The leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered in the capital of Lithuania last week, where they declared their commitment to “individual liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.” That strikes me as a useful reminder of the core values of free peoples at a time when many international organizations dance to the tunes of dictators and despots.
Ukraine was not admitted to NATO at the Vilnius Summit. Nor was it given a firm timeline for accession. That decision would require the unanimous consent of all 31 existing members.
But neither is NATO backing off its commitment to give Ukrainians the means to defend themselves, their homes and their independence from a brutal imperialist invader. And the final communique added: “Ukraine’s future is in NATO.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed disappointment, but he understood. When Ukraine does join NATO, he promised, “Ukraine will make the alliance stronger.” Can anyone still doubt that?
Which leads me to think about Finland, which became NATO’s newest member in April. Finland’s armed forces are well-trained and adequately financed. No less important: Finns have a unique perspective on Russian aggression.
For centuries, Finland was under Swedish rule. In 1808-09, however, a war between Russia and Sweden ended with Finland becoming a Russian possession.
After Imperial Russia fell in 1917, Finland declared its independence. But the Soviet Union, while marketing itself as anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist, was determined to reclaim the lands the czars had ruled. In the Caucases and Central Asia, the new Communist empire succeeded.
In August 1939, Communist Russia and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, pledging not to attack one another and secretly dividing up the lands between them.
On Nov. 30 of that year, Soviet forces invaded Finland. Stalin thought conquering his neighbor would be a cakewalk. Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev noted in his memoirs: “All we had to do was raise our voice a little bit and the Finns would obey. If that didn’t work, we could fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender. Or so we thought.”
In the event—a 105-day conflict that became known as the Winter War – the Finns fought furiously and courageously against ill-equipped and badly prepared Soviet troops. Cloaked in white, the Finns skied silently through snow-covered forests, tossing firebombs into Soviet tanks, and sniping from hideouts in the frozen whiteness.
“We soon realized we had bitten off more than we could chew,” Khrushchev recalled. As many as 270,000 Russian troops are believed to have been killed.
In June 1941, Germany reneged on the nonaggression pact and invaded Russia. From then until 1944—understandably but not admirably—the Finns fought with the Germans against Russia in what is called the Continuation War or the Second Soviet-Finnish War.
Germany’s defeat was also Finland’s defeat. In September of 1944, Finland signed an armistice with Stalin who, after the Nazi invasion of his country, had allied with America and Britain.
The Finns agreed to drive German troops from their territory, pay war reparations, legalize the Communist Party in Finland and ban political parties the Kremlin regarded as anti-Soviet. They also ceded more than 10 percent of their land to the Russians.
Finland did not become a “constituent republic” of the Soviet Union as did Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Neither did it become a Soviet satellite as did Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. But, during the Cold War, it was not fully independent.
Officially, based on a 1948 “friendship agreement” with Moscow, it was neutral. Unofficially, “Finlandization” became the word applied to any nation that limits its sovereignty to placate a foreign bully.
In 1995, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the European Union. But it remained militarily non-aligned until—shocked by Putin’s unprovoked war against a neighbor—it saw the logic of joining the world’s most powerful defensive alliance.
Russia’s borders with NATO countries are now twice as long as they were—830 miles with Finland alone. With the coming accession to NATO of Sweden—a neutral nation for two centuries but one that is militarily and technologically quite capable—the Baltic Sea will become a NATO lake. Kaliningrad, where Russia’s Baltic Fleet is headquartered, will face Alliance nations to its north, south, west and east.
NATO is being renewed. Putin deserves the bulk of the credit. But his war against Ukraine is not over. Will it end as did the Winter War—with some territory lost but independence retained, followed by a formal alliance with the West? We don’t know.
Nor do we know the outcome of the wider and colder war being waged against America and America’s allies by Putin in tandem with Iranian Islamists and led by Chinese Communists—an axis of tyrannies. The Vilnius Communique rightly noted that Beijing’s “ambitions and coercive policies challenge” NATO members’ “interests, security and values.”
Russia’s war on Ukraine at least should reinforce this ground truth: Peace requires deterrence, and deterrence requires military strength clearly superior to that of any adversary or combination of adversaries. George Washington understood this paradox. He told Congress in 1790: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Is the United States doing—and spending—what is necessary to achieve that? No. And of course, too many NATO members still are not contributing adequately to the collective security.
Alliances are tough to maintain. But accomplishing that mission is necessary—if the United States is to lead a growing and strengthening free world. The alternative: Washington sits on its hands and watches the free world shrink and weaken. Which future do you want for your grandchildren?