The Nordic advances are not yet ready for signature. But it should only be a matter of time before NATO grows with Finland and Sweden. That would be a heavy defeat for the Kremlin – to which it must react.

Now it’s official: With the formal applications for membership from Finland and Sweden, NATO can hope for a new addition to the family. It is unclear how long it will take for Finland and Sweden to actually become members. Ultimately, all 30 alliance partners have to agree – and so far Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stood in the way. It is doubtful that Ankara wants to do Moscow a favor with this. Erdogan probably wants to be rewarded for his consent in the form of arms deals with the United States. In the end, however, nothing should stand in the way of NATO growth.

In Moscow, at least that’s how it seems, the initial anger about the expansion plans has given way to a hushed sulk: where in the Kremlin just a few days ago there was talk of a “serious mistake with far-reaching consequences” (Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov) or even with a “corresponding symmetric response” (Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov), things have now become surprisingly quiet. On Monday, President Putin limited himself to wanting to react “without a doubt” to an “expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure” to include Finland and Sweden. However, the Nordic advances towards NATO are not a “direct threat”.

In fact, however, there is likely to be a lot of rumbling in Moscow. The accession of the two northern European states to the Western military alliance (along with their well-equipped armed forces) is a security slap in the face for the Kremlin.

How is Russia reacting to the newly strengthened, unusually united West? And what could NATO expansion mean for the regime? An attempt at an explanation.

For the most part, the hands of the Kremlin would be tied

If – and this is to be expected – there should be a NATO enlargement in the Far North, the Kremlin would have no choice but to demonstrate some kind of strength. The fact that the Russian energy company RAO Nordic Oy halted electricity deliveries to Finland over the weekend could only be a foretaste. That doesn’t make things darker: Russian electricity accounts for only ten percent of Finnish consumption. It would be much more serious if Moscow decided to turn off the gas supply to its neighbor who is flirting with NATO. The country covers 94 percent of its total gas consumption with Russian imports.

The accession of the two northern European states “changes the security environment for the entire Baltic Sea and the Arctic,” retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the US Army in Europe, told the US news channel CNBC. What Finland and Sweden see as a protective measure, the Kremlin sees as a massive threat. He feels more surrounded than ever: After all, a neutral border hundreds of kilometers long would become a potential line of attack thousands of kilometers long.

While it is conceivable that Moscow would react with a massive increase in its troop strength on the Finnish border, it could ultimately be another half-baked threat. Should Finland’s accession go as quickly as the majority of NATO members are pushing for, Russia’s own logic would mean massive stockpiling in the north-west in order to be able to defend itself against the West should the worst come to the worst. Moscow, in turn, cannot afford this because almost the entire military is now deployed in Ukraine.

The fact that Russia is stationing nuclear weapons in the Baltic States in retaliation is “above all boasting,” writes the US newspaper Politico. In fact, the Kremlin had positioned nuclear weapons on the Baltic Sea, in Kaliningrad, long before the Ukraine war. On the Kola peninsula in the north of the country there is even one of the largest concentrations of nuclear weapons in the world. According to the news portal Vox, experts believe it is more likely that Moscow could use hybrid warfare in the north, such as disinformation campaigns or cyber attacks. Russia could also rely on further provocations in the future: For example, by increasingly teasing the West by violating NATO airspace. According to a NATO report, Western air forces in Europe were already deployed more than 400 times in 2020 to intercept unidentified aircraft – in nine out of ten cases they would have turned out to be Russian military aircraft.

Moscow is responsible for NATO expansion itself

Which concrete measures the Kremlin takes against the “encirclement” by the West in the North depends not least on how long the NATO accession process drags on and how the course of the war in Ukraine develops by then.

What is certain, however, is that with its war of aggression, Moscow provoked exactly what it allegedly wanted to nip in the bud with the invasion: not just an expansion, but also a partial revival of NATO. The military alliance was originally established as a western bulwark against the USSR. After their fall and the end of the Cold War, the alliance lost importance. Now NATO is returning to its basic purpose. Only this time it is less about a battle of ideologies and more about protection from an imperialist aggressor. Which role is assigned to whom, of course, depends on the point of view.

In the end, the desire for accession from the north is primarily an expression of fear: a fear of the unpredictability of the Putin regime, a fear that could have been counteracted. Although US secret services had already predicted the Russian invasion of the neighboring country in the winter of last year, the West was surprised when Putin got really serious at the end of February. An attack on Finland and Sweden, which have been close NATO partners for years, is unlikely. However, as the past few months have shown, Putin is capable of anything.

From a Western point of view, one inevitably drifts off into the endless expanse of the subjunctive when looking back. From a Finnish and Swedish point of view, however, one question is quite interesting: Had Putin also crossed political and national borders, would Ukraine have been a NATO member? As Politico aptly put it, “However, it was not Kiev’s desire to join NATO that prompted Russia to go to war against Ukraine. Rather, it was NATO’s absence in Ukraine that made the invasion possible.” .

However, one thought is likely to cause goosebumps in the Kremlin: the Nordic advances could be a harbinger of a further opening of the military alliance. After all, the receptiveness among the member states is a first sign that NATO will continue to grow in the future – and thus become a security policy nightmare for the Kremlin. “There will be no closed doors for NATO,” Anna Weislander, director of the US think tank Atlantic Council, told CNBC.

play with the fire

Moscow’s threatening gestures are an expression of desperation. Because the attack on Ukraine, which was planned as a lightning victory, turned out to be a total fiasco: first economically, then militarily and, with the planned addition to the NATO family, finally also in terms of security policy.

After all, in addition to the absurd claim that he wanted to denazify Ukraine, Putin cited the threat of the West constricting Russia as justification for the “special military operations”. The fact that goal number two is now a thing of the past should make it difficult for the Kremlin boss to sell the invasion of his own country as a victory in the event of a ceasefire of any kind with Ukraine – and he needs that in order to survive politically.

But the Kremlin’s snarling is not entirely toothless. Even if the West’s long-standing strategy of keeping Russia in check by not expanding NATO to the east has proven to be fundamentally wrong: provoking the Putin regime in this way is literally playing with fire. In this case, however, one that is necessary.

Sources: “Politico”; “CNBC”, “Vox”; with material from the news agencies dpa and AFP