An early 2017 PEW poll placed ‘about half of Swedes’ in support of NATO membership. A few months later Sweden, in co-operation with NATO, held its ‘biggest war games in 20 years’. There is a growing possibility that Nordic neutrality (specifically that of Sweden and Finland) might soon be replaced with a Nordic NATO. Whether Sweden should join the alliance, and how they should best handle Russian relations is still an open question. There seems to be no question, however, when it comes to the axiomatic validity of ‘Russian aggression’. Russia’s status as an aggressive nation with imperialist tendencies is a political fact of life. Yet, retracing Russia’s thorny relationship with NATO to its roots allows the events of present day to be reorganized into a context that undermines that fact. As Sweden mulls over the possibility of a NATO membership, it is important to revisit both our understanding of Russia’s behaviour, and what the repercussions of more NATO neighbors might mean.
NATO’s inception was based on countering the Soviet threat. This was a threat that reached its zenith in October 1962, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation that saw 200,000 years of human evolution hanging in the balance. But the Cold War was a 45-year long string of proxy wars and colliding spheres of influence, so what was unique about the event that brought tensions to a boil? The Soviets appeared to have crossed a red line. By placing nuclear missile bases in Cuba, they had dramatically redrawn their own borders, almost overnight. The distance a Soviet missile would have to fly to enter US airspace had shrunk from across the Atlantic Ocean, to just a 160 kilometer stretch of water between Cuba and Florida. The US would not accept this new arrangement. Ultimately, Khrushchev decided to stand down and pull back the missiles, satisfying US security demands and averting the crisis. It took around 30 years after that day for the Doomsday Clock to be relaxed to ten minutes to midnight and for the Cold War to approach its end. The US and the Russians had entered negotiations and the latter made a surprising concession to allow German unification and realignment with the West. In exchange, the US guaranteed the Russians that NATO would not expand ‘one inch eastward’. The map below tells the story of the events that followed.
One would assume that the collapse of the Soviet Union would bring about the dissolution of a military alliance built on its existence. Instead, NATO expanded as the US projected its influence in the wake of Soviet collapse. Two lines of reasoning that serve to justify this expansion stand out. The first is the disputable claim that these countries freely and actively decided to join NATO, and it should be their right to do so. Assuming it to be true, one could by the same logic argue that Cuba freely elected to install Soviet nuclear missiles and that any attempt to prevent them would be an infringement on their sovereignty. A statement that might seem reasonable today, but at the time ignored US security demands and disassociated itself from a political reality that teetered on the brink of mutually assured destruction. Similarly, catering to Russia’s security demands today means viewing the progression of events from their perspective. This amounts to seeing its rival completely disregard an agreement that helped avert nuclear war, and instead, extend its reach from Eastern Germany straight to Russia’s borders. Whilst these countries might have remained neutral, they are now home to U.S army bases, a European ‘missile defense shield’ and incessant training exercises that simulate fighting against Russian troops. The second line of reasoning holds that these countries join NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression. This view is difficult to reconcile with the fact that even NATO’s official timeline of ‘Russian aggression’ is empty until the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. An event that, interestingly enough, occurred one year after the Georgian parliament voted for a bill that would integrate Georgia into NATO. Crimea’s annexation also occurred roughly a year after Ukraine’s latest invitation to NATO in 2013. Causality seems to run in the opposite direction; ‘Russian aggression’ seems to follow, not precede, NATO’s advancing recruitment efforts.
None of this is to say that Russian aggression is a sheer myth. Their actions in Georgia and Ukraine had very real consequences, and still do. However, while certainly illegitimate, they do become more understandable provided the context. Russia’s policy is driven by a perceived threat on its strategic interests. These strategic interests are typically recast as unfounded imperialistic tendencies. Russia is no altruist. Like any other state it is driven to pursue and protect its self-interests. Its accelerating encirclement by a hostile US-dominated alliance is viewed as a threat, rightly so considering the history, and will inevitably trigger a backlash. Given what happened in the Cuban Missile Crisis, one could only imagine the consequences of a Russian-Central American alliance that routinely carried out military drills on the US-Mexico border. Comparatively, today the US-NATO alliance sits on the border of Russia. A recent Economist article reads: “As Russia threatens, Sweden ponders joining NATO”. An attack by the Russians on the Swedish state, as a NATO member or not, is implausible, if not outright absurd. But if Sweden’s goal is to counter ‘Russian aggression’, then it would do well to stand by its commitment to neutrality, and prevent the conditions that risk pushing the myth into actuality.
Illustration: Oona Buttafoco
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