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Will the NATO have confrontation with Russia this year?

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Dr. Shehab Al Makahleh

The Parliament of Turkey approved on March 30, 2023 Finland’s accession to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a unanimous vote. In a quick turnaround in less than a week, NATO deal was struck and on April 4th, 2023 Finland became a full-fledged NATO member, in another step to solidify NATO’s northern flank. Finland, which for years was de-facto integrated into western military Command and Control edifices and military exercises, now has become a full-fledged member of the Alliance in the ongoing 9th wave of NATO’s enlargement. Looking back to a bit less than a year ago, we can’t help but notice that the previous plan underwent some dramatic changes.

NATO is a defense alliance of 30 countries that was founded shortly after the end of World War II. It is dominated by the enormous military and nuclear missile power of the United States. The military alliance promised in the 1990s that it would not expand “one inch to the east,” according to the US State Department. However, NATO has expanded eastward 5 times since 1999, which led to an increase in the number of its member states from 16 to 30, and its progress to a distance of more than 1000 kilometers to the east, and its arrival at the Russian borders.

The initial intention for the NATO was a ‘package deal’ with Finland and Sweden. Both have applied for the membership simultaneously on May 18th, 2022. Both countries have long been a part of NATO Partnership for Peace Program, ever since May 1994, thus having 28 years to fit into NATO military standards. Finland shares a border of 1,300 km with Russia. The decision of the two Scandinavian countries to abandon the status of neutrality that they maintained throughout the Cold War constitutes one of the biggest shifts in European security in decades.

Still long through the Cold War and 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Finland and Sweden have cherished their non-alignment status. Despite the US political support for Sweden and Finland’s applications, Turkey ultimately banned both countries’ introduction to NATO’s ranks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s point was simple: Finland and Sweden demonstrate open door policies towards Kurdish anti-Erdogan party. Erdogan asked for deportation of Kurdish activists (including members of the Parliament) to Turkey in order for him to accept Finnish and Swedish applications.

At first, leaders of Sweden and Finland were reluctant to comply with Erdogan’s request. In an effort to strong-arm Erdogan, the NATO members pushed for non-conditional acceptance for Stockholm and Helsinki. This ignited further tensions over NATO membership which spilled over to public domain. Finland demonstrated cool-headedness; Sweden was not so eager to play ball. Anti-Turkey protests erupted in Stockholm, culminated in demonstrative burning of the Holy Quran by popular right-wing activists Rasmus Paludan. Such action was labelled as a demonstration of ‘freedom of expression’. The attempt to do the same in Finland faced backlash from local authorities.

Finland’s membership played well into Russian hands, demonstrating the divisions within NATO community and the inability to put down the fires with diplomacy. For the moment, it appeared that the 9th wave of NATO expansion could be effectively blocked by Turkish leadership. On the other hand, this has given Erdogan a leverage in an effort to put F-16 Block 70 fighters deal with US back on the table.

The NATO/Turkey stalemate however didn’t last long. Sweden and Finland de-coupled their bid in an effort to ease tensions with Erdogan. The strategy worked and Finland was finally accepted into the fold. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed an opinion that Sweden will eventually follow down the same path no later than June, prior to NATO’s summit in Lithuania in late July.

However, this is not set in stone. Sweden so far was reluctant to demonstrate any progress in communications with Istanbul. Therefore, the question that might arise is the seriousness of Stockholm to join NATO ranks. Is Sweden maintaining a more cautious stance, staying as far from the vortex of ongoing European militarization as possible? Sweden has long been demonstrating exceptional flexibility in its foreign policy ever since the end of the WWII, enjoying the benefits of being part of larger Western camp, while non-committing to European military efforts, keeping its relations with the Soviet Russia balanced and sterile with occasional harsh rhetoric.

The announcement that Finland has been accepted as full member of the NATO resonated at highest levels in Moscow. The Russian Federation confirmed that Finland’s accession to the (NATO) will bring about major changes, most notably the transformation of the Baltic Sea into a “NATO sphere of influence.”

Finland’s accession to NATO will raise the number of armed forces on the border with Russia to 300,000 soldiers instead of 50,000 at present, a situation that will push Moscow to strengthen its military presence on its borders by deploying several teams, air defense systems and some types of missile weapons.

The militarization of borders has become a priority for Russia because of NATO’s policy. The question of Sweden’s accession to NATO is still in doubt because Turkey and Hungary objected to Stockholm’s request, despite the approval of the Swedish parliament earlier to join the alliance.