Two very strange and unexpected things have happened in the Ukraine invasion by Russia: One, Putin, considered to be the most ardent opponent of post-Soviet expansion of NATO towards the Russian border, is directly responsible for cajoling the alliance to embrace Sweden and Finland as new members with an extra-ordinary speed, and two, Putin has accepted the inclusion of new Nordic members into NATO with unprecedented calmness and silence despite the fact that Finland shares 1,340 kilometers of common border with Russia – meaning that NATO is now knocking at its western door. Ironically, a belligerent personality like Putin, who ordered his forces to invade Ukraine with a key objective of effectively stopping the eastwards expansion of NATO and create a thick buffer zone inside Ukraine, is now rather calmly accepting a new NATO member with long stretch of shared border on the western side. Both things were unthinkable just three months back. Russian President Vladmir Putin has always been the strongest opponent and criticizer of the expansion of NATO, particularly in the eastwards, on the pretext that at the time of disintegration of the Soviet Union it was promised that NATO would not extend its membership to the states belonging to the former Central and Eastern Europe – a claim which was actually denied by Mikhail Gorbachev. But till today, Putin insists on this “assumptive assurance”. Whenever NATO opened its umbrella to add new states in the neighborhood of Russia, Putin always labelled it as an existential threat to the Russian Federation. But this disapproval had always been limited to verbal anti-NATO rhetoric only and Putin had never gone beyond that line despite his stringent opposition to the NATO expansion in the past. The Ukraine invasion was his first deliberate and proactive militarized action to “permanently quash” the eastwards expansion of NATO. There is no doubt that Putin has been successful in this particular objective of halting NATO’s eastwards expansion – at least for the time being — as Ukrainian President Zelensky has also categorically rejected the idea of seeking the membership of NATO. “I have cooled down regarding this a long time ago after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine. The alliance is afraid of controversial things, and confrontation with Russia,” was his response on the question of NATO membership in the early days of the Ukraine invasion.
Zelensky’s statement has actually clarified one thing – neither Ukraine is interested in the NATO membership, nor the NATO leadership is willing to invite Ukraine under the existing circumstances. This is also a fact that so far none of the EU or NATO members have broached the subject of Ukraine’s inclusion into NATO after the Ukraine invasion started in the end-February. Yes, there have been some mentions about Ukraine joining the EU, but not NATO. Now the pricking question is that when Putin knew very well that Ukraine had no plans for joining NATO then why he “un-provokingly” attacked Ukraine which ultimately “provoked” NATO to add Nordic members in its fold at such a speed. “As to enlargement, Russia has no problem with these states – none. And so, in this sense, there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion (of NATO) to include these countries. But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin calmly reacted to this episode. The unusual tranquility in Putin’s stance over the enlargement of NATO to Russia’s Western backyard needs a forensic analysis. Apparently, Putin is also startled by this development. Against the backdrop of fierce opposition from Turkey which had serious reservations about Finland and Sweden due to their open support for the Kurdish militant groups, even NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg was himself unsure about the fate of the two applicants till the start of the NATO summit. The situation was quite tensed and it was expected that Turkey would use veto to block their NATO membership. However, US President Biden played the lead role in resolving this snag through his personal involvement. President Biden directly spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was followed by Erdogan’s lengthy negotiations with the Finish President and Swedish Prime Minister as well as NATO Chief Stoltenberg – leading to eventual signing of the trilateral memorandum. A lot was at stake. In case of Turkey’s veto to Finland and Sweden, it would have inversely motivated Vladimir Putin. The fact remains that Putin has been shocked with this new development. It was never part of his plan. His vague and unusual silence reflects that he is re-evaluating his game-plan and still in a state of confusion after the induction of Nordic states into NATO – he may intensify the thrust of war in Ukraine as a retaliation. He is unpredictable.
[Photo by Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international relations based in Karachi, Pakistan.