finland’s border with Russia is 830 miles long. The Finns were under Russian rule for more than a century, achieving independence in 1917. Less than a generation later, in 1939, the Soviets launched the Winter War.
Vastly outnumbered, with few tanks or aircraft and little support from European countries preoccupied with the Nazi onslaught, the Finns defended themselves valiantly—many on skis, camouflaged in white, staining snow-covered forests with the blood of tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers, and tossing Molotov cocktails (a Finnish invention) into the turrets of Soviet tanks.
James Brooke, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spent years as a correspondent in Moscow and Kyiv. In a recent essay on the Winter War, he recalled how Simo Hayha, a Finnish farmer turned sniper, “settled in his snow pits, tamping down the snow to avoid powder puffs from a shot. … To minimize telltale breath clouds, Hayha filled his mouth with snow … he managed to kill 500 Soviet soldiers in less than 100 days. One day, he shot 28. On the Soviet side, this invisible sniper was known as ‘Belaya Smert’—‘White Death.’”
In the end, the Finns were not conquered. But they lost 11% of their territory. And they dared not offend or provoke the Kremlin. “Finlandization” became the term of art for a nation surrendering some of its sovereignty to a bully in exchange for peace. Unlike many NATO members, however, Finland has never let down its military guard.
It would serve the U.S. national interest for NATO to become a stronger community—willing and able to defend the independence, rights and core values of its members.
The United Nations was meant to be such an organization. But despots now dominate many if not most U.N. agencies. The U.N. Human Rights Council is only the most obvious example.
The United States will continue to be the major power within NATO. There’s no alternative. But we should insist that, over time, its European members bear more of the burden for European security so we can focus on Asia.
Longer term, NATO should grapple with the fact that Putin’s ally, Xi Jinping, ruler of neo-imperialist China, poses as much of a threat to Europeans as he does to Americans.
Big picture, here’s the choice we must make: Do we leave our children a world shaped by free peoples, or a world shaped by the tyrannical dictators in Moscow and Beijing, along with their allies in Tehran, Havana, Caracas and Managua? There’s no third option.
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.